FLASHBACK John O’Mahony walks the line as Mayo manager in the late 1980s. Pic: Inpho
THERE will be no Laochra Gael for Joe Lindsay. No 7 o’clock applause for Ballaghadereen’s Tommy Morgan. Two men amongst a collective of many, who, over 30 years ago played for Mayo, and in their playing were heroes to youngsters like me.
In a time before tik tok, back-doors and Super 8’s. In a time when strappings on hamstrings mummified legs, frees were hit exclusively from the ground and every player — no matter how young — looked 42. This ‘break in play’ that has been imposed upon us all has given me pause to reflect on what seemed like a simpler time for Gaelic football.
Simple, certainly, in that you always knew how the season would end with a loss.
Getting to Croke Park and doing well was a win it itself.
The first game I ever remember watching Mayo play in Croke Park was the 1988 All-Ireland semi-final against the defending champions Meath. ‘Nemo reside’ (no-one left behind) was the Roman legion motto. Well, in our house in the mid-to-late eighties it was ‘Nemo reside’ except for the young fella, as my father and three older brothers headed east without me.
No matter, I had my match-day routine honed by then. I remember spending every minute from when the dinner was ate (1.26pm approx) to when ref’ Tommy Sugrue threw in the ball out in the garden, pretending, dreaming rather, that I was Liam McHale, complete with commentary and analysis.
Christ, as I look back now, I could have made it as a footballer if I spent less time commentating and enacting slo-mo reconstructions of dummy solos and more time actually perfecting skills. That August day, like so many other, the roar would come from the house to come inside when the teams emerged from the tunnel.
I would duly oblige, red-faced and breathless. My disappointment of not having made the travelling party undoubtedly subsided by then and the weight of responsibility that came with being the only male member left in my house; this was about the only time an eight year-old would have control over such an essential family organ as the television.
I remember convincing myself I saw my brothers in the crowd as the teams did their pre-match parade around the ground. Then, the game started, and with it, two hours of naïve hope that something magical was about to occur.
I watched this match back recently. Not for the faint of heart. An eerily empty Hill 16 and a wind that would confuse a seasoned sailor, this is unlikely to get the rerun treatment, even if the current sporting hiatus was to extend a decade. Mayo wore red with a green stripe.
John O’Mahony wore blue and looked like he had rushed from the staffroom.
The first 15 minutes was like the opening to Saving Private Ryan; bodies strewn prone across the Croke Park turf. Some big hits. Dr Frank Davey saw more of the early action than the Mayo inside forward line. McHale was doing that thing he sometimes did where he forgot how big he was, and instead handled the ball like a dainty corner forward.
AFTER 20 minutes, Mayo were one point to nil down. Finally, after treating every other free he hit with gallic indifference, Martin Carney slotted one between the sticks and we were off. The game got better, not Mayo necessarily, but, the standard generally. Which was a relief, especially to commentator Ger Canning, who was starting to take the poor fare quite personally.
Mayo drifted to six points down by half-time, mostly due to the languid Brian Stafford and clairvoyant Kevin Foley. The next time my recollections and the reality of what actually collided was when, 13 minutes into the second half with Mayo ten points down, Liam McHale scored a goal that was etched on my brain since.
What I recall as a kid was McHale backing up to his position after scoring, suddenly looking like a giant. The goal itself was a cracker; 21 yards and bottom corner. The build-up had all the horror of Picasso’ Guernica.
After much dithering, Denis Kearney sent in an, ahem, pass, that Canning described in commentary as “an interesting ball’, in the same way you tell your three-year old her picture of a fox is “interesting”. Mayo, now led by a bloodied TJ Kilgallon, dragged themselves back into it, though, not quite a much as I remember.
McHale had a goal disallowed for a square ball. Eugene Lavin pulled a Toni Schumacher and nearly maimed an onrushing Meath attacker. Denis Kearney, inspired by his keeper, went all Stone Cold Steve Austin on another. No hard feelings, though. The game ended with its defining player – the imperious Stafford – knocking over a free from 40 yards.
I’m confident that, as a kid, that loss did not cut half as much as the many bigger ones that followed. This was the last year we, as Mayo supporters, didn’t expect.
It was the last innocent summer.
Everything that followed, from 1989 to now, has been a developing anticipation that has been cruel in its denial. It’s worth remembering where it started. For me at least. You could never say that it was better. Sure, men seemed bigger. Shorts shorter. Legs longer. Tans deeper.
It was just different.
We are lucky that, as life gets paused – we have the tools to go back and help us remember who our heroes were then. Some lived on, immortalized over long glorious summers.
Others disappeared into the night, but in their service were no less worthy.