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The rocky road to 1950 glory

Sport

A MOMENT IN TIME Mayo captain Seán Flanagan (centre, left) and Padraig Carney (centre, right) are pictured with the Sam Maguire Cup.

The world was a very different place 70 years ago

Reflections
Seán Rice

IN 1947 lay the genesis of 1950. A letter written three years earlier sketched the road map to Mayo’s defeat of Louth in the All-Ireland final of 1950 . . . 70 years ago this month..
In an ironic reversal of leadership roles that autumn of ‘47 a group of ambitious Mayo footballers appealed to a listless county board to help them lug football out of the depths of gloom into which it had plunged.
It was a plea from the hearts of a band of restive young men, confident of what they could achieve if the board freed itself from the shackles of perceived partiality and nepotism.
“We ask you to put aside petty jealousies and favouritism … to pick a team . . . made up of the best 15 players available. We not only ask you but we demand that you do this and do it here and now.
“If you do, 1948 will be our year. If you don’t, then 1948 will echo the remarks heard from 1940 to 1947: ‘Beaten again. Mayo, God help us.’ ”
The authors of the letter were emboldened by the league performance of their skeletal team which, without subs, had drawn with All-Ireland champions Kerry in Tralee.
So depleted were they that  county board secretary Finn Mongey, the only travelling official, and their car driver Johnny Mulvey were asked to make up the numbers.
The draw was a rebuke of those in charge of football in Mayo, and a demonstration of what might be achieved with leadership and positivity . . . and a bit of hard work.
Their letter was audacious and unprecedented, and it jarred apathetic officials into action. Given the reins, the footballers were almost as good as their word. Were it not for an appalling refereeing decision, the Sam Maguire would have been back in Mayo for the first time in 12 years.
In the economic wilderness of the late forties, primary school education alone prepared the majority of young people in Mayo for life in the big, raw world outside.
The men who penned that letter were the exception. Nurtured in academia, they were confident and motivated, ready to question old shibboleths and outdated systems in a bid to herald a new dawn for Mayo football.
In reaching the All-Ireland final they provided a common focal point for young people, a shared interest in a topic everyone could discuss and understand . . . and try to emulate.
The one-point defeat to Cavan in ‘48 was the launch pad to 1950.
In between, the players had to learn about the pitfalls of complacency, losing the 1949 All-Ireland semi-final to Meath by six points against a background of extravagant expectations.
They had crushed everything in sight through Connacht. In their 7-10 to 0-2 defeat of Sligo in the semi-final, Islandeady’s Peter Solan scored 5-2.
An All-Ireland title was in sight until they met Meath.
The following year (1950) a Connacht final win over Roscommon set them up for a 12-points hammering of Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final and a date in the final with Louth.
And with hopes surging, those who could afford it made their way to Croke Park by whatever means was available. Some cycled long distances to catch a train or a bus.
Some cycled all the way.
Tommy Ainsworth went by car. He and three colleagues, Dick Morrin, Billy Murphy and Herbie Glynn hired a Morris Minor to make the journey. Cars were less sophisticated in those days. The four-speed gearbox and hard suspensions on roads that were not at the cutting edge of design made driving difficult to negotiate.
 There were no ring-roads, or motorways. No N5s or N6s. No M50. Road markings were visible only in the environs of large towns. From Westport you drove through every town en route, through Castlebar, Ballyvary, Swinford, Charlestown and so on.
Longford, Mullingar, Maynooth and Leixlip became familiar names on the map to Croker.
At best the journey took four hours. For Tommy Ainsworth and company, a bit longer and somewhat scarier. Somewhere near Mullingar they had a blow-out. The car careered across the road and collided with an ass and cart driven by a woman.
The woman, who had been sitting on the side of the cart, was thrown to the ground. “We rushed to pick her up, but she pushed us away,” said Tommy who is now 87 and living at the Curragh in Castlebar. “She got up, shook herself down without uttering a word, mounted the cart which was not badly damaged, and drove off as if it was an every-day occurrence.”
Having changed the wheel, the four boys hit for Dublin and Barry’s Hotel, the mecca of Mayo football teams and great social occasions.
Excitement filled the air in Dublin, and around them high up in the old Cusack Stand where they had to stand up it was no place for those with vertigo.  “Even for us looking down on the pitch it was unnerving,” said Tommy.
Their interest in the game was enhanced by the fact that one of the Mayo forwards, Mick Flanagan, was a close friend. The Castlebar Mitchels’ law student was an essential cog in the Mayo forward line, noted for his speed off the mark.
“We were great friends,” said Tommy. “We went to dances and to the cinema together. So anytime Flanagan got possession we reserved for him our loudest yells of encouragement.”
Mick Flanagan scored one of Mayo’s two goals. It was somewhat controversial because of the way he and the ball ended up in the net. “It came about when Tom Langan fisted a ball forward for Flanagan to run onto. The Castlebar man caught the ball on the run and was going so fast he could not stop himself from ending up in the net along with the ball,” said Tommy.
Asked by his buddies afterwards in Castlebar why he didn’t kick the ball into the net, Flanagan – known also for some wild shooting – replied that he was afraid he would send it wide.
It was a disputed score, and crucial to Mayo’s two-points win over the Wee County. They had lost Billy Kenny with a serious leg injury in the first half. As he was leaving the field on a stretcher, the brilliant Claremorris native raised his fist in a gesture of defiance and from it Mayo found a higher plane of thought and perseverance.
Flanagan, once dubbed a ‘fun-loving rascal’ by unrelated team captain Sean Flanagan, and after whom Flanagan Park in Ballinrobe is named, went on to win his second All-Ireland the following year when Mayo avenged their semi-final defeat of ’49, beating Meath by five points.
At the age of 26, the Mitchels’ man, then a solicitor, bowed out of inter-county football after the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin in 1955. And six years later his life was cut short after falling ill to cancer. He was all of 32 years of age.

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