With a bit less than four weeks to the Connacht semi-final clash with Sligo, I reckon that – shorn of much else to write about – it’s time for some reminiscence on past clashes with Sligo in the Championship. One a week should do fine and, as I’m confining myself to games I was at, I’ll be showing my age a bit in the process.
The last time we met them was in Markievicz Park in 2003 (which we won by three points – here’s the match report), the time before that was in 2001 at McHale Park, where we had only a point to spare over them (match report here). The previous year they recorded quite a decisive victory, by 1-13 to 1-10, over us at Markievicz Park (match report here), the first time they had beaten us in the Championship since their landmark 1975 victory over us.
I wasn’t at any of these games – the two more recent ones because we had babbies in the house those years and I can’t remember why I failed to make it to the one in 2000. So this means that the last Championship encounter with Sligo that I got to was the Connacht final of 1997, which took place at Hyde Park.
That was the most elongated Connacht championship I ever remember. It started out in May but didn’t end till the first Sunday in August and we played matches in May (the first round against Galway in Tuam where we finally beat them there for the first time in 46 years) and in June (when we beat Leitrim in the semi-final) but we then had to sit out all of July before taking the field against Sligo on the 3rd of August.
We were, of course, All-Ireland finalists from the previous year – I still can’t fully accept, all these years later, that we did in fact lose that 1996 final but I know what the bare match result says – and having dispatched Galway over two months previously and the Sheepstealers also having fallen by the wayside, we were raging red-hot favourites to lift our second Nestor Cup in a row. Sligo were managed then, however, by a certain Mickey Moran and I remember watching the Magpie lads doing their warm-ups and I couldn’t help but thinking that they looked like a well-drilled side.
I don’t recall too much of the fine detail of the game – my abiding memory is of a dull, wettish and coldish day in the Hyde – but what I do remember was that it was a game we should have won at a canter but ended up almost getting beaten. We won by just a single point, 0-11 to 1-7, in the end but we were six points up well into the second half, with Maurice Sheridan’s frees – he got six points that day, four from placed balls – doing much to keep our noses comfortably in front.
David Nestor missed a golden opportunity for a goal to kill the game when we were still six up with seven or eight minutes to go but then Sligo got a point, a goal and then another point to reduce the margin to the minimum. We were seriously on the ropes at that stage, they had definitely done enough to deserve at least a draw but ref Michael Curley blew time bang on the seventy minutes and so, with our overriding emotion one of embarrassment, we collected the Nestor Cup for the second year in a row.
Looking back, I can say that I’ve never felt emptier seeing a Mayo team accept these victory spoils. We had played very, very poorly and had seen our team of heroes – who had thumped Kerry in that coruscating All-Ireland semi-final the previous year and had then done everything bar collect Sam over the two games with Meath in the final – almost come unstuck against a limited though very determined Sligo side. I think it began to dawn on us then that all that “you have to lose one to win one” crap we’d heard the previous year was just that. Crap.
We did, of course, go on to beat Offaly a month later in the All-Ireland semi-final but were never really at the races against Kerry in that year’s final. That Kerry team, which will surely be forever recalled as the worst ever All-Ireland winning Kingdom side, had only to get past Tipperary, Clare and Cavan to reach the final, whereas our lads had had to peak four months before All-Ireland day for the match with Galway in Tuam. That match saw us end one hoodoo but the bigger one was still there in September, as it still is today.
Oh yes: that team from the Connacht final. Here it is:
P Burke; K Mortimor, P Holmes, D Flanagan; F Costello, J Nallen, N Connelly; L McHale, P Fallon; D Nestor (0-1), J Horan (0-1), M Sheridan (0-6, four frees), C McDonald (0-2), J Casey, R Golding (0-1). Subs: K O’Neill for Golding, D Byrne for Horan.
Next week: 1987.