FROM THE ARCHIVES Mayo’s Willie Joe Padden is pictured with the iconic bandage he wore during the 1989 All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Tyrone at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
JOHN O’Mahony led Mayo to an All-Ireland final in 1989, their first in 38 years. The Ballaghaderreen man and John Maughan (1996/7) came closest to bridging the gap before the onset of the James Horan era.
O’Mahony had replaced Liam O’Neill as manager. O’Neill, a Galway man bloodied in the cauldron of Knockmore football, was appointed shortly after Kerry walloped Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1981.
It was a poison chalice. Mayo were in the dumps. Only a miracle worker could haul them from the pits of desolation.
But by 1985 O’Neill had guided them to a Connacht title with victory over Roscommon in the final.
He had introduced his squad to a course of weight training never embarked on before as part of their preparation. Mayo didn’t win again for a couple of years. By then O’Neill had learnt that muscle alone was not the only Mayo flaw.
Discontent grew and the manager retired.
But the toning of Mayo muscle contributed largely to O’Mahony’s success in 1989. The new boss was given well developed bodies; their character was what he now had to work on.
The events of 1989 were to uncover O’Mahony’s budding talent for leadership. Gingerly, he guided Mayo to a replay over Galway in the Connacht semi-final at Tuam, and to an eight-points win in the replay at MacHale Park.
Mayo had a full-forward of some quality in those days. Jimmy Bourke dragged Galway’s full-back Frank Broderick all over the place opening gaps for the likes of midfielder Liam McHale, Noel Durkin and Kevin McStay to thrive.
The modern day all-rounder had not yet come into vogue. Full-backs or corner-backs did not score goals. Half-backs were even loath to abandon their positions for very long.
At centre-back John Finn was outstanding, but it was midfielder Liam McHale who carved out their win. The big man, operating sometimes on the ‘40’, was fouled in the square for the penalty that brought Mayo’s first goal.
And it was the same Ballina Stephenites star who delivered the coup de grace after collecting the ball from a free by T.J. Kilgallon. The fillip from that goal propelled Mayo into the final.
A Connacht title still seemed some distance away when Mayo drew with Roscommon at Castlebar in the final. The manager was young and inexperienced and his team was unexceptional. An aura of earlier success in the province still identified the Rossies as favourites on their home ground.
While Mayo had begun to stir, to emerge from Hyde Park with a Connacht title seemed a bridge too far. But recollection of the excitement and suspense of that replay thirty-three years ago still flutters feverishly around the minds of those who watched.
Mayo were edging in front in the final minutes of a pulsating game. Everyone was on the edge of their seats. With three minutes remaining Roscommon were four points behind.
In those nervy moments Mayo conceded two frees from which Vincent Glennon pointed. With the countdown to the final whistle under way Roscommon were awarded a penalty. Full-forward Tony McManus drilled the spot kick to the net.
A dramatic win for the Rossies was on the cards.
A measure of the composure and poise O’Mahony had instilled in his players was reflected in the urgency of the kick out by goalkeeper Gabriel Irwin. The ball found its way to wing back Michael Collins who somehow got down the field to crash it to the net.
The goal, in injury time, was disallowed by referee Mick Kearins because he had blown for a foul on Collins. The free was pointed by Michael Fitzmaurice and extra-time forced.
Roscommon again took the initiative in extra time and led by three points at the turnover. O’Mahony brought on Anthony Finnerty who broke through for a goal.
And in a finish as dramatic as the ending in normal time, Jimmy Bourke managed to find a way to the net, the ball coming off his knee to the dismay of the Roscommon men. Brian Kilkelly, who had also been called from the bench, got the insurance point.
We left Hyde Park excited about Mayo’s performance, and optimistic about their future. A new dawn had arrived. Coolness and self-possession was a new feature of their play, and they carried that quality into the semi-final against Tyrone.
There, against the northerners, Irwin was again called on to keep Mayo’s challenge alive. The Glenamoy man made two brilliant saves. Peter Ford commanded the square.
TJ Kilgallon was at centre back and rocksteady. Liam McHale lorded it at midfield. Kevin McStay, Jimmy Bourke and Noel Durkin were the stars of the forward line.
Willie Joe Padden was at centre forward and delivering the singular standard to which the county had become accustomed. After a clash of heads the Belmullet man was forced to retire to have the bleeding arrested.
A few minutes later he re-appeared wearing a new design in head dress that drew almost as much attention as Mayo’s three-points win which launched them into the All-Ireland final for the first time in 38 years.
For the following few weeks Mayo sizzled in a hullabaloo of fuss and expectation. No stone was left unturned in a wild search for tickets. Every distant relative of every county board official was sponged for a ticket to the final everyone thought Mayo were going to win.
Croke had never seen such colour. In the breeze Mayo flags fluttered everywhere. A sea of green and red bedecked every stand and terrace.
Mayo lost by three points, but not without producing the same gusto they had brought to all of their games that season. A brilliant goal by Anthony Finnerty sent hearts pumping, and eyes drifting towards the Sam Maguire Cup gleaming seductively on its stand.
In the end Cork’s experience became the decisive factor. Saddened Mayo followers drifted from Croke Park. But there was always next year, they vowed.
Sadly, next year didn’t come. Mayo failed to retain the Connacht championship. The disappointment was immense. Followers had got the smell of Croke Park and became aggrieved about a return to the old ways.
John O’Mahony’s tenure came to an end a short time later. He would have taken a second term if allowed to choose his own selectors. The county board refused him that one request and the manager stepped down.
A few years later O’Mahony led Leitrim to a historic Connacht final win over Mayo who were then managed by Kerry’s former star midfielder Jack O’Shea.
Embarrassed Mayo GAA officials scurried from Hyde Park after that inglorious event.
Is there a lesson there for those sitting down to elect a team manager in the days ahead?
John O’Mahony went on to lead Galway to a brace of All-Ireland titles. And Mayo, by whom he was rejected, are still waiting to scale that same mountain . . . thirty-three years later.