Thinking back to then from this vantage point, it’s obvious that 1986 shouldn’t ever have been viewed as a year for vaulting ambition. The country was – as it now is once again – really in the shit back then and anyone who thinks bad government starts and finishes with the current crowd would do well to cast their mind back to those times. Can’t manage the economy? Incapable of taking any hard decisions? What should one do? I know: let’s have a referendum on divorce … Is it any surprise that tens of thousands bolted for the exits that year and over the following few years as well?
But at least we had the football and, for those of us following the Green and Red, we had our soaring ambitions to focus on. 1985 had seen the team lay the foundations for a serious return to the big time, the league campaign the previous autumn had gone well and now we were all looking forward to what the coming year’s action would hold. We had a few scores to settle with Galway and it was nice to think idle thoughts about kicking their holes good and proper in Connacht before heading back to Dublin for the real action in August.
This time we were thinking big and, in our defence, not for any old pie-in-the-sky reason either because 1986 was, in that simple one-slip-and-you’re-gone era, one that only came around every three years which ensured that the champions of Connacht and Ulster would meet in the semi-finals. In those days, the champions from either province were never able to get past their peers from Munster and Leinster and so it was only in years such as this that a run to the final could be seriously contemplated. (This meant, by the way, that our win over Kerry at the penultimate stage in 1996 was the first victory by a Connacht county over the Munster or Leinster champions since Galway had beaten Offaly in 1973).
In 1980 Roscommon had used this triennial piece of scheduling to get to a final that they damn near won while in 1983 Galway had used it to make it to September only to suffer the humiliation of losing to the Twelve Apostles on a day of infamy at Croke Park. This time, victory in Connacht – and we were sure we would be victorious in Connacht – would mean no Kerry in the semi-final and no Dubs either. It would instead hold the prospect that, in those days prior to swarm welcomes and cynical Nordie tactics, once we won Connacht – which, we reasoned, we were going to do with some ease – the only thing barring our way to an All-Ireland final appearance would be the eminently beatable Ulster champions. Bring it on!
Bring it on, indeed …
Maybe we should have taken more heed of Seamus O’Malley. When the squad jetted off to the Canaries for a two-week holiday at the start of the New Year, the 1936 captain expressed his opinion publicly that the team had only won Connacht the previous year and so that maybe it would have been better to leave off on the holidays until Sam was in the bag. (I can’t recall what the exact words of the venerable gentleman were but his sentiments were of that kind). I remember at the time thinking that this was just the carping of an ould fella but this was, of course, the ould fella who had happened to lead us to our first ever All-Ireland half a century earlier so he had, needless to say, every right to speak his mind in the way that he’d done. And, although we didn’t know it at the time, as events unfolded for us that year it turned out that his words were more than a little prescient.
All the same, the year started on a bright enough note for us down in Charlestown where, on a bitterly cold first Sunday in February, the lads clinched promotion to Division 1 of the NFL by beating Wexford. Two things stick in my mind from that day. The first was the sight of all those sun-tanned legs of the lads in the Green and Red and the second was how cold it was: I seriously thought I would die from exposure before that game ended.
There was a hiccup in our last league game when Cork walloped us down in Pairc Ui Caoimh a month later but none of us were at it to know what had happened and anyway it wasn’t a result that affected our league standing. At the end of March – on Easter Sunday, in fact – we were back at Croker for an NFL quarter-final and a winning return to HQ it proved to be as we easily beat Armagh with five points to spare.
That win set up a semi-final date three weeks later with defending NFL champions Monaghan, also at Croke Park. We knew this would be a good test for us as Monaghan were also the reigning Ulster champions at the time. They had, of course, held Kerry to a draw in the other All-Ireland semi-final the previous August at the same time that we were doing likewise with the Dubs and so we had a certain amount of affinity with the Farney lads. It was a keenly contested semi-final too but, as was so often the case in that era, our wastefulness in front of the posts cost us dearly. It was a game we should have won with ease but which instead we lost by a single point, 0-10 to 1-6.
But, we rationalised, the league was never our target. Soon the first shots in the summer campaign had begun and we were out of the traps early enough with a trip to London where on the first day of June a facile 3-14 to 0-4 victory was duly recorded over the Exiles. It was that win that set up our fateful Connacht semi-final date with the Sheepstealers at McHale Park two weeks afterwards.
I think it’s fair to claim, at this remove in time, that very few Mayo supporters expected us to lose this match. We had comprehensively thrashed the Rossies in the previous year’s Connacht final and had built on this achievement in no little way since then whereas they had done very little to demonstrate any tangible progress. Truth be told, I’d say most of us already had our minds on the Connacht final and we rolled into McHale Park on that sweltering hot Sunday expecting to see some serious entertainment from our lads.
We should, of course, have approached the match with more caution, not least because we had a bit of an injury crisis on our hands leading into the game. Two of the lynch-pins in the team – John Maughan and TJ Kilgallon – were both out, as were fringe players Mark Butler and John O’Boyle. And we shouldn’t have been so dismissive of the Rossies who had wintered in the top Division of the league where they’d succeeded in holding their own. The Sunday Indo reported on the morning of the game that the Rossies had shot the lights out against Monaghan in a challenge game the previous weekend, scorching the Ulster champions by 1-16 to 0-8, 1-13 of which had been from play. I don’t recall that I saw the Sindo that day (I’ve just read that bit in the archives now) and I’m not sure that even then I would have been unduly concerned: we were going to hammer the Sheepstealers and that was all there was to it.
