The narrative I have of Mayo’s Gaelic footballing fortunes isn’t a continuum, in that it’s not one that stretches unbroken all the way back from the present time to when I first became aware of and somewhat obsessed by events on the football field. For many of us whose involvement with the game largely begins and ends on the terraces, football forms just a part of who we are and what we do but where it fits in our spectrum of activities can shift, sometimes radically so.
This certainly happened in my case because, having lived and breathed everything about the team for most of the Eighties, I then decided to up sticks and leave the country towards the end of that benighted decade – hardly a radical move at that time as it seemed as if nearly everyone else was doing the same – and it would be a full eight years before I settled back in Ireland again. Emigration was different in those days before the internet or mobile phones became the essential communication cords they are now. When you went then, you were gone and all the news you got from home came from phone calls, letters (remember them?) and perhaps the odd edition of an Irish paper you happened to pick up, which would inevitably be infrequently enough.
This means that – apart from the final, at which time I was back in the country briefly and somehow managed to get to it – I have no first-hand memories of the rollercoaster championship campaign of 1989. I also missed the All-Ireland semis of 1992 and 1993, although, for obvious reasons, I have never pined after that latter one too much. While I lived abroad – mainly in London – I kept up with what was happening as best I could but it would be fair to say that Gaelic football in general and Mayo’s performances in particular dropped down my list of interests quite sharply during this period.
We returned to Dublin in 1996 and while this meant that I was able to get to reconnect with the Green and Red at what was, relatively speaking, a good time for the county, I found that it took a quite a long while for the footballing bug to take hold again. It wasn’t until 1997 that I made it to a Connacht final (my first since 1987) but it would be a further seven years before I went to another one. I’m not entirely sure looking back now why that was – as I’d made it my business to go along every time the lads were playing in Croker – but I guess it was all the stuff that went with settling into life back here, in terms of work and then a protracted bout of house-hunting and all that. And then the weans started to arrive and so all notions of free time went out the window for a few years.
Our eldest was a few months old when the 2001 Connacht final was played and I recall minding her while keeping one eye on the television to the action from Hyde Park, where, for most of the seventy minutes, the match was in the balance. Then there was Ray Connelly’s unjust sending-off, David Nestor’s showboating out on the wing (shortly after he’s scored what looked to the match-winning goal for us) as the match went into injury-time and the thunderbolt of a goal from Gerry Lohan that won the match for the Rossies with the last kick of the game. But I wasn’t there and had my little darling to deal with so the pain of defeat didn’t last as long as the time it took to get to the next nappy change.
By 2004, though, the itch had started to come back. We had a second small one by then and life was still hectic with work and kids and stuff and so even though my interest was getting piqued again I still opted, with some reluctance, not to travel to Castlebar for the semi-final with Galway. The Brother warned me in advance that an upset was very much on the cards, a point which was repeated in the Irish Times the day before the game where it was stated that another John Maughan-inspired long, emotional summer could lie ahead for the county. When we fell 1-3 to 0-0 behind after five minutes, I was feeling somewhat relieved at my decision not to travel to the game but as I watched with increasing incredulity as the lads blew Galway away with an incredible display of point shooting in the second half, I was aghast at my utter stupidity and lack of belief in the team. How the hell could I not have gone to that?
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake for the final and so on the 18th of July, I was one of a record crowd of 34,000 that packed into McHale Park for the Connacht final with Roscommon. It was the first time I’d been there since the provincial final of 1987 – noting with some dismay after I entered the old ground that an utterly pointless and rather ugly stand had been erected in the meantime – and, while we’d entertained what had proved to be false hopes of victory on that day all those years ago, on this occasion it felt as if we were off to a coronation.
That could have been dangerous – as I discussed last week, 1986 taught us that and that one was far from the only time that the Rossies had knocked us down to size when we’d pitched up at games where victory was all but assured in advance – but in the pleasant sunshine on that July day in 2004, our optimism wasn’t to be displaced. We rarely win Connacht finals pulling up but it happened this time and this was the team that did it on a scoreline of 2-13 to 0-9:
MAYO: Fintan Ruddy; Conor Moran (0-1), David Heaney, Gary Ruane; Gary Mullins, James Nallen, Feargal Costello; David Brady, Ronan McGarrity; James Gill, Ciaran McDonald (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1, free); Conor Mortimer (0-9, 6 frees), Trevor Mortimer (1-1), Brian Maloney. Subs: Peadar Gardiner for Mullins (21 mins), Pat Kelly for Costello ( 55 mins), Andy Moran for Dillon (61 mins), Austin O’Malley (1-0) for Maloney (65 mins), Declan Sweeney for Conor Moran (68 mins).
The Rossies did, in fairness to them, put it up to us early on but they were unable to make this brief period of dominance count on the scoreboard, missing a clear-cut goal chance and hitting a few bad wides into the bargain as well. Then the braided Ciaran McDonald – who was in truly superb form that day – released James Nallen and he fed Trevor Mortimer who cracked home a fine goal to put us four ahead with 20 minutes gone. By half-time, that lead had stretched to eight points and the match was as good as over.
I remember that the ref that day was Cork’s Michael Collins and from the start of the second half he decided – as many other piss-poor refs do – it was his duty to give every call the visitors’ way to help make a match of it. This in no small part helped the Rossies cut the deficit back to five points but our lads eventually steadied the ship and three unanswered points widened the deficit back out to eight again. The Rossies had thrown in the towel with a full 15 minutes to go and when Mayo’s second goal, from sub Austin O’Malley, prompted a juvenile pitch invasion, the ref decided – despite the fact that the seventy minutes were hardly up – that enough was enough.
The Irish Times were, of course, right – it did turn out to be a long and emotional summer for Mayo’s supporters and I was at all the games after that one to see it all for myself. The win over Tyrone in the quarters was truly stunning – probably because we never really thought we could beat them but then did so handsomely – but the way we stumbled against Fermanagh in the semi-final, first in drawing with them and then scraping out a narrow win over them in the replay, should have warned us about the fate that was to await us in the final. It didn’t, of course, and the hurt we felt then is the same hurt we feel now, that of unfulfilled ambition, that of the crushing disappointment of defeat just short of the summit.
But, of course, every year represents a new opportunity and carries with it the promise of an as yet unknown adventure that might lie ahead for us. At the outset, 2004 didn’t seem to hold that much promise and yet, apart from the final, we ended it with many good memories. And I ended it with the old bug back in the system where it still is today and where I can confidently predict it’ll still be come throw-in time next Saturday.