CONNACHT’S championship interest rests now with Sligo. From those of whom most was expected, least has been achieved. The minnows have taken charge, and the whole country will be hoping that Sligo’s All-Ireland hopes will not have ended with the provincial title. Reflection in Mayo and Galway has already begun. The long-serving members of Mayo’s squad have been asked by John O’Mahony not to determine their county futures for some weeks so that their decisions can be made dispassionately and judiciously.
It cannot be easy for the likes of James Nallen to declare his intentions having been such a rock of consistency throughout eleven years of Mayo inconsistency. While his career remained uncrowned by an All-Ireland title that unfinished business would have been his driving force through the harsh realities of final failure. To return each year with undiminished ebullience, with the freshness of an 18-year old, has been the hallmark of his determination.
He was a member of the side that lost so heartbreakingly to Meath in the All-Ireland final replay of 1996, and centre halfback again on the same side that lost to Kerry the following year. He was young enough to overcome those setbacks, spirited enough to retain that central defensive position throughout most of Mayo’s topsy-turvy experiences over the following years.
On one or two occasions they played him at midfield, but more regularly at centre-half. He has missed only one championship in his eleven-year reign . . . Mayo’s defeat by Sligo at Markievicz Park in 2000. It was Mickey Moran’s chief accomplishment as manager of Sligo.
In every other championship, Nallen has been the one constant for Mayo, experiencing further disappointment in the All-Irelands of 2004 and 2006… and what little bits of glory visited him in between. Last year for the first time he was substituted as the first real signs of a slowdown appeared. This season he has been in and out of the team while John O’Mahony sought to embed a suitable replacement.
Yet the quality of Nallen’s football remains high. In his last outing for Mayo, when he replaced David Brady in the second half of their Qualifier with Cavan the old flair was still evident, the brain ever alert and resolute.
Next spring, he’ll be 34 however, and that will be a factor in whatever decision he comes to over the coming weeks, a decision that may be deferred until the county championship in which his club are defending their crown, is completed.
Whatever way he decides, Nallen owes this county nothing. He, David Brady, David Heaney and Ciaran McDonald have had long and eminent careers. Nallen’s has been more consistent than either of the other three in that he has been a member of more championship teams, serving loyally and calmly without ever drawing attention to himself. He was a team man through and through.
If not on the field of play, Nallen still has something to offer Mayo. New players could benefit from his advice and wisdom. Maybe John O’Mahony will find a place somewhere in his managerial team for a man of his intellectual qualities.