In our house, we were so cock-sure of ourselves that we even consented to bringing our mother along with us to the game. Reared on both sides of the Mayo-Roscommon border, she considered herself – as she still does to this day – as a Roscommon native and she decided she’d come along to McHale Park to see if her county could do any damage to these Supermen from Mayo that she kept hearing about over the dinner table. We thought it’d be a bit of a laugh having our in-house Sheepstealer to have fun with but little did we know that the laugh was going to be on us that day.
It was seriously hot that afternoon in Castlebar, so much so that I remember getting sunburned all down the side of my face that was exposed to the sun. At least I think it was sunburn but, empurpled with rage as I was after the game, maybe there was more to it than the UV rays I’d been exposed to. But it was hot, unnaturally hot in fact, and it must have been hotter still for the lads sweating it out on the pitch.
The alarm bells finally began to go off for us, I think, at the pre-match announcement that Dermot Flanagan was also out (we found out later that he’d cried off the team that morning with some illness or other), which meant that we were now missing three of our real heavy hitters. As a result, the team that day, including subs and details of scorers, was as follows:
MAYO: Eugene Lavin; Martin Carney, Peter Forde, Jimmy Browne; Frank Noone, PJ McGarry, John Finn; Liam McHale, WJ Padden (0-1); Padraig Brogan (0-8, four frees, one ‘50’), Jimmy Burke, Noel Durcan (0-1); Tom Reilly, Jimmy Maughan (0-1), Kevin McStay (0-1, free). Subs: MJ Mullen for McStay, Michael Fitzmaurice for Jimmy Maughan, Joe Lindsay for Noone.
(As an aside, it’s noteworthy that this was the era when we had a PJ, a WJ, a TJ and an MJ in the senior squad. From my perusal of the archives, however, I don’t believe all four ever appeared on the pitch at the same time in a competitive match for the county).
Any thoughts we may have had that this match was going to be a repeat of the steamroller job we’d done on the Rossies in the Connacht final the previous year lasted all of two minutes by which time Tony McManus had the ball in our net. They had 1-2 on the board before we opened our account after 15 minutes and they went on to lead by four points, 1-5 to 0-4, at the break. We then kept them scoreless for almost twenty minutes in the second half, by which time – thanks to Padraig Brogan’s dead-ball accuracy – we’d drawn level.
Injuries or no injuries and despite the fact that Mickey Kearins (surely one of the worst refs ever to grace a Gaelic football pitch) was the man with the whistle, it was time for our class to tell and we confidently awaited this to happen. But it didn’t and instead the Sheepstealers pulled three clear again only for Brogan to kick three more points to bring us back level with the seventy minutes up.
By now a draw was as much as we were looking for and perhaps we were even reasoning that the extra match would help to bring us on a bit. But that was until Tony McManus landed an awesome point from almost 50 yards out to edge the Rossies one clear again and then, deep in stoppage time, his brother Eamon killed us off with another one.
We were utterly stunned. Despite the injuries and the bad start, we’d owned midfield all day, where Willie Joe put in another one of those towering performances that made him the folk hero he still is to many Mayo supporters (and bloggers). But the great man’s efforts were in vain as, in a repeat of what had happened in the replay against Dublin the previous year, we were unable to turn all that possession into scores. We had enough to win two games but we couldn’t get enough to win the one we were in. We couldn’t even blame Mickey Kearins, the bollix, even if the Indo the following day described his performance as “terribly inconsistent”. No, this one was all of our own making.
And, of course, we had to put up with our mother (you’d forgotten we’d taken her to it, hadn’t you?) – all happy and chirpy and good-natured and saying what a great game it’d been and crowing about what mighty lads the Sheepstealers were and all the rest – all the bloody way home. As we brooded darkly and silently on our defeat, she was probably thinking about what a humourless bunch of individuals she’d reared. We were probably harbouring thoughts of parricide. And thoughts of defeat – yes, plenty of those too.
Then, after I got back to Dublin, I had to face all those many people whom I’d eagerly lectured to at length in the weeks beforehand about how we had to be counted as genuine All-Ireland contenders. At least Laois – who had won the league that year and looked like a team that could challenge for honours – had also gone out the same day as us in a match that more resembled a pitched battle, against Wicklow up in Aughrim, so there was some comfort in not being the only county to suffer a shock reversal. Then, the following month, the Dubs lost to Meath in the Leinster final so I finally got some peace and quiet.
But, of course, it was Galway – the same poor and unconvincing Galway that had repeatedly failed at Croke Park when it had counted earlier in the decade – who ended up winning Connacht that year, as they beat Roscommon by two points in the final. And so they got the chance to exploit what we thought would be our handy route to the final but, of course, they blew it, losing by three points to Tyrone. Who in turn blew a big lead in the final to Kerry only to lose by eight points: God, was I glad to be done with football in 1986. There’d always be another year to look forward to but this one, which I’ve written about previously, was 1987 – which turned out to be another bloody Boulevard of Broken Dreams for us. Is it any wonder, then, that I decided to go the whole hog and emigrate myself the year after that?
Next week: 2004