Our championship ambitions for 2011 would seem to stretch no further than a possible provincial title and the need to avoid embarrassment if and when we make it to Croke Park. If this is truly our aim for this year, it’s worth reminding ourselves, as ontheroad does here in his latest appearance on the guest slot, that we weren’t always so diffident in this respect.
For one glorious summer in 1996 Mayo shed their Clark Kent suit and became Superman. The humiliation of Cork 1993 and Leitrim a year later were shoved into the recesses of our minds.
Meath, or the “Rile” as they nauseatingly called themselves, got off the hook in an All-Ireland final that Mayo should have won twice over, such was their overall superiority a week earlier. Sunday September 22nd 1996 was the day when we should have added number four to Corn Sam McGhuidhir’s silver rib cage.
Six points ahead and superior in every position all we had to do was steer the ship the final league into the sanctuary of the harbour. A six-point cushion was defendable but we surrendered midfield and the men from the “Rile” launched a ferocious last six-minute bombardment. No Mayo man needs reminding of those fateful final moments.
A week later we resumed hostilities. The consensus was that Mayo had shot their bolt. We believed otherwise. Meath would be forced to dig deep if they were to win. A toxic semi-final win where Tyrone’s Brian Dooher and Peter Canavan seemed like extras in a hospital movie gave us a clue as to how deep Meath were prepared to plough.
The previous Sunday saw a Mayo defender almost decapitated with a short-arm tackle. As the Mayo doctor tended to the almost beheaded player one of the Meath forwards shoved him to the ground, picked his bag up and flung it over the line. A thought crossed my mind. Those Meath guys would shoot Red Cross workers in a war situation. We were warned.
The replay saw an outbreak of war shortly after the throw-in. Fist, boot and mouth flew indiscriminately. The Mayo man who pulled the pin seemed to be in a foetal position on the pitch. One Mayo player took a full body kick. Had the perpetrator done that in main street Meath he could look forward to a few months on the North Circular road for his troubles.
As the punches and kicks flew so too did the mouthing in the stand. Behind me sat two Meath men, one who smoked a cigar. “Ye fucking land grabbers ye” cigar man spewed into my ear. I turned around and replied “Say that again and I’ll fuck you over the stand…football match or no football match.” I meant it.
His pal soothed the situation but the damage was done. I was thick and he knew it. Half-time came and I turned around and asked him what he’d meant. I knew what he’d meant but I wanted to hear him say it. “Ah don’t heed him…for fucks sake he didn’t mean it”, replied the earlier mollifier.
All week I had listened to the land issue from a handful of people who in the main didn’t represent the decent Meath man. Now this clown had driven me mad with his smart comment. Looking at him in the eye I told him I wasn’t scared by him or his big mouth and reminded him that half the Meath team was always made up of those so-called land grabbers.
The second half was as close as I ever was to being spiritually out on the pitch with the men in the Green and Red. We were as one. Mayo goaled … hurrah! “Keep the head” we screamed. Then the referee gave Meath a free-kick. Geraghty, the much touted Meath hard man was in Pat Holmes pocket for the guts of two games. He kicked a short free to Tommy Dowd but the ball hadn’t travelled more than three yards.
All day long the ref had pulled back the quick free, now he let it go. Dowd scored a goal. Luck, as my mother said, wasn’t Mayo’s friend. Bob Dylan described such stuff as “A simple twist of fate”. We battled to the end. Tom Reilly came on as a sub. Making his way up to the corner forward he was greeted with a “Rile” shoulder and a mouthful of verbiage.
Now Tom did what I and a thousand Mayo followers wanted to do to this particular guy all afternoon. He drove his fist into his markers puss and left him sitting on his arse. Too little and far too late. However Tom Reilly went up in my estimation that day, and I will carry that cameo with me to my last breath.
When the whistle went my septic thorn from Meath tapped me on the shoulder and said “Ye will never come so close again…ye blew it”. His friend apologized but the fight was gone in me and deep down he was right. We left it behind…twice. Men like James Horan, Pat Fallon, Brady, Kenny Mortimer didn’t deserve to leave the field as losers. Neither did Mayo.
Nobody but nobody will ever come as close again as we did in that glorious summer of 1996. The question now was simple: would Mayo revert to being plain Clark Kent or would they still wear the Superman rig. The winter would be long and time would tell.