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Mayo’s 1970 National Football League win remembered

A league of their own

JJ Cribben scored two goals when Mayo won the NFL final 40 years ago

Down memory lane
Daniel Carey

IN his ‘GAA Diary of a Century’, the late Johnny Mulvey recalls that when Mayo won the 1970 National Football League title, the celebrations ended in Bangor Erris at 2am on the following Tuesday morning.
But by then – indeed, immediately after the match the previous Sunday – Mayo’s two-goal hero was back in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. JJ Cribben was ‘one of the first, if not the first’  seminarians to be allowed out of the college to play football. He was ‘delighted’ to have been given the all-clear by the college authorities, especially as he hadn’t been let out for the 1967 All-Ireland U-21 final replay.
Forty years on, Fr JJ Cribben has fond memories of that victory at GAA HQ. “Any time a Mayo team wins in Croke Park, you celebrate it!” he told The Mayo News with a laugh last week.
Having been beaten on Jones’s Road three times as a minor (in 1962, 1963 and 1964), Dublin 3 wasn’t a happy hunting ground for Cribben. He was part of the U-21 team which drew with Kerry in the 1967 All-Ireland final in Croker, but missed the replay in Ballinasloe, when Willie McGee famously scored four goals, as the summer holidays were over by then.
“Mickey Lally, PJ Golden and myself were all students in Maynooth at the time and we weren’t allowed out for the replay,” he recalls. “I was awful disappointed. Micheál Ó Sé, the commentator, was playing for Kerry at that time. He was a student in Maynooth at that time too, and he wasn’t allowed out either.”
By the time the 1969/70 National League campaign rolled around, Maynooth’s rule had changed, and on May 10, 1970, 2-1 from JJ Cribben helped Mayo to a 4-7 to 0-10 win over Down. His first goal came in the ninth minute, when a Des Griffith centre was contested in the Down square and the ball broke for the number 15.
Early in the second half Down’s Joe Lennon hit the post from a penalty – a moment that ‘changed the game’, according to Cribben, since Mayo ‘went right down the field and got a goal’, a splendid John Gibbons strike. Cribben himself collected a pass from Willie McGee to add a point, and minutes later, was on hand to box Des Griffith’s cross to the net for Mayo’s third goal. Tom Fitzgerald also netted before the end.
“There was great football that day,” he adds. “We played the usual Mayo football … and we hit a good day.” Asked if that Mayo side at their best were a match for any team, Cribben replies honestly: “When we’d get going. But we could have bad days as well.”
Mayo had more good days than bad in that league campaign – they won five of their six matches in Group A of Division 3 (beating Offaly twice, Tipperary twice and Kerry once). Cribben came off the bench to score a goal as Clare were hammered in the divisional semi-final, and then started as Mayo handed the All-Ireland champions what Christy Loftus called ‘the most complete and comprehensive training Kerry have taken for some time’.
That win set up a semi-final meeting with Derry, and impressive Mayo led by six points with five minutes left. In the end, however, they won by the minimum, and Derry lodged an (unsuccessful) objection after Wicklow referee Jimmy Hatton blew the final whistle while the ball was en route from a free kick to a punched ‘point’ which would have ensured a draw. Never a dull moment.
And so Mayo went on to Croke Park for a victory that bridged a 16-year gap since their previous NFL success in 1954, and would be their last until Pat Holmes’s side followed suit in 2001. The insurance point that day was scored by Marty McNicholas, whose football career began as an enthusiastic five-year-old at under-10 training in Breaffy. And his first trainer? The local curate … Fr JJ Cribben. The big wheel keeps on turning.

When an ordination clashed with a championship match...

MAYO followed up their 1970 National Football League title with victory over Offaly in the Wembley Tournament in London writes Daniel Carey.
That win, as Seán Rice put it in the 1970 Mayo GAA Yearbook, ‘entrenched them as firm favourites to win the All-Ireland title’.
It didn’t work out that way, as Roscommon won by 2-10 to 1-9 on June 21, 1970. Along with the rest of the Mayo players, JJ Cribben was in Tuam that day, but while his team-mates headed for the GAA pitch, the Ballyhaunis clubman had an important appointment in the local cathedral – his ordination.
“It lashed from the heavens,” he recalls ruefully of that day. “I remember my cousin, Dermot Earley [the Roscommon footballer], coming in afterwards to get my blessing. There was a small reception in the convent, and a lot of the Mayo lads came in after the game too.”
The result was, he reflected last week, ‘very disappointing’ because ‘hopes were very high’ going into that summer. Mayo reached the National Football League final again in 1971 and 1972, but lost both games to Kerry. Remarkably, they would not win a single Connacht title during the 1970s.
“We had a very good team – many of us came through from minor to U-21 to senior,” Fr Cribben comments. “And we just didn’t reach our potential in senior for some reason. We were unlucky, we had a few injuries at the wrong time.”
Times were changing too. Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry and Kevin Heffernan’s Dublin would dominate the decade.
“Kerry improved out of all bounds,” says Fr Cribben, who’s been based in Milltown for the last 11 years. “We didn’t. We remained the way we were. Kerry and Dublin went into massive training, I suppose, which he wouldn’t have [done]. They had taken it to a different level.”