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Mayo mourns prince of full-backs

Sport

HIGH ACHIEVER Paddy Prendergast is pictured in action for Mayo against Meath during the 1950 National League Final at Croke Park. Meath’s Jimmy O’Reilly is jumping for the ball with Paddy while Brian Smyth (left) and Peter McDermott (the man with the cap, right) await developments.

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Seán Rice

HENRY KISSINGER once said of Pele's performance that it transcended that of the ordinary star by as much as the star exceeds ordinary performance.
The words of the American statesman could also have been applied to Paddy Prendergast.
As a full-back, Paddy was exceptional. Seventy years after winning his second All-Ireland senior football medal the Mayo man is still regarded as the prince of full-backs.
No one, not of Dublin’s six All-Ireland titles, or of Kerry’s sequence of successes down the decades has the Mayo man had a peer. He was chosen on the team of the century together with Seán Flanagan and Tom Langan, a distinction that has now assumed mythical proportions.
Few living today will have seen Paddy Prendergast play. But there is a picture of him in some football houses that testifies to his distinction. On his back the Number 3 is higher than the crossbar, a mere glimpse of the celebrated athleticism of the Mayo man.
As the decades passed a certain mystique surrounded the full-back. He had become the grand old man of Mayo football. The man who had done it all, and waited for a new Mayo to emulate his feats and those of his colleagues . . . waited and waited in vain.
Paddy died at his home in Tralee at the weekend at the age of 95, the last surviving member of that two-in-row Mayo team.
In his native Ballintubber he first kicked a ball, and cultivated his skills at St Gerald's College, Castlebar. He played midfield with Seán McDermott's in Dublin while training as a garda in the Phoenix Park, and with Dunloe in Donegal, his first base as a garda.
“Those championships were tough,” he once told this reporter. They reached the county final against Gweedore and he remembered passing houses in that village with candles lighting in the windows for their team.
He was at midfield but would not talk of his own performances, not with Dunloe or afterwards with Mayo. But the impression he left was such that he was selected for Donegal in 1947 playing at midfield and winning a Dr McKenna Cup medal.
Rave notices about his prowess soon reached the ears of Mayo County Board officials. And a letter from Liam Hastings, a man he had never heard of, arrived asking him to declare for Mayo and to join the team for trials.
His first outing was in Ballina at the end of 1947. “And getting to Mayo from Donegal was like coming from Outer Mongolia.” He got to Sligo from Dunloe on Friday where he was put up for the night.
The following day he reached Charlestown where a garda colleague arranged for him to be taken to Ballina by hackney.
He was chosen to play at full-back alongside Seán Flanagan and John Forde, and was playing so poorly against Galway that Flanagan blurted out: “What in Christ's name are you doing here?”
Afterwards Flanagan took a foolscap page and a pencil. “I was given a lesson in advance geometry about full-back play which I never forgot,” recalled Paddy.
Their first championship match in 1948 was against Sligo and Paddy Prendergast was not satisfied with his performance. “I felt like going back to Donegal,” he said.
Their performance in general was poor. But they managed to beat Galway in the Connacht final replay after which they went into collective training for the semi-final.
“That was a wonderful time. Collective training welded us into a cohesive unit. It generated great friendships among us and built a sense of team loyalty.
“The training was pretty severe. We were hauled out of bed for early mass, did ten or twelve miles of roadwork and three or four hours training in a field in Ballina.”
Blackboard work was also undertaken and every aspect of play in every position discussed. All of the players joined in those discussions, teased out how they would approach play, offering suggestions to one another which they would put into practice in preparation.
“I knew how far out I could safely pursue play in the knowledge that John Forde would demolish everything on my right side, and that Seán Flanagan had me covered from the left.”
“They were happy days. There was no going out at night except for the occasional film. There was no drinking. We were concentrating on our semi-final against mighty Kerry who were hot favourites to win.”
They beat the kingdom but the final against Cavan ended infamously short when Mayo were on the verge of taking the title.
Paddy rejected any accusations of a deliberate premature call by the referee. “I think the referee got confused; he thought it was a draw at the time, but we were behind by a point.”
The sympathy of many was with Mayo on their loss to Cavan, and there was a great sense of hope that justice would be done the following year after they retained the Connacht title.
Meath spoiled the party, however, beating them in the semi-final, and leaving the team shattered. “We were expected to win that match well, and we were good enough to do it, but nothing went right for our forwards.
“We were devastated. The feeling was far worse than the final defeat the previous year. Going back home was very painful. People had come in their thousands to Croke Park and we had let them down.”
So, 1950 came, and again they retained the Connacht title, and hearts rose again as they outflanked Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final and qualified to meet Louth.
“We were just settling into the game when Bill Kenny, our star centre half-forward, broke his leg and was stretchered from the field. It was a terrible upset. Kenny had been playing a blinder and his loss was immeasurable. But we managed to succeed . . . and the rest is a blur of joy.”
The celebrations went on for months . . . for years perhaps, because Mayo were back again the following year on a similar trail, more potent now, toughened by experience, confident, but never complacent.
“The commitment and motivation was there in abundance. There was a fierce pride in our team. We wanted to do it for our county, our parish, our club.”
They made up for their defeat by Meath in the '49 semi-final, with a resounding victory over them in ‘51 in which Tom Langan starred at full-forward.
Paddy played on until 1955 after which most of that side retired.
And left a long, dark vacuum.
Now he too has gone to join the pantheon of football greats in the sky. And suddenly we feel bereft.
He was married to Irene Winzek and they had three children.
To them we send our deepest sympathies.

 

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