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Their finest hour?


Mayo’s win over Kerry in 1996 changed everything, says John Casey

Feature
Daniel Carey


WHEN James Horan lobbed Kerry goalkeeper Declan O’Keeffe in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final, those watching on television missed it – and so did John Casey. Horan’s audacious effort – “one of the truly great goals seen at GAA headquarters”, according to Pádraig Burns – happened too quickly for the TV cameras to capture properly. Casey’s excuse is more mundane.
“I was just roaring at him: ‘don’t shoot’!” the Charlestown man recalled with a laugh last week. “I could see him looking at O’Keeffe ... and I was saying ‘Don’t, don’t!’ I had slipped off my man for a short dinky pass in in front of goal, and next thing I see the ball flying over my head. I don’t think I saw it hitting the net either cause I was bawling him out of it!”
Horan’s goal killed off Kerry, and set the seal on what Kevin McStay called “one of the best, if not the best” Mayo display “in 20 years”. It was the second great Mayo goal of the day, coming in the wake of a James Nallen special in the first half. Goalkeeper John Madden looked at the replay on the big screen and was caught unawares by Seán Burke’s long-range effort, but Mayo lived to tell the tale. Maurice Sheridan weighed in with six points, while Kenneth Mortimer didn’t give Dara Ó Cinnéide a sniff. Casey had a huge game too, following up his goal against Galway with four points from play against the Kingdom, and was named man of the match in The Mayo News.
“We felt we were as good as anybody,” he reflected in conversation last Thursday, 15 years to the day since that win. “Maybe I was young and naïve, but I remember at the time going up with absolutely no fear. There was not even a mention of getting beaten. We were delighted, obviously, after beating Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final, but it came as no great surprise to us as players.”
The victory was Mayo’s first in championship against Munster or Leinster opposition since 1951, and came after an “extraordinary” performance. “Nobody was ever going to intimidate us,” says Casey. “We had a big, powerful team. At 6’1”, I would have been one of the smaller individuals on it. And everybody played their heart out.”
London scare “a good omen”?
IT was all a long way from the dark days of winter, when Mayo found themselves in Division 3. They scraped past Wexford, Monaghan and Antrim, but kept winning, and reached a National Football League semi-final. John Maughan’s creed – “We’ll be whipping boys for nobody” – was “instilled in our brains”, Casey remembers. Mayo were “damn lucky” to get out of London with a victory, something he told James Horan “could be a good omen” for 2011. Maughan ran them like greyhounds in Westmanstown the morning after that game in Ruislip.
“I remember  [Anthony] ‘Larry’ Finnerty was down on his hands and knees, nearly puking,” says Casey, “and Maughan down pinned over him, saying ‘Get up Larry. You haven’t got the f***in’ heart, Larry, have you?’ And ‘Larry’ turned around, out of breath, and said [panting]: ‘I have the f***in’ heart, John, I just don’t have the lungs!’ We nearly wet ourselves laughing!”
Having worked miracles with Clare in 1992, Maughan was “the person everyone wanted” for the Mayo job, Casey recalls. “He intimidated fellas into getting better. Was I afraid of him? Yes, I was. If he said ‘jump’, I used to ask ‘how high?’ That’s the way it was [and] I don’t mean that in a bad way. ”
Casey had limped on as a sub against Roscommon having ruptured his Achilles “trying to take Maurice Sheridan out” in a club game, he says with characteristic bluntness. He “wasn’t right for three or four months after” and actually tried to pack in football, “but the boys told me to ‘cop on’.”
“Mental” hype, and a virus
JUST 33,165 people paid into Croke Park for that All-Ireland semi-final – Mayo’s first appearance at HQ since the 20-point drubbing by Cork in 1993. There were no songs or green and red trees, sheep, cars or road markings yet. Then, all changed, changed utterly. Mayo won and all hell broke loose.
Casey had just had, perhaps, his finest hour in a Mayo jersey. Still a student, he had spent the summer in Mayo GAA summer camps. What was it like for him, a 21-year-old, to suddenly be the focus of media attention and multiple well-wishers?
“Mental,” Casey replies. “It probably got to me … There’s no point making excuses 15 years on.  I failed to play in an All-Ireland final in ’96 ... Did the hype get to me? At the time, I thought ‘no’, but maybe it did. I got an awful virus too. I lost a stone and a half [in] weight between the semi-final and final and wasn’t able to train for three weeks.”
Being in the national spotlight was “nearly unbearable”, he remembers, referencing one day when “four [people] from RTÉ and three [print] journalists” descended on Charlestown. Living above the family hardware shop, he had a constant stream of people coming in for pictures and looking to have jerseys signed. He was getting cheques in the post, made payable to Mayo GAA, from people who “just wanted to hand money over to the cause”. After the final pre-final training session, he eventually “had to go up to Letterkenny” to get away from the “pandemonium”.
“A friend of mine came home for the All-Ireland from New York,” Casey remembers, “and he said: ‘Your jersey went to a good cause’. I said: ‘What do you mean by that?’ He said: ‘Some guy in New York is after buying your jersey from the Kerry match for $2,000 at a charity auction’ I said: ‘Did he? That’s unbelievable! Because that jersey is below in my drawer!’
“No fear” in current crop
WHEN Casey met James Horan at the recent Charlestown-Aghamore match, he told his former team-mate: “I didn’t give ye a prayer against Cork”. The result left him “in shock” after what the Rebels had done to Down. Now he thinks “the current crop are in a similar position to ourselves”.
“Complacency is the root of all evil,” he adds. “If it starts in your head, you cannot get rid of it. It takes an overnight job, another training session, to get rid of complacency. Complacency will not go on you in the middle of a game. No matter what Conor Counihan would say to his team at half time, if it’s in the belly, it’s awful hard to get rid of it. That’s what happened to Cork, and Mayo played on it and devoured them, and I was delighted.”
Could the same thing happen again next Sunday? Casey thinks Kerry “have been forewarned” now but adds: “Mayo will go in again with no fear … My heart says one thing, my head says another. But I said that for the Cork game too!”



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