As everyone surely knows by now, our Round 1 qualifier clash with Monaghan this day week will be the first ever meeting between our two counties in the Championship. We only met them competitively for the first time as recently as 1981 and they’re a team we’ve played just twenty times in competitive fixtures, the bulk of those in recent years.
Nineteen of those meetings were in the National League but the other clash was a knockout one. And it was one in which Monaghan knocked us out.
That meeting came in 1984 in the short-lived Centenary Cup. Held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the GAA, this was a 32-county open draw knockout tournament that was run off in the weeks between the conclusion of the League and the start of the Championship.
Chatter about Championship structures were, as I recall, all the rage back then as well. In those days, however, while the dominant clarion call was for the provincial competitions to be done away with (no change there), the demand then was that they should be replaced by a straightforward open draw knockout tournament.
The Centenary Cup was a way for the GAA to lance that particular boil. The 1984 competition never really fired the public’s imagination, however, in the way its proponents had hoped and, after it was run off again the following year (now called the Ford Open Draw), it was quietly shelved.
Our Round 1 pairing with Connacht neighbours Sligo didn’t exactly set the pulses racing. When we stumbled past them by three points, though, getting drawn against Monaghan in Round 2 had far more of an air of novelty about it. Back then, we’d only ever had that single League meeting three years previously to point to.
The match against Monaghan was a home game for us, played at James Stephens Park in Ballina. In the lead-up to the game, the local papers were full of the news that Mayo native Dr Mick Loftus had just been elected as GAA President. There wasn’t much of a build-up to the game itself but there was an expectation that this would be an opportunity for Liam O’Neill’s charges to continue their preparations in a positive way for the upcoming Championship.
From Mayo’s perspective, though, the match proved a disaster. Thoroughly outplayed throughout by the Farneymen, our lads collapsed to a 1-11 to 0-6 defeat. All of our scores – at least according to the Connaught Telegraph (which I’ve gone with too in the results archive here on the blog) – came from the boot of Aghamore’s Padraig Duffy, all bar one of them from placed balls.
The late Ivan Neill in the Western People – never a man to hold back when the mood took him – described the performance as “one of the saddest days for Mayo football for a long, long time.” The Mayo News report noted that the booing that rang out around the ground at the end of the game “was aimed more at the management than the team”. It was a management, the report tartly added, that “sought and got full autonomy but has failed to instil a sense of direction or determination into the side.”
Maybe we shouldn’t have been too down on ourselves after that loss to Monaghan. They proceeded to go on a great run in the competition, making it all the way to the final, beating Offaly – then a major scalp – in the quarters and getting the better of Derry in a high-scoring semi-final. They eventually lost to Meath by just two points in the decider.
We had a short and unhappy enough Championship run that summer. A routine victory over Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final was followed by an enormously frustrating loss to Galway in the final at Pearse Stadium. It wasn’t much better for Monaghan either, though, as they crashed out to Armagh in the Ulster semi-final, having first got past Antrim.
Twelve months on, however, and both Mayo and Monaghan went on to light up the Championship. We won Connacht, they won Ulster, we played out a draw with Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final and they did likewise against All-Ireland champions Kerry. For a few brief weeks, we were both the talk of the town.
We both lost our respective replays, of course, but our exploits that summer in holding the Big Two at the first time of asking altered the prevailing view of both of us and our standing in the game’s pecking order.
This coming Saturday we meet again, playing a game of knockout football against each other for only the second time ever and for the first time in close to forty years. Will this meeting prove a springboard for either of us? Time will tell on that one.