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Tommy O’Malley’s search for Sam

Sean Rice

Sean Rice

Tommy O’Malley’s search for Sam



HE aimed for an All-Ireland senior title and believed once that it was within his grasp. But the essence of Tommy O’Malley’s ambition got lost in the wreckage of Mayo senior football of the seventies.
“I spent all my life trying to win it,” said the former Ballinrobe stalwart, “but, 40 years on, I have never handled the Sam Maguire Cup or been in the same room as it.”
Now, as an ardent observer, he, too, is disenchanted with the trend of the modern game.
“It’s a totally different game now,” he says. “It was more or less catch and kick in those days. Accurate footwork accounted for more passes than those by the hand. The game was slower and players were not as fit. But it was a more direct game, tough, man­-to­-man stuff with the third man tackle in vogue.”
O’Malley was Mayo’s young sparkling hope of the era. Records indicate he lined out with the county on almost 80 occasions and in the infertile seventies still managed to amass 13 goals and 152 points mostly with his trusty left foot.
While his talent gleamed throughout the decade tangible rewards in Mayo were scarce. Amid the county’s barren fortunes, ambition died. What enjoyment remained was in playing the game he loved.
The sterile decade might have been avoided if Joe Langan remained in charge, O’Malley claims. In his only year as boss (1972), the former Mayo midfielder had introduced fresh and inventive ideas. Particularly effective was his two-man full-forward line, with the other forward (usually O’Malley himself) used in a various roles.
The following year, in the wake of unrelenting disappointment, Langan’s replacement made drastic changes. Thirteen regulars were dropped in favour of players who had won the Connacht U-21 title. “It was a disaster,” said O’Malley. “Most were too young and inexperienced in senior football. It set those young players and Mayo football back a decade.”
Overnight the Ballinrobe native had become the oldest member of the team. When appointed captain in 1975 he, together with Seán Kilbride, begged Langan to return, but the former manager declined because of pressure of work.
No blackboard strategies were planned in training. Workouts consisted of the normal run-of-the-mill exercises leading up to games. Mostly the players themselves drew up whatever tactics were employed in team discussions.
Conversely, amid all the underachievement, one distinctive experience soars high in his memory. It was the honour bestowed on him of leading his team, as captain, behind a brass band in the Connacht final of 1975.
Pride surged through his veins. Memories of teenage yearning, of Sister Gertrude ­ a fanatical Galway follower ­ teaching him football at the age of five; of Brothers O’Farrell and McShane, Attie McCormack, Peter Browne, John Rochford, Billy Horan, Christy O’Haire and the rest ... and the captains who went before him.
“You feel you are walking in the footsteps of greatness,” he said.
In truth he was, himself the manifestation of a flawless football lineage. His uncle Seamus O’Malley captained the Mayo All-Ireland winners of 1936. (Tommy was not to know then that one day he would marry Marian Grier, whose father Tommy was also a member of that all-conquering side).
As a youngster, he listened to stories told by Seamus, by other uncles Paddy and Luke and by his own father Tom when they gathered regularly in his home on a Sunday night. All had distinguished careers on the football field. Luke was in goal in a junior All-Ireland, Paddy and Jack won league medals with Mayo. Tom played in Cavan.
“Just listening to them made us want to be like them,” said Tommy. “They were a huge influence. When they watched us playing we tried to impress them.”
So Tommy was entitled to have big goals. And having come through the club ranks in Ballinrobe he graduated to county minor in 1967, a blur of speed with a lethal left foot.
Connacht U-21 medals followed in 1970 and 1971, then county junior selection and a senior league final in 1972. He was on the Connacht team for six years, but his Railway Cup medal was won not with Connacht ... rather with the Combined Universities.
He was also the first Mayo man to receive the Monthly B&I Award in 1978 for outstanding performances for Mayo and Connacht. In the Railway Cup game against Leinster, he scored 1-6. He was also on the All-Stars side that toured America in 1976.
With UCG, he won a Galway senior league title, and with the same side reached the final of the Galway county championship the same year.
All that through Mayo’s barren years with not a single Connacht senior title captured by the Mayo star ­until 1981, a year before he hung up the boots.
But there were other compensations and next week we’ll bring you those.

Mayo must focus on their own game

IT is to be hoped that Mayo’s training session in Portugal will not have dwelt solely on ways to offset game plans presented by whatever opposition is in their sights.
While the style and the strength and the swagger of the opposition has always to be taken into account, it is on Mayo’s own game plan that attention requires to be focused, on devising a new and more economical system of getting the ball between the posts.
It is for the opposition to worry about what Mayo produce rather than vice versa.
Mayo’s strength will lie not in how they cope with whatever the opposition offer, rather in what pragmatic plans they themselves have formulated, their own innovations and the intellectual spirit and confidence with which they carry them through.
How, for instance, Danny Kirby might be coached and encouraged in a full-forward role that needs his physique, and how other forwards could benefit from his distribution. That potential was evident in Cork and needs to be cultivated.
As that great trendsetter Mick O’Dwyer put it: “You have to be positive about your own game. If your are thinking about the other team and trying to counteract them you are not going to win.”
It is imperative, too, that the discord emanating from the camp will have been ironed out during their visit. No team with eyes on a fifth consecutive Connacht title can afford to take the field in Pearse Stadium without being in tune with itself, without that same collective heartbeat toward a common goal.

Bernie Winters remembered
TO our eternal shame we missed the death of Bernie Winters. We had known him as one of those for whom Louisburgh waited on football days in the fifties, when heavy weather delayed his crossing from Clare Island.
Bernie and his Clare Island team­mates were the heart of Louisburgh teams then. He was young, gangly, angular and wiry, a consummate athlete with a leap for a high ball in the middle of the field none of us could reach.
We hoped he would miss that crossing and Louisburgh would be deprived of a footballer with skills that exceeded our ordinary efforts ... a player ‘born to blush unseen’.
Given the chance, no Mayo senior player of that period would have matched his natural skills, but then the middle fifties was a becalmed period, people still walking starry-eyed in the glories of the Sam days, with too little thought by the powers that be for the immediate future of the game.
Bernie would not have been out of place in any Mayo side of the era.