FROM THE ARCHIVES Former Mayo manager Mickey Moran (right) and his assistant, the late John Morrison, are pictured before the start of the 2006 All-Ireland SFC Final against Kerry. Pic: Sportsfile
WHEN Mayo ran onto Croke Park to warm up for the All-Ireland semi-final of 2006, no overture introduced a main event so dramatically.
First out of the tunnel, Mayo turned to occupy the Railway end where the Dubs had come to claim privilege before every game … and before their idolising thousands on Hill 16.
On this occasion their citadel was occupied when they arrived. Their hurt was palpable. This was where they tuned up mentally, drawing energy from the bellowing hordes on the Hill.
But Mayo refused to leave, deriding any claim of special concessions for any team at headquarters. In Croke Park no-one was special. Out first, they were entitled to choose where to warm up.
Stubbornly, they resisted every attempt to move them to the Canal end. Any such shift could only be construed as capitulation … and a blow for the Dubs before a ball was kicked.
The stand-off had electrified the stands. A crazy kick-about among the forty players ensued, the tension stoked by exultant fans of the ‘interlopers’, and those stunned and enraged in the Dublin colours.
Mayhem reigned. In the confusion the Mayo dietician was grounded by the kick of a ball from a Dublin player, and an irate Dublin official wrestled with Mayo coach John Morrison.
Highwire stuff, but Mayo were not for turning. And when the referee called them for the start of the game Mayo had fired the first symbolic shot in a semi-final the Dubs were clear favourites to win.
For the Mayos among the capacity crowd there was an added sense of mystique to the match: New management had guided the team to the semi-final. And followers were curious.
Mickey Moran and his assistant John Morrison had come to Mayo with a notable pedigree. Their experience in management was richer than any who previously took the reins in Mayo. Time spent with Donegal, Sligo and Derry distinguished their qualifications.
They came full of enthusiasm. Pre-Christmas trials demonstrated their commitment to the task. They scanned the county for talent, Mickey Moran never less than up front in his dealings with the press and officials.
Trial and error brought them through the league with satisfactory results, their win over Kerry in the opening round in Tralee the most notable.
Coach John Morrison was noted for his unconventional training methods. He had folk talking about what he termed the ‘nut’ in which the three full-forwards were all placed in the parallelogram, ready to dash to the wings for the fast delivery.
It seems farcical to recall the three defenders of opposing teams trying to deal with this piece of original attacking play, some of them defending