I’m delighted to welcome back into the guest slot ontheroad who sets out some evocative memories of the first major championship clash he attended – against Galway, who else? – at McHale Park slightly more than a few years ago.
Our green Morris Minor nicknamed Lizzy motored towards Castlebar. Lizzy’s registration number was LIZ 249. She had a shiny bottle green body, finished off with twin chrome wing mirrors that didn’t reflect for the driver but reflected the vanity of my father.
We parked nearer to Islandeady than McHale Park but my sister and I didn’t care. Castlebar was new to us. Belmullet and Ballina were our hinterland towns. This was fresh, this was good. The sun was at its summer’s best…short sleeves, short trousers and sun hats.
Nearing the ground I spotted the Mayo mascot Paddy Bluett, us in summer clothes but Paddy had on his familiar overcoat and gentleman’s hat. The ever present pipe was clenched in mouth. He knew my father and shouted a loud hello to him.
At the gate my father paid in for the four of us. “Will there be chairs for us to sit down on inside?” my father asked. I prayed for the ground to open up and swallow me. The gate man shoved the ten pound note into his bus conductors bag and replied straight faced “down near the front sir.” As we moved through the entrance I hoped he didn’t laugh out loud at my father’s request for chairs.
My father was a boxing man, full stop. Every other sport was reduced to ridicule by him. My mother a Donegal woman was a GAA devotee. Her brother’s team broke the backs of the best in Tír Connell when Gweedore ignored the Second World War and won all before them. She herself stood in the Canal End when Mayo was thieved of the 1948 all-Ireland final. She understood.
Back to that famous day, Galway the three in row champions of Ireland two summers previous were in town. We knew their names as well as our own heroes. Their maroon jerseys and white socks stood out on the green swath with the blue background. Mayo bounded out. The roar was heard at Nephin. My heart swelled and the hairs on my head stood.
The Green and Red banded jersey and the distinctive crest set on a white back ground was our answer to the Maroon. I had stood down at the wire for the minor match. Sligo won their second ever Connacht title. Some of the older lads from my school were on that team. I was glad for them.
Now as the crowd swelled to forty thousand plus I was pushed back and corralled between my mother and father. I was on my toes or bending this way and that to get slanted looks at the state of play. Galway wanted revenge for the defeat in Salthill a year earlier. At halftime they were well ahead.
Mayo started the second half eight points down but I wasn’t worried. Then the comeback started. Point… point…goal…Mayo ate into the Maroon cake. Soon we were breathing on their necks. Then the first hiccup came. Joe Corcoran impervious that day until that moment missed his first free.
Galway were still ahead but by the minimum. Now the ball landed in the Mayo square. The next sequence of events came in slow motion. The white O Neill’s bobbled around our square; the dust blew with the energy being spent. Eugene Rooney our goalie rightly held his line. I could see but not hear him shouting at his defenders to lash the ball clear.
But the ball stayed, almost suspended between Rooney and Galway’s Mattie McDonagh. The boot was swung, the sock was white and maroon and the ball made three slow revolutions. The first two saw it wobble to the goal line but the third revolution saw it breath its last over our line…just…and an inch beyond Eugene’s outstretched fingers. We of course attacked again but when the man in black blew time we had lost by a point.
The disappointment was crushing. This was a great Mayo team. We had Rooney, Carey, Prendergast, Morley, Earley, Langan, PJ Loftus, and Corcoran, along with the youthful McGee, O Dowd and Fitzgerald. Galway were Galway, big names like the Donnellans, McDonagh, Leydon, Tierney, Colleran, Claremorris’s Jimmy Duggan and the redoubtable Johnny Geraghty. We needed the win, they had been to the summit, but it was us that should be planting the flag. Divided by a single point, we would spend another year at the blackboard.
Leaving the ground with forty thousand plus we were joined by the Mayo team. No showers in McHale Park so it was back to the hotel for a wash. My eyes were glued to our bucks. The flame red hair of Earley, McGee, Nealon and Willie Loftus stood vibrant amid the sea of green, red, and maroon. Some of the players carried their boots in the hand and all looked ten foot tall and had the swagger of a Hollywood star, them in that elusive and iconic Mayo Green and Red jersey.
The tar melted and my sister who wore flip flops stuck in it. As my father dug her out we lost step with my heroes. “Don’t leave me here” she wailed as the Mayo boys slipped into the distance. On the journey home my father said “Them Mayo backs are only sloggers”. Silently I thought “And you’d know all about defenders?” My mother had seen Mayo in tears before. “Ah the Meeoyos “her Donegal accent went “Luck is never their friend”. She was closer to the mark.
Back in the village we parked Lizzy. I ran to the turf stack and took down my white plastic ball. In the Barracks field stood an ESB pole paralleled by a smaller telegraph pole. Those were my goal posts. I planted free after free between those two poles. As each kick left the boot I was already planning for next season’s championship.
Sunday July 21st 1968 saw a seed planted. Each year I water and nourish it and someday I hope to live and see that seed bloom into a thing of beauty called Sam Maguire.