PRICELESS The late Joe Staunton from Louisburgh is pictured holding his All-Ireland winner's medal from 1951. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
MAYO’S last All-Ireland title means nothing to those who are trying to emulate it. Seventy years is a world away from contemporary Mayo. It is irrelevant.
The players have long left the stage and for the few followers of that era still around it is a wrinkled, nostalgic memory.
The first time this reporter penned a story about Mayo football, fourteen years had passed since the Sam Maguire was paraded around the streets of Ballina, Castlebar and Westport.
We looked to the following year to write about a new Mayo sparkling in Croke Park. None did. No year passed in the last 56 without a sprig of hope surfacing that a new Langan or Solan, or Staunton was about to emerge.
Only from underage teams, however, have we gleaned what little satisfaction there has been.
So the waiting goes on. As the players of ‘51 passed away, one by one, so, too, has faded the memory of them. Now it’s beginning to feel like it never happened, something we dreamed of long ago, as if we were caught in some kind of time warp.
Only one member of the starting fifteen of 1951 survives to give validation to Mayo’s last great achievement. Living down in the heart of Kerry, Paddy Prendergast still waits for a Mayo team that will turn the spotlight away from his era.
Yet, when Mayo footballers walk on to Croke Park on Saturday, the Mayo of 1951 will mean nothing to them. They won’t look to the accomplishments of Paddy Prendergast or Sean Flanagan for inspiration. They never met them, barely heard of them. And their football bears no relation to their game.
It doesn’t matter that the success of those men is written in stone, and in the stories told how they went about winning that All-Ireland.
Tom Langan of that side was chosen on the team of the century for his inventiveness as a goal scorer.
In his book, broadcaster Michéal O’Hehir recalls Langan’s preparation for facing Meath’s full-back in the All-Ireland final of 1951. The full-forward scored the first of Mayo’s two goals in the 10th minute, and how he crafted that score is now a piece of football folklore.
“Before the Mayo team retired to bed in Barry’s Hotel the night before the match, Liam Hastings told Tom Langan that Paddy O’Brien, the superb Meath full-back, could be beaten on his left side by a sidestep,” wrote O’Hehir.
“Langan went up to his bedroom with Hastings and they actually rehearsed – that’s Eamonn Mongey’s word for it – the goal Tom got the next day.
“It seems Langan rolled up a towel into a ball and got Liam to act as the Meath full-back while Tom charged at him across the bedroom sidestepping and selling dummies during this strange practice session.
“Early in the final the next day Meath got off to a good start with three points, and then ten minutes into the half, Langan got the ball out from the goalmouth and when he turned Paddy O’Brien was facing him.
“Langan swerved left and then right and was past the full-back. He hit a shot from about 20 yards that seemed to be going for the goalkeeper, Kevin Smyth, but curved away into the net at the last moment.”
Liam Hastings, a schools inspector, and a native of Drummin, Westport, was a member of the squad.
Full-backs then and now
HOW the game has changed is conveyed in the evolution of full-back play since those far-off days.
Because the game was founded on catch-and-kick, the basic skills of the men who won Mayo’s last All-Ireland seventy years ago were mainly that . . . catch and kick.
When folk speak of the greatness of players of that era, it is their fielding ability most have in mind. Paddy Prendergast, John McAndrew, Padraic Carney and Eamonn Mongey were first and foremost fine fielders. And before them, Henry Kenny and Patsy Flannelly.
That art is now just one of a variety of skills essential to success. Speed, ball skill, adaptability, agility and resilience are all equally vital in the modern game.
In 1951 Paddy Prendergast was the doyen of full-backs. Followers marvelled at his cat-like springs into the air to win possession. Winning aerial duels was his forte, and backs were bombarded with long ball in those times.
Lee Keegan, who has been manning the position in recent times, exemplifies modern full-back play.
The Westport man will be remembered for his technical competence in tackling, initiating attacks, following up and scoring, things central defenders of bygone days would never dream of.
It’s light years away from 1951.