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Mayo must tread carefully

Sport

ONCE WERE WARRIORS Pictured are the Mayo team that lined out against Roscommon in the drawn 1989 Connacht Football Senior Championship Final at MacHale Park, Castlebar. Pic: Sportsfile

Feature

Colin Sheridan

WHEN I think of Mayo versus Roscommon, I think of 1989 and I think of this: I think of being nine years old and being with my father and him parking the car as far out as in Cloonfad, faced for home, so we could back in time for the tea.
I remember walking in past the racecourse with what seemed like 100,000 others toward The Hyde for that storied Connacht Final replay. I think of Frank Noone on a stretcher and Jimmy Browne in an ambulance. I think of our neighbour, who travelled with us to the game, taking a bit of a turn with all the drama and having to sit on the terrace.
I remember both Mayo and Roscommon fans making room for him to sit, and minutes later the same folks using his shoulders as a step ladder to watch the drama unfold.
I remember Liam McHale, whose magnificence on the field that day was only matched only by the majesty of his tan. I remember ‘Fat Larry’ scoring maybe the second worst goal of all time, and finally, climactically, I remember Aghamore’s Jimmy Burke scoring the worst.
With his pelvis.
It is impossible to think that Jimmy Burke was ever a young man. A glance at the photo of that groundbreaking 1989 team confirms much of what I remember: Peter Forde had great hair. TJ looked like he should’ve been walking the beat in the Bronx. Flanno thought he was Padraig Pearse, and Jimmy Burke was, in fact, an ageless giant, who looked more like Sonny Corleone from the Godfather than a crafty Mayo sharpshooter.
It’s perhaps a little cruel that after nearly a decade scoring freely for his county that he should be remember for hipping a goal to seal victory that totemic day thirty years ago, in a game that had more twists than a Le Carre novel.
Nostalgia is of course a dangerous tonic, but with Roscommon coming to Castlebar this weekend as heavy underdogs, it is worth reminding ourselves that when these two teams meet, bizarre things happen.
Mayo and Roscommon have a strange relationship. We are like France and Germany, and Ballaghadreen is Alsace Lorraine. There doesn’t exist that exotic, glamourous, more marketable rivalry that we share with Galway, yet there is plenty of contemporary history to remind and inspire both sides.
Two years after the pelvis goal, Derek Duggan from Castlerea introduced himself to Castlebar and the world by kicking a free over the McHale Park crossbar from out near Pontoon, to equalise with the last kick of the game. Weeks later, the nineteen-year-old scored an incredible goal –a drop-kick from 21 yards – to put the Rossies up five points on a legendary Meath team. Had they pressed on, it could’ve been them that owned the decade, not Mayo and Galway.
Instead it took ten years, and another last-minute knife in the heart of a Mayo team that had All-Ireland on their minds, when Gerry Lohan scored a goal in the fifth minute of injury time, winning them a Connacht title. There was an inevitable calamity to that goal, that seemed an age in the making, that will be etched in Mayo memories forever.
Another ten years later, once again at the Hyde, it was the turn of Mayo, who after four years in rehab, finally saw light by edging out Roscommon in the rain, on the day that Cillian O’Connor was born as a senior footballer.
A further decade has nearly passed, and we should be careful. There is an almost unavoidable arrogance that comes with being from Mayo these last few storied years, that almost makes us immune to contemplating a defeat at home to Roscommon this Saturday.
The arrogance is ours – the fans – not the players, most of whom are too riddled with the anxiety of their status within the group to let their minds drift. For us, though, we have become accustomed to a natural order of things, which is a simple byproduct of our Mayo-ness. As if somehow people from Boyle or Elphin could not feel about football what we feel. That we have a monopoly on ‘near-greatness’ that will continue and end only when we drop the ‘near’. We filled Gaelic Park three weeks ago, and could’ve twice over, but how many of us were in Pearse Park in Longford on that June evening in 2010 when Longford embarrassed us? I, for one, was not.
Some of the arrogance is earned. When Roscommon gave us the mother of all shocks in the 2017 All-Ireland quarter-final, we responded in the replay on that eerie Bank Holiday Monday with all the wrath of a scorned Dragon Queen. It put paid to any thoughts of an uprising in the west. But the worm often turns.
It’s been nearly a decade now of relative peace, and much like your children in the other room, if they’re quiet, they’re up to something. Roscommon have been quiet. They frustrated and delighted in unequal measure under Kevin McStay, a man it seemed, the players drove to the edge of the abyss. What alchemy Anthony Cunningham has worked remains to be seen, but we should be ready. Just remember, it took a pelvic thrust form an Aghamore man to save us thirty years ago, so anything is possible.