In the ten years between our Connacht final meeting in 1997 (which I wrote about last week) and our semi-final clash with the Magpies in 1987 (which I’m about to do now), we faced each other in the Connacht Championship three times. Those meetings – at the semi-final stage in 1992, 1993 and 1994 – all took place while I was domiciled in London and so I missed the lot of them.
In fact, I missed all of our Connacht finals between 1987 and 1997, though I did get to the 1989 All-Ireland final, as well as the All-Ireland semi and the two matches in the final with Meath in 1996. This meant that 1987 was a bit of an end of era for me, as it also turned out to be for manager Liam O’Neill. I’d followed the county team closely for many years prior to that but this was to be the last campaign I’d follow at close quarters for some time.
It was, I recall, an eagerly-awaited one (aren’t they all?), as we were hoping that the side which had shown so much promise two years earlier by snatching that gritty draw with the Dubs in the All-Ireland semi-final would get the chance to strut their stuff on the big stage once again. There was also the prospect of revenge, which we’d been rubbing our hands together in anticipation of for months.
The previous year on a sweltering hot day in Castlebar – where, it was said, it was hotter that day than in Mexico where the World Cup was in progress – we had been ambushed by Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final. Going into that match, we never even entertained the notion of defeat but the side we eventually fielded that day was one that didn’t include key players like Maughan, Kilgallon and Flanagan, all of whom were out injured.
We should still, of course, have won against a largely patched together Roscommon but, although we owned midfield for the entire seventy minutes, we eventually contrived to lose by two points, That defeat, in a year when we had high hopes of seeing Croke Park again, was a truly chastening one for us. We knew we were a hell of a lot better than the Rossies and when we ended up in the same half of the draw with them the following year, we sensed that we would have the ideal opportunity to show it.
The word was that the lads were training like animals for it and the expectation was that – as Galway had done to us in 1982 when we had the temerity to topple the then league champions in 1981 – they were going to get a hiding they wouldn’t forget in a hurry. But then along came Sligo, who Roscommon had to get past before meeting us, and unexpectedly beat the Sheepstealers. That was a bit of a disappointment for us, as we had been salivating for weeks at the prospect of pan-frying the Rossies but instead we had to make do with the Magpies.
Somebody should, however, have told the players about the change of opposition. They seemed to be locked onto an auto-pilot revenge mission and, once the ball was thrown in at McHale Park on the 21st of June, they tore into the Yeatsmen with a kind of ferocity you rarely see from the Green and Red. It was utter carnage.
2-6 to 0-2 up by half-time, we won by 3-17 to 0-6 in the end and the only reason the margin wasn’t greater than twenty points was because we stopped playing for the last twenty minutes or so. It was as complete a Mayo performance as you could ever hope to see: we were utterly dominant all over the field and we scored at will. The Mayo team and scorers that day were as follows:
E Lavin; M Carney, J Browne, D Flanagan; F Noone (0-1), J Maughan, J Finn; TJ Kilgallon, WJ Padden; L Niland (1-2), N Durcan (0-2), P Brogan (1-2, one point from a free); K McStay (0-4), L McHale (1-4), A Finnerty (0-2, one from a free).
But, of course, the 1987 Connacht campaign didn’t end happily for us. We were hugely confident of beating the defending champions Galway in the final three weeks after that Sligo massacre, where we fancied our chances of getting some revenge for those three defeats in 1982, 1983 and 1984 and of finally showing them what the class of ’85 was capable of.
On a muggy, close day in McHale Park on July 12th, however, we failed utterly to do this. It was a wretchedly poor Connacht final, our lads looked like they were drugged and they missed enough chances that would have won us two matches. We lost by eight points to seven.
I remember being bitterly depressed at that defeat, with all my proud boasts to everyone in Dublin about our All-Ireland potential having been proved so patently wrong. Instead, it felt very much like the end of the road. In a sense it was but, trudging out of McHale Park that day, few of the crowd would have believed that, under Johnno’s stewardship, we’d win the next two Connacht titles and, in the process, reach our first All-Ireland final in 38 years and come within striking distance of winning Sam itself.
Next up: 1981.