EYES ON THE PRIZE Peter Ford is striving to bring an All-Ireland back to Galway. Pic: Sportsfile
The master and his apprentice
THE meeting of the Connacht titans is, as their meetings always have been, the focus of interest throughout the province.
Curiosity is intensified on this occasion by the appointment of the new management structure in Mayo headed up by John O’Mahony who so gloriously led Galway to the peak of power during his seven-year reign as team boss.
On Sunday week the Ballaghaderreen man will be plotting the downfall of the county that afforded him his finest hours. The transition will have been eased by their encounter in the semi-final of the National League a few weeks back. Nevertheless, his return to Galway soil as leader of an attack on the forces he himself once ruled will surely have mixed feelings.
Nothing, of course, certainly no fond memories of his accomplishments with the Tribesmen, will destabilise his desire to guide his native county out of the bind of so many near misses over the past decade . . . even if that entails the conquest of his old charges.
While Galway provided him with the opportunity to prove his managerial ability, his return to his native county does not imply, of course, that he loves Galway less . . . but that he loves Mayo more.
Striving to deny O’Mahony the pleasure of that success is his own county man Peter Ford, who has undertaken the unenviable task of emulating the achievements of his predecessor. His beginning in the post was auspicious with the winning of an all-Ireland u21 title at his first attempt.
Ford’s qualifications stand up well to comparison. As a player, his career glowed as brightly as that of the man he has succeeded, and his term as manager of Sligo is regarded in that county as one of distinction.
A sub on the All-Ireland winning team of 1978, he was full-back on the same team the following year, and captain a year later. In that minor year he was a sub on the UCG team that won the Sigerson Cup for the first time in thirteen years, and full-back when they repeated that success three years later.
He played u21 for Mayo for three years, culminating in all-Ireland success in 1983 with Mayo’s historic win over Derry – the first, and only, All-Ireland title to be won in Northern Ireland – managed by John O’Mahony, the man Ford will be confronting on Sunday week.
Ford also won Connacht medals at senior level and reached an All-Ireland final in 1989, that team also managed by his adversary on Sunday week.
His managerial ambition was sharpened when he joined John Maughan as a selector on the Mayo teams in All-Irelands in 1996 and 1997, but resigned from the management team afterwards for reasons generally believed to have been rooted in a clash of planning strategies.
Ford had hoped for a stint at managing Mayo, when Maughan took a three-year breather, but refused to go forward for interview on the basis that the board was already aware of his qualities, and in the belief that he would in any case have been rejected in favour of Pat Holmes, the man who led Mayo’s senior males to their only national title in well over half a century . . . the league success of 2001.
Sligo provided the Ballinrobe man with the opportunity to employ his talents, and when he left a couple of years later he had managed to raise the morale of the county, leaving behind a distinguished track record.
He was the ideal choice to follow in O’Mahony’s footsteps. And that u21 title in his first few months in office heralded another successful chapter in his career. But Galway people, like all who are used to winning, are difficult to please. And when they lost to Mayo in last year’s provincial decider, censure was never far away.
Only when Galway lost the qualifier to Westmeath a few weeks later, however, were the knives fully drawn. “That result was a watershed in terms of Ford’s relationship with Galway supporters,” says Frank Farragher of the Connacht Tribune.
“Things had not gone right from the beginning of that match. Many supporters arrived late because of traffic congestion; the forwards, especially Padraic Joyce and Michael Meehan, on whom they had placed their hopes, failed to deliver, and Ford took the brunt of their resentment,” said Farragher.
“They expected Galway to recover their old form in the qualifiers following their narrow defeat by Mayo, but they didn’t and the people’s faith in Ford diminished somewhat that day.”
O’Mahony had set the trend. Two All-Ireland senior titles and an u21 was a hard task to follow, and nothing short of another title would slake this thirst for further success among Galway people.
“O’Mahony was special in what they achieved”, says Farragher. “Yet, they became restless with him, too, when his success did not continue. But it has to be said that his was a golden era in Galway football.”
The feeling has never been far from the surface in Galway that Mayo men did not have the qualities to guide their flagship team. ‘If they could not lead their own county to success how could they expect to bring their greatest rivals to the summit,’ was the attitude of many.
Similar suspicion greeted John O’Mahony’s appointment at the end of 1997, and there was widespread expectation that his reign would be short lived. His success that first year was beyond anything Galway supporters could have dreamed, and how they celebrated that first win in over thirty years!
It must be said that the new manager was fortunate to have as opposition in the All-Ireland final a team motivated by similar craving. Kildare’s agony stretched much farther back than their opponents, back to 1928, the first year for which the Sam Maguire Cup was played.
They had been favourites to beat the Tribesmen in 1998, but they were not invincible; they were not Kerry or Meath. They were not proven, and Galway, with a better tradition, exposed that weakness in the second half.
With that win O’Mahony’s name was added to the pantheon of select achievers in football management in this country. Three years later he guided his team through the back door to a further title, the first manager to take the circuitous route. Had Galway met Kerry or Meath in 1998, glory might have been more difficult to come by, and more distant.
After 2001,they were still hollering for more in Galway, but the Mayo man must have been pretty sure that there was little more he could get from a team that had won so much during his term. New blood was needed in the team, and at management level. Thus enters Peter Ford.
His U-21 success was the perfect launch pad. Beating Mayo in the league semi-final was a further feather in his cap. But Mayo, managed by Mickey Moran, turned the tables in the Connacht final, and Galway’s defeat by Westmeath had set tongues wagging.
“Many people were disillusioned following the defeat by Westmeath,” said Farragher. “The league, which has just finished, started badly also for Galway. In their first match they were very poor, a little better against Laois and just when it seemed that Armagh were about to dish out another defeat, Galway managed to turn around the game. That was the change that got them to the league semi-final, and their latest meeting with Mayo.”
Yet, despite the improvement his team has shown in the latter stages of the league, Ford has still to win over the confidence of his critics. He will know that in every game he is measured as much by the standards set by his predecessor as by the performance of the team itself. The duration of the Ballinrobe man’s reign may depend on the extent of Galway’s interest in the coming championship. Defeat by Mayo could further undermine his authority.
It remains to be seen whether John O’Mahony’s return to the helm in Mayo has the seminal value of his appointment in Galway nine years ago. This clash with the Tribesmen coincides with his efforts to win a seat in the General Election as the tentacles of his leadership seek new themes and new followers.
Pearse Stadium on Sunday week will, therefore, not merely be the focus of two teams locked in traditional combat. The managers will also attract the attention of the 30,000 attendance. They have their own targets to meet.