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The decline of Mayo and Galway football

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

The decline of Connacht’s old firm



Sean Rice

IT was not the Connacht final pairing on which Mayo GAA Board had set their sights. But not even the magnetism of Mayo/Galway rivalry could have won for the board the plaudits that flowed in for the arrangements they had in place that enabled Roscommon and Sligo present a thriller.
McHale Park never looked better for the showpiece of Connacht football.  In terms of organisation and efficiency, the County Board may have reaped a richer harvest in the long run than any extra revenue gained from an old firm tie.
The emergence of Roscommon from the shadows adds a new perspective to Connacht football.  And it is a heartening spurt of encouragement for the rise of the underdog that victory lay as much in the quality of the battle as in the outcome.
Sligo and Roscommon provided a Connacht final as tense and exciting as anything we have witnessed in recent years. They have ushered in a long-awaited new dawn for their respective hordes of supporters and are worthy successors to the two that have dominated football in the province for so long.
The excitement their meeting created was a thumbs down for advocates of the open draw. The Nestor Cup is still a coveted possession, a benchmark in any county’s history. In the Sligos and the Roscommons of this country, they still dream of provincial titles.
How long they remain on top in Connacht will determine the depth of the downturn in Mayo and Galway, whether it is just a temporary blip or an omen of the onset of a deeper malaise.
Sligo’s defeat of Mayo and Galway had been trumpeted for some time. Their performances in winning promotion to Division 2 of the league had commentators predicting greater things for them in the Connacht championship. In ousting the big two on the way, Kevin Walsh had them primed for a perfect finale in McHale Park.
In the end the day belonged to Roscommon, where Fergal O’Donnell had stitched together a team that surprised the nation. We had seen the rudiments of a new Roscommon those last few years springing from their All-Ireland minor title of 2006 ... but not the eruption of power and determination that greeted Sligo in Castlebar.
While Kevin Walsh had stolen the management limelight up to that, the kudos went in the end to Fergal O’Donnell for a beautifully staged win. The Sligo manager was dealt a further blow when his charges left the scene humbled by Down on Saturday.
So whither the former Galway star now? What he decides could have a bearing on the future of Joe Kernan as Galway manager. If Walsh remains with Sligo for a third year, Kernan is assured of another season with the Tribesmen.
In the event of Walsh leaving the Sligo post, it is to him Galway may turn to lead them back to prominence. The county’s Football Board deferred a decision on the matter last week until the former Armagh manager returns from holiday.
Kernan’s appointment was reminiscent of the advent of Jack O’Shea to Mayo in the early 90s. Like Kernan, the fans received him rapturously, and the Kerryman led them to a Connacht title. But the goodwill for him dissipated when Cork walloped Mayo in the semi-final.  Jack was no longer seen as the messiah.
Kernan’s control of Galway never took hold following their heavy defeat in the league by Mayo last February. Although they retained Division 1 status, their league form was mediocre, and their defeat by Sligo and Wexford a crushing blow to the manager’s confidence. Whether he stays may depend on whether Walsh remains in charge at Sligo.

Minors have room to improve
TONY Duffy leads his Mayo minor squad into the All-Ireland quarter-finals at the weekend following the successful defence of their Connacht title.
Defeated Leinster finalists Offaly provide the opposition, and because they are a bit of a surprise packet, we can’t measure their worth until we see them in action.
Mayo will be leaving no stone unturned to reach the semi-finals. And even though they had five points to spare over Galway in the Connacht final, there is a lot of room for improvement.
In the front line of Cian Costello, Darren Coen and Cillian O’Connor lies their real strength. If those three are subdued, Mayo are in trouble. They thrive on good supply, and by half-time in their joust with Galway, no effective line of communication between midfield and them was established.
Greater rhythm and variety of supply among midfielders Danny Kirby and Seán McGarry, and wing backs Ryan Quirke and Conor Horan in the second half finally unhinged Galway’s defence, and the Mayo front line began to prosper.
Their goals were exciting and conclusive, and Mayo’s victory was built on the four minutes of class fashioned by Kirby, O’Connor and Coen. In other aspects of the game Galway had their measure, and Mayo must not lose sight of the need for a firm foothold at midfield for the hour.
Based on tradition Mayo would seem to have the edge over their Leinster opponents, but because minor football in general is unpredictable, they have got to be primed for unforeseen events . . . and Offaly will know by now where Mayo’s real strength lies.

Another best Mayo team
STAUNCH Mayo Gael Christy Doherty has chosen his best team of the past 50 years and claims it will challenge the selection of this writer in every aspect.
His team is: Eugene Lavin; Frank Noone, Ray Prendergast, Dermot Flanagan; Alan Dillon, John Morley, John Nallen; David Brady, Liam McHale; Tommy O’Malley, Ciaran McDonald, Kevin McStay; Conor Mortimer, Joe McGrath, Billy Fitzpatrick.
John Nallen is the big surprise in Christy’s team, and sent me thumbing through the records. John, uncle of James and Tom, was a fine midfielder, who later played with other counties, notably Meath. But he did not tog out with Mayo in the period of our selection. John played his first game for Mayo in the championship of 1952, and the last of his 45 appearances was in the league of 1958/59.
A lovely anecdote from Kilmaine man Christy about Eddie Moriarity, a fine county wing back of the fifties.  At the end of most matches, it seems, Ned would make a dash for the ball, and take it to the sideline where a friend was waiting to conceal it from the authorities.
No count of the number of balls he collected was ever revealed, but Ned, a member of the Garda Siochána, made good use of his collection by presenting them to national schools in his area.
On one occasion, when stationed in Kilmaine in 1970, Ned was a member of the local team that won a seven-a-side tournament in The Neale. Not surprisingly, he grabbed the ball at the final whistle, but while taking it to the sideline was confronted by five members of the Neale Club who good-humouredly dispossessed him ... and solved the mystery of the disappearing footballs.

Just a thought …
In the face of Sligo’s heavy defeat by Down and the advance of Down, Dublin, Kildare and Roscommon, where now lies Mayo football? Lowly Limerick handed out a signal lesson to Cork, who humiliated Mayo a few months ago.