David McDonagh played a leading role in Mayo’s win over Galway in the 2001 NFL final
Down memory lane
“TEN years now, it’s hard to believe!” David McDonagh says when asked to reflect on Mayo’s victory in the 2001 National Football League final over Galway.
It remains Mayo’s only national senior men’s title in the last 40 years, and the 35-year-old Davitts player has fond memories of that day in Croke Park.
“Without a doubt, it was the highlight of my career,” says the man who played at centre half forward that day. “I know a lot of people at the time were saying it was ‘only the league’, but here in Mayo, we love playing Galway and beating Galway. So, to beat them in a national final in Croke Park was a fantastic achievement for everybody involved.”
McDonagh – whose speciality was finding gaps where there were none – played a leading role in the victory. “He single-handedly burrowed a tunnel through Hill 16 with his piercing runs,” wrote Mike Finnerty in these pages, and he scored a point to complement his work-rate and power.
While proud of the achievement, McDonagh isn’t inclined to dwell on it, though he admits that he might get a bit more nostalgic when he finally hangs up his boots.
Beating Galway made it “a little bit more special” – not just because it gave him bragging rights over the neighbours, but because the side they beat was “littered with great players”. Pádraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, Tomás Mannion and Declan Meehan all played that day, and won their second All-Ireland medal the following September.
Mayo conceded three points in the opening four minutes and were a point down at half time. By the 47th minute, it was 12-9 to Galway, but Mayo got the last four scores, and Marty McNicholas’s 67th minute point proved to be the winner.
“In the second half, the elder statesmen on the team – the likes of Noel Connelly, Fergal Costello, David Brady, James Nallen, Colm McManamon, the lads who had played in All-Ireland finals – really came into their own. I don’t think those boys were intent on leaving Croke Park without something to show for it on that occasion.”
Tom Nallen, another old hand, had a “fantastic game” at full-back despite not being named on the team. Aidan Higgins, who appeared in the team photograph, had to be content with a place on the bench. It was “tough” on the Charlestown man, says McDonagh, “because he had to go along with it, and you don’t get an opportunity to play in national finals too often in Croke Park.”
Asked to explain the background, the Davitts man recalls: “I think [Mayo manager] Pat Holmes was intent on getting one over on [Galway manager] John O’Mahony, who was notorious for his team line-ups – whatever he would issue 1-15 would never be what you’d face up to on the day.
“Tom Nallen had an excellent record against Pádraic Joyce, and I think the decision was made during the week that Tom Nallen would start and pick up Pádraic Joyce. But we were so intent ... that it wouldn’t leak out that Aidan Higgins was named in the starting 15.”
McDonagh, a teacher at Ballyhaunis Community School, takes a similarly nuanced approach to the other issue of minor controversy – the lack of an official homecoming afterwards.
“Certainly at the time, we would have gone along with the decision,” he begins. “We would have been on a championship footing, because it was the last week of April, and we were playing Sligo in early June. But I suppose looking back now, it might have been appropriate for the occasion. We don’t win too many national titles here in Mayo, and it would have been nice in hindsight.
“But I suppose at the time, our priorities were different. The decision was made and the players supported it 100 per cent. But looking back, it would have been an occasion for the Mayo supporters to come out and welcome a cup back – because we’ve had the other side of it too.”
And McDonagh knows all about that other side. Coming in the wake of Crossmolina’s All-Ireland club victory, there was a sense that Mayo’s National League win – the first since 1970 – might lead on to bigger things. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. A last-minute Roscommon goal in the Connacht final “knocked the stuffing out of us”, and defeat to Westmeath in the county’s first ever All-Ireland Qualifier meant the year ended on a low.
“I think if we look back on that [year], we weren’t hugely far off it at the time,” he recalls wistfully. “We had a number of very seasoned campaigners, and a number of younger players coming through – Trevor Mortimer, James Gill, Marty McNicholas. Unfortunately, the team changed very quickly after 2001. It’s a small window of opportunity.”
P Burke; R Connelly, T Nallen, K Cahill; F Costello, A Roche, N Connelly (0-2); C McManamon (0-1), D Brady; J Gill (0-3, 2f), D McDonagh (0-1), S Carolan (0-1); M McNicholas (0-1), R Loftus (0-2, 2f), T Mortimer.
Subs used: M Moyles for Mortimer; J Nallen for Roche; M Sheridan (0-2, 1f, 1 ’45) for Loftus; D Nestor for Moyles.
P Lally; M Comer, K Fitzgerald, M Colleran; D Meehan, J Divilly, S Óg De Paor; M Donnellan (0-2), J Bergin; M Clancy, K Comer, L Colleran; D Savage (0-2), P Joyce (0-3, 2f), J.Donnellan (0-4, 2f).Subs used: S Walsh (0-1) for Clancy; R Fahy for Comer (h-t); T Mannion for M Colleran; J Fallon for Comer; S Ó.Domhnaill for Bergin.
Referee: N Barrett (Cork)
David McDonagh on …
“I wouldn’t have swapped my club career for anything. It was great to be involved with the county – better players than me never got a chance, so it was great to get the opportunity. But for me, the club has been the number one priority.”
… Sunday’s game
“Nobody is giving Mayo any great chance. There’s no great fanfare about them, particularly after the London performance. Connacht football needs a good game. I think there’ll be nothing more than a kick of a ball between the two teams.”
... Being a veteran
“I don’t know is ‘going strong’ a good description of how I’m going, but I’m still going! I’m 35, and I notice this year when I’m going out against different teams, I see fewer and fewer familiar faces! I enjoy it, and it’s a great interest.”