Light is fading for Mayo ladies
Kevin Mc Stay
LAST week I flagged a column I had been working on over the past few weeks. The game of Ladies football was once a big part of the county’s sporting calendar but in recent years I got the sense it was a dying brand. I had attended the quarter-final and although the side chiselled out a defiant victory, that game and the subsequent semi-final confirmed my own opinions. It was time to reflect and with the bones of a decent piece completed what does the editor do? Ms Horan trumps me with a top-class piece on the subject last week!
But as the editor was once the star goalkeeper on this once star team, I decided to plough on and give an alternative angle, the male version of where things might be today with ladies football. I realise it’s dangerous territory – the last time I offered opinions I got a few stings from irate wasps.
The weekend newspapers carried the latest results in the ladies football championships. The highly fancied Cork senior side qualified for yet another All-Ireland final, trouncing Tyrone by 19 points. In a few weeks time they will go for the four-in-a-row. I have no doubt they will win this year’s title when they face down a Monaghan side that put Mayo to the sword.
Cork are the modern version of the Mayo team that first emerged in 1999. But Cork have built solid foundations around the game in their county and are well placed to reap the benefits of success and dominance at senior All-Ireland level. Unlike Mayo.
A few weeks ago I headed to Croke Park early to catch a glimpse of the Mayo side of 2008. Playing in Croke Park under lights must be pretty cool, and it had been a while since I saw Mayo ladies live. The word on the current state of ladies football in Mayo was not great – the spring uprising was followed by a summer of uncertainty and now, possibly, it will be a winter of discontent.
It turned out Mayo beat a decent Kerry side that wet and dark Saturday evening and so I got to see them a second time this year when they played Monaghan in the semi-final up in Navan. The team died with their boots on and exited this year’s championship, but in doing so also underlined that the light is fading for this team and the end of the golden era of the code in Mayo is upon us. It’s been a memorable trip by times, but there is no getting away from a sense that much has been squandered.
A few new faces have arrived and the squad will reinvent itself, but away from the senior inter-county team, how is the game overall? Plainly speaking, the game in Mayo has lost its sheen and clubs that feed the senior set-up are in some cases clubs only in name.
This season was a time of some disarray. Public feuding between players and officials, uncertainty over managerial appointments, late panel additions and suchlike are not the events one associates with a team trying to be the best it can be. Of course they reached last year’s final and the 2008 final was a possibility. But how competitive would Mayo be against the standard-bearers Cork? Most know the answer to that question.
If you go to the website of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association of Ireland and surf to the link for the history of Mayo the following message is displayed: ‘NO HISTORY PROVIDED’. After all the great days, the inaugural win over Waterford in 1999, the follow-up in 2000 and the heartbreak against Laois a year later, one would have thought the board would have insisted those feats were recorded.
In winning another double in 2002 and 2003 this team proved how brilliant it really was and the five-in-a-row was possibly the reward it deserved. Instead we got a blank page. Maybe that is a metaphor for the game today?
LET’S journey back in time to the beginning and the 1999 win, the culmination of honest effort and organisation and a historic breakthrough for the girls all over Mayo. I was at that game, might even have commentated on it, and if memory serves me well, it was the last occasion a cup was presented in the old Hogan Stand.
It was a joyful day and the possibilities for that team and the game in the county were endless. By and large the footballers realised all their dreams and possibilities, and if there were some casualties along the way in terms of players, officials, coaches or managers, that is sometimes the way of these things. But the game never grasped the opportunity.
When the club scene became the biggest casualty, it was obvious some things had become bigger than the game itself. Back all those years ago I sometimes wrote about the explosion of interest, the performances and the general impressions I got from observing and following the game. The defensive and sometimes verbally aggressive reaction to those comments really surprised me. I was accused of sour grapes, that because the men folk could not bring the bacon home, we males were somehow jealous of the ladies’ achievements.
In a way it confirmed that the aftermath of winning All-Irelands needs so much more managing than losing them. When young people are exposed to the joys, the pressures, the benefits and the adulation of a major win, it is obvious they must remain level-headed. When that same team establishes itself as a multi-winning All-Ireland side, it should let their deeds do all the talking.
But somewhere along the line, the ladies game fell out of love with itself. They made headlines in the county for the wrong reasons and began to lose focus on the very thing that brought them together – the game itself and playing it for the sheer fun and fulfilment it can give.
It’s late 2008 and the game in the county is at the foothills. The journey must begin all over again but is the energy or the will to do it again still there? Is the club scene viable and able to support a county senior side? These are questions the ladies are asking themselves.
The club scene is in ribbons, the finances are stretched and the senior team has been allowed near its end without a concrete plan for its natural successors. Who locally really cares? The support levels have fallen away – the support at the recent All-Ireland semi-final would have fitted comfortably into a 59-seater bus. Do you have a sense of a great opportunity let slip by?
Maybe we needed this sporting and financial recession to see the daylight. Perhaps the ladies game in Mayo won too much, too often and perhaps too soon. It is a possibility.