THIS column entered this life on a losing note. In 1996 Meath snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and that two-game series would remain, over the course of the next 13 years writing this back page, the source of our greatest regret. And today, the column is put to bed with the defeat to Tyrone minors, in yet another national decider that got away, still fresh in the mind’s eye.
A few weeks ago, prior to a big championship match in Croker, I joined John Maughan and George Golden for a morning cup of tea in the Jury’s Croke Park hotel. Shortly afterwards who joined us but Pat McEnaney, the referee for the ill-fated Mayo v Meath replay. We laughed and we chatted and at one stage the subject of the brawl and the sendings-off came up. Of course it’s water under the bridge, but there are many Mayo men that often wonder about that episode.
When Pat left our company, I mentioned what a sound guy he is and all agreed. But in unison, we asked out loud, what in the name of God was he thinking about that damned day? Until the cup arrives back to the Sweet Plains, I expect that day will continue to haunt us.
The pace at which those intervening years have whizzed by is frightening. So much has changed – in sport and in life. I must have quoted in some column or other my late father’s concern that he might not live long enough to see Mayo bring Sam home. He passed away a few years ago and now I sometimes find myself wondering will I see the day when Mayo are All-Ireland champions again.
Last weekend our minors fell to Tyrone but lost no face in doing so. Together with Kerry, these two counties have combined to deny us a few All-Irelands in the modern era. Over the lifetime of my weekly piece, it seems they continued to spook us. This latest defeat, though gallant, is part of that litany of losses. I got to celebrate just one championship title – the 2006 All Ireland under-21 win in Ennis, but had to write about nine other losses: four senior finals (add in the replay if you like), two under-21 and three minor.
And yet there remains hope for the future. That is the single greatest boast we can make: no matter our disappointment and inner torments, we keep coming back for more. The minors of 2008 epitomise those traits of resilience, commitment and love of the old jersey as they maximized just about every aspect of their game. The pain is in knowing we had the title won the first day if only we stayed composed. But of the nine major finals I chronicled on this page, you could say the same for about half them.
Mayo will garner a handful of very good players from this minor team and together with the ’06 under-21 graduates will form the next big push. Their attitude is excellent and their ability not far behind, so I look forward to watching these boys on the big stage in a few years time.
This week marks the final episode for me and so I must say goodbye to my loyal reader(s). I was reflecting recently on the many and varied locations this column was both written and dispatched: Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, a lay-by outside Mullingar, Boston, New York, Lebanon, Kosovo, Dublin, Ballina, the back seat of the car heading for Belmullet as deadline approached, Dubai, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Singapore, Georgia, London, Portugal, Germany, France, Spain, Newcastle, but mostly the front room of my house here in Roscommon.
The column came out of an idea by Padraig Burns, a former sports editor here in The Mayo News. It was late 1995/early 1996 and my morale was low. I had been involved with Mayo seniors in a difficult and disappointing championship campaign in 1995 and when the post of manager came up, with the strong encouragement of the then chairman, I allowed my name go forward. That particular search for a county manager, though it came up with the right candidate, was both devious and dishonest.
When a man does not have the guts to come clean and tell you his real plans, it can lead to a sense of betrayal. The chairman used me as a pawn and no man likes to feel used. It was only the beginning of the deceit. But it’s good to get those experiences relatively young and at no massive cost to your sense or sensibilities.
And so I had the time and inclination to write a column. It started with five hand-written pages of A4 that had to be faxed each Tuesday afternoon to Westport. There it would be tidied up and made fit for public consumption.
I progressed to type-written pages and shortly after that made the leap into the internet age, though most had taken that jump a few years earlier! Declan McGuire was the driving force behind that innovation in my life and soon the newspaper got pretty clean copy from just about any place I sat down to write.
At that stage Stephen O’Grady was at the helm and then Mike Finnerty took over the reins in the sports department and he would be the constant right up to this final column. You need a lot of patience and faith to interface with this work – deadlines are pushed out and some of the greatest excuses ever dreamed up were used. But I am pretty proud of the fact I never missed a single issue that I was contracted for.
The sports department of The Mayo News must be a grand place to work. The staff is young and energetic; there are always lots of ideas flying around the place and the ’phone call from a desperate columnist looking for something to write about is always welcomed.
But the big thing going for the department is the fact they all love sport. All have a massive interest in Mayo GAA and write with passion about the subject. Daniel Carey has reported from just about every townland in the county and beyond, Ed McGreal likewise and of course the standard is set every week by the superb Seán Rice.
Liam Horan was always extremely generous with his time. Even though he worked a busy page for the Irish Independent and other publications during that time, he still found the minutes (and sometimes hours) to offer suggestions, make valid observations and tell me straight if things worked or otherwise.
Both of us had some great laughs discussing matters concerning Mayo football and the Fourth Estate over the years. Would you believe we both stayed on our feet throughout a return flight from New York to Shannon and discussed Mayo football from start to finish? Sad but true.
I’ll miss my e-mailers. They were often the source of the most insightful analysis on a game or topic under consideration, and underlined the great interest, passion and knowledge many Mayo people have for the game.
Of course I got my fill of difficult e-mails too – criticism comes from all quarters. Most of the mails were daft as a brush but the few that hit a chord did so because I deserved the criticism. As a columnist you are advised to ‘keep the writing tight and it will be right’ but sometimes I wandered. Loose lines cause hurt and I forgot the human side of that fact.
Every column has a cycle – you might argue I completed mine a long time ago! But now that Westport has topped the Tidy Towns championship again, I am removing a source of litter from the streets of the town with immediate effect. Putting 1,200 words together each Monday is anything but straightforward, and at a time when I had young children, a busy career and my RTÉ assignments, the pressure could mount very easily. I won’t miss that pressure to get the column started and better still, finished. I suspect my patient and understanding wife will not miss it either.
I will miss talking about and researching the GAA events of the county each week, but I have no regrets about my 13 years involved with The Mayo News, and indeed Mayo football, during that time. Both presented me with fantastic opportunities. My time as Mayo under-21 manager will remain the great highlight – working with Seán Feeney, Seamus Gallagher, Liam McHale and John Cosgrove gave me a smashing education in management, and maybe some day I will return in some guise or other.
And so farewell then and thank you for taking the time out to read the old page over the years. You may rarely have agreed with the opinions on it but hopefully it helped you pass a slow Tuesday. Good luck to the next back page columnist – may he/she never be stuck for an idea and may they reign at a time when Mayo win more than we lose. Up Mayo.