THE FIELD OF DREAMS Long-serving gate steward Mick Ward is pictured gathering the flags from around the pitch after a National League game at Tuam Stadium earlier this year. Pic: Sportsfile
Going back to the graveyard
IT’S nice to go back to basics every now and then. Trooping off to Croke Park or Clones or Pearse Stadium each weekend can lead to an elite and sometimes inaccurate perspective on the game of Gaelic football.
One can get a little spoiled with the car pass and entrance ticket for the best seat in the house. And co-commentating on the big matches of the day places you in a bubble to a certain extent.
There is the requirement to be totally focussed, no room for idle chit-chat or throwaway observations. No meeting the lads pre or post the game. No time for the few ‘settlers’ before the big game and ‘busy, busy’ the minute it’s over.
You are, literally, live. And dangerous? With every word winging its way across the spectrum, there is no safety net, no time for an edit. You see it, you comment, it’s gone.
So, it was a welcome change to fill the car with my Ros’ mates and face her for Tuam Stadium last Saturday night. It’s been a while since I was last there and, as most Mayo men of my vintage will reflect, it’s not a happy hunting ground.
I spent part of my youth in the local college and can boast of being on the senior team when the more local CBS lads made their historic breakthrough in a Connacht colleges final. That was played in ‘The Stadium’ too! I should have known things might only get worse.
When I graduated to senior football with Mayo the trip to Tuam was viewed as a death sentence and we never won in the north Galway capital. Indeed it would take John Maughan’s marauders to break the hoodoo in 1997. Indeed, I cannot ever recall winning there as an under-16, minor or under-21! Badlands if you ask me.
We approach then at well under the speed limit. No rush now, don’t want to spend longer in the chamber than I need to. The old shed stand is still standing but because we have all put on a few pounds, the seating arrangements are worse than your average Ryanair set-up. With knees supporting our jaws we get as comfortable as possible and survey the warm-ups.
There are former players to be found among the managements of both teams and the sight of Tomás Mannion, that marvellous Galway defender of recent years, now working as a selector is worrying all of us. Are the years really flying by so quickly? He has Padraig Coyne beside him and older readers will remember the flamboyant Galway ‘keeper from his head-to-head with Barney Rock in the 1983 senior All-Ireland final.
Gary Wynne, their former star corner man, is looking after the Roscommon charges. Gary must have a few of my jerseys in his house; I didn’t give them to him you understand, he just pulled them off me in the various combat situations we found ourselves in.
It’s fantastic to see these guys put huge effort back into the underage games in their respective counties. Every player that is capped at senior level should be honour-bound to give at least a year to their native county or indeed their adopted one.
Tuam Stadium looks the exact same to me; no doubt it has changed slightly over the years but memory won’t allow me to update the scene. It’s dark, cold, foreboding and not the type of field you feel you might get a result in.
Strange to relate then that the Roscommon crew never mention the venue; they are more concerned with the actual team that will represent them. The confidence in this team is not great this year and most feel they might get a ‘scutching’.
Here comes the punchline: Roscommon beat the reigning All-Ireland minor champions by a single point. It took extra-time to reach such a conclusion and it was probably the match of the year so far.
There is a cliché we all use about minor teams. You know the one: ‘Ah, you can never tell with minors; sure it’s how they fall out of bed’. Which is not really true. Mayo and Galway nearly always win Connacht. Likewise Kerry and Cork. In recent times Tyrone and Derry are dominating and Laois are strong in Leinster. For the most part the fancied teams and favourites usually win through.
But Roscommon are starting to buck the trend in Connacht. They can now look forward to their third All-Ireland quarter-final in a row. They are beating the Mayos and Galways these days in their efforts to stay in the championship. This must be seen as progress.
But this latest result throws up an interesting question. Is it reasonable to say the best team lost even though the underdog has won the match? That was the majority opinion as we vacated the ground and it can hardly be fair to Roscommon.
The argument went that Galway would be a better team in the All-Ireland series. Indeed, it is a similar argument I heard about a Mayo minor team of a few years ago. Roscommon won that particular All-Ireland!
Despite Galway getting a further two periods of extra-time, they could not regain their shape or momentum and in my opinion Roscommon deserved to win. They fought the hardest and came back from five points down to equalise with a goal in the last minute of ordinary time.
As Galway exited and Ros’ marched on, we got regular updates via the PA on the Mayo minors down in Castlebar. By all accounts it turned into a stroll against Sligo and we will start as favourites, perhaps firm favourites.
Health warning to all those young men lining out with Mayo minors this year: Galway, now out of the minor championship, occupied the same position you do now.
Galway had a few super players on this year’s team — Colin Forde stood out at full-back and Conor Doherty had a great game at midfield. And they had a serious number 7 but it was only by bumping into his father I made the connection.
Gerry ‘Hoss’ Halloran and myself were team-mates on many a Ballina juvenile team of yesteryear. And his young lad Conor is some prospect. He is underage again next year. Conor has just a tad more pace than the father but it might be a few years before he has the same power his old man had. At under-12 that is! Any chance of bringing the family ‘home’ to Ballina, Gerry? We need as many of these lads as we can get.
I met a fella named Martin Quinn from Ballygar at the match and we got chatting at the half-time break. These conversations with complete strangers are fraught with danger but this one had an amusing ending.
Once he had established I was ’yer man from the telly’ he felt obliged to share his current situation with me. “Fair play to ya McStay, you’re saving me a fortune in porter every Sunday night with that auld….”
So, it’s Connacht final day in Castlebar, one of my favourite days of the year. And with three counties represented it will be great colour and noise from a full house. If it was four counties involved so much the better. But this will do nicely indeed and starters will be served around noon when Mayo and Ros’ take their curtain call.
Face the car for Mayo then and leave on time. There are no short cuts to a place worth getting to.