John O’Mahony and Liam McHale recall a remarkable Connacht final
“AND then we headed for Dublin, Tickets, Sandwiches and Hope” is how poet and actor Seamus O’Rourke evocatively recalls Leitrim’s fans on their way to Croke Park in 1994.
It was lovely Leitrim’s greatest day, topping 1927 because this time the All-Ireland semi-final was in HQ and the opposition were the mighty Dubs.
Their manager that year, John O’Mahony, recalls meeting a priest home from the US that evening.
“He said to me that he had taken a photo which he would frame and place on his living room wall. It was a shot of the scoreboard with Leitrim leading Dublin by 0-2 to 0-1. As he put it, ‘Leitrim leading in Croke Park’ and now he had a permanent record of the moment.”
All this because on one fateful July day in Hyde Park, Leitrim had taken a rare scalp — Mayo in a Connacht final. A fully deserved 0-12 to 2-4 victory in front of 27,000 people bringing to an end the two year reign of Jack O’Shea and creating a provincial final upset to rival any.
Context is everything though and while this may well feel like a David and Goliath story, once one delves into the details, it becomes more a tale of a plucky and talented underdog.
Our story begins with O’Mahony’s appointment.
“I had finished with Mayo in 1991 and I suppose I had never envisaged managing outside the county at that point. It wasn’t really until Micko [Dwyer] joined Kildare that the idea of outside managers became something county boards were thinking about.”
O’Mahony got a call from the late Tony McKeown, who was then chairman of the Leitrim county board, gauging whether he would be interested in managing the county’s footballers.
Eugene McGee and Peter McGinty were in the running, so the Ballaghaderreen native asked McKeown to gauge their interest and get back to him. Two days later the job was his.
“What I remember is a squad of players with a huge amount of passion and a willingness to work. I got things up and rolling from there and I’d have to say that winning that Connacht final would rank right up there with anything I achieved in my career.”
By 1994, the Leitrim squad were primed and no one saw it coming, despite them having bridged a 44-year gap by beating Galway in Tuam the previous summer.
“The secret to the football ethos in Leitrim,” revealed John O’Mahony, “is their ability to dust themselves down and go again. In other counties, failure to win a Connacht championship would lead to a squad overhaul, but the pick just wasn’t there in Leitrim.”
Mayo’s full-forward in ’94 was a 30 year-old Liam McHale, who had pondered retirement but had been coaxed back into the championship panel just a few weeks before Mayo hammered Sligo in a Connacht semi-final. Then, like now, the draw had been favourable to the holders.
“I hadn’t played much football that year,” McHale recalls. “I was playing basketball in London and I think I met Jack O’Shea over there at the opening game that year and said I’d be home in three weeks. I only came back into the squad two weeks before the Sligo game.
“To be honest I hadn’t expected to start, I wasn’t in good football shape, decent shape, but not football ready, and all of a sudden I was in at full-forward. Maybe some of the squad were a little surprised by that as well and getting a start in that position after four sessions might have hurt morale.”
The backdrop was an interesting one. John O’Mahony talks of the Mayo supporters’ tremendous generosity in defeat in the Hyde in that final.
In part that may have been down to a weariness brought about by two All-Ireland semi-final disappointments in a row, allied to a poor National League.
“We were going into the doldrums in 94,” says Liam McHale. “We were coming off the back of a 20 point hammering in Croke Park the previous year and Dublin had inflicted another heavy defeat on us there in the league months later. I have to be honest and say, as Mayo teams go, it was an ordinary team.
“But there is no doubt that we expected to win that day. We always expected to beat Leitrim and Sligo, and anything other than that was unacceptable. That’s not being disrespectful. You’re talking about one of the biggest football counties in the country against one of the smallest.”
For McHale, the game itself was about a quick start settling the nerves and a failure to re-launch once the outsiders found their feet. And while he didn’t say it outright, it’s clear that they had underestimated their opponents. Leitrim’s wins over Roscommon and Galway had done little to quell the sense of expectation.
“My memories of the game centre on a really good start where we were 1-1 to 0-0 ahead after ten minutes and then failing to capitalise,” recalls the former All Star.
“But by the end we were struggling and I think they deserved the title to be honest. I can still remember watching Declan D’Arcy and the 1927 captain lifting the Nestor Cup together. Years later, with the dust having settled, I’m delighted for them.”
For John O’Mahony, that all played into his hands nicely. Winning a Connacht championship would transform the county and he remembers the sense of relief mixed in with elation because the wait had been far too long, even for a county of their size.
“We had a group of veterans who had been through the mill in the late 80s and early 90s, and had come close under PJ Carroll. They just seized the opportunity. The likes of George Dugdale, Padraig Kenny, Micky Quinn and Liam Conlon. Then you had a young player like Seamus Quinn who had just come into the squad and ended up as an All Star.”
Croke Park saw some 40,000 Leitrim fans in the green and gold on All-Ireland semi-final day, more than the population of the county. Ex-pats flew in from all over the world for this rare, historic day.
The game passed them by, but the significance lived on.
“Industry was non-existent in the county at the time and emigration was high,” explains John O’Mahony. “Half our team lived in Dublin and we trained as a squad in Kells to meet halfway. That August, though, when we were in the semi-final, Masonite announced that they would set up a new factory in the county.
“I remember meeting the American owners on the week of the Dublin game, and they really emphasised how the unity of purpose among the county supporters and players impressed them.”
The Connacht final win over Mayo had changed everything.
“We met up in Jimmy’s bar in Dromod on the Monday and spent about 14 hours touring the county,” smiles O’Mahony. “The national press were there, the county was on a high, and I don’t think any of us will ever forget those few weeks and months.”
B Heffernan; A McGarry, K Cahill, G Ruane; P Holmes, M Coleman, P Butler; C McManamon, K Staunton (1-0); K O’Neill (0-1, a free), P Fallon (1-0), T Morley; J Conmy, L McHale, K Lydon.
Subs used: J Casey for Morley, R Golding (0-2) for Conmy, C McDonald (0-1) for Lydon.
M McHugh; F Reynolds, S Quinn, J Honeyman; N Moran, D Darcy (0-2, 1f), G Flanagan; P Kieran (0-1, 1f), P Donoghue; M Quinn (0-2), G Dugdale, P Kenny (0-1); A Rooney (0-3, 1f), C McGlynn, L Conlon (0-1).
Subs used: B Breen for Conlon; J Ward for Dugdale.
Referee: M Curley (Galway)