WHEN Derry champions Slaughtneil trot onto Croke Park on Friday, they’ll carry with them the good wishes of more than a few followers of the Green and Red.
The tenuous connection between this county and the men from the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains spans over a decade ever since their coach Mickey Moran led Mayo to an unexpected All-Ireland final in Croke Park ... after which he was summarily shafted.
It was his first stint as Mayo boss and like all those who preceded him, the new manager was unable to break the hoodoo of Mayo’s adversity in finals. But by guiding the county in the semi-final of 2006 to their first championship win over Dublin, the Derry man helped sweep away some old myths surrounding Mayo’s crises in Croke Park.
More than one ritual was dismantled on that occasion. In the preliminaries to the semi-final, outsiders Mayo upset the cosy composure of their opponents by warming up in front of Hill 16, a custom to which the Dubs thought they held sole rights.
In the face of naked intimidation, Mayo steadfastly refused to make way when the Dubs appeared on the pitch. Chaos ensued. The incensed Dublin manager vented his anger on a Mayo selector, and the county’s female dietician was felled in the melee. But the Mayo footballers held firm.
Onlookers were stunned. Officials baffled. It was a confrontation like no other. Mayo had challenged an unwritten convention ... and the Dubs were forced to blink.
They were firm favourites to reach the final. And in the shape of their dominance for more than half an hour lay their response to Mayo’s hijacking of their self-declared zone in front of their loyal, hissing supporters on the Hill. Dublin were smarting. The bridle was off.
When Mayo trailed by seven points in the second half, defeat looked inevitable. Yet, wisps of the mental tenacity shown in the warm-up were evident in their tackling. A recovery commenced, Mayo filching point after point and planting doubt in the heads of the frustrated Dublin men. Their lead was wiped away, and in a final magnificent flourish, Ciaran McDonald stole victory with a sublime point with his left foot from the left wing.
By reaching the final Mayo had surprised even their own staunch following, and while well beaten by Kerry, there was optimism in the air that Mickey Moran might be the man to finally fulfil Mayo’s burning ambition.
That chance was not offered the new manager. A few weeks later he was relieved of his post ... under the appearance of ‘irreconcilable differences’. No one protested. The genial Derry man departed as quietly as he had arrived. He made no complaint about the unfairness of his removal. He did not whinge.
John O’Mahony had come on the scene. Mayo had agreed terms with the man who transformed Galway football. And this writer was not alone in being enthused at the bright prospects his appointment promised.
In the midst of our excitement, Moran’s fate was ignored. We stood idly by with not so much as a blush at the injustice of the Derry man’s dismissal.
That face-off against Dublin stands out as a cherished moment of Mayo’s many visits to Croke Park down the decades. But the manner of the manager’s removal tarnished the eminence of the occasion.
Slaughtneil’s achievements in hurling, football and camogie have surprised the country. In winning the All-Ireland title, the girls of the village have broken established traditions. They have come a long way since the granduncle of the three Cassidy girls brought a hurley stick back from an All-Ireland final in the 1960s and used it as a template to have similar camáns manufactured locally.
Mickey Moran, under Eamon Coleman, coached his native Derry to their only All-Ireland in 1993 and has had managerial stints with Donegal, Sligo, and Leitrim.
The common thread of Gaelic games binds together the tiny community which Moran now leads. It is the hope of this writer that his career will be crowned with an All-Ireland title in Croke Park on Friday.
Victory over Cavan is imperative for Mayo
WITH Donegal resurgent and Tyrone heading for the league final, the outcome of Cavan’s visit to MacHale Park at the weekend assumes greater significance than might have been anticipated at the beginning of the league.
To put it bluntly, a Mayo victory is imperative. The evidence so far suggests that Tyrone will not stumble when the two meet in Omagh, and that Donegal (who come to Castlebar for the final game of the series) are buoyed up by their draw with the All-Ireland champions.
Neither opposition, therefore, provides pleasurable anticipation for Mayo when they meet in the next few weeks, which makes a win against Cavan essential to survival.
It does not follow that Mayo will lose their remaining three games. That can happen only if they reproduce the colourless football to which Dublin confined them. We expect their survival instincts to release more vigour on Sunday and a lot more energy than was on show in Croke Park.
But facing Cavan calls for caution. Their slide to the bottom of the table suggests they will fight ferociously to hold on and are likely to bring to the game that Ulster fire that caught Mayo out against Monaghan in the opening round.
Big defeats to Donegal and Tyrone will not deter them. Donegal won by eight points only because Cavan were reduced to 13 men. More critical to our situation is their loss by seven points to Dublin. Lest we forget, that is five points a better result than Mayo’s spar with the All-Ireland champions.
With a strong defence built around Cillian Brady and Conor Moynagh, a useful midfield pair in Tomás Carr and the loose-limbed Gearóid McKiernan, and a forward pack led by Dara McVeety, Conor Madden and Seán Johnston, the Breffni side have capabilities strong enough to contain the anticipated Mayo backlash late into the game.
It was not for lack of inspiration that Mayo lost to Dublin. What more than the stimulus of David Clarke’s spectacular saves could anyone provide? The goalkeeper has been forced to come to Mayo’s rescue on too many occasions in the current league. But for him, Roscommon might not have lost so heavily. Nor would Mayo have pulled through in Tralee.
Around this time last season, Mayo sprang to life when Colm Boyle and Diarmuid O’Connor led a revival against Monaghan that spared them relegation. Victory over Cavan on Sunday is of similar importance.
It will demand a return of defenders to their natural positions, a much more mobile and effective performance from midfielders, and a forward line that should not have to live on the excellence of Cillian O’Connor’s accuracy alone for victory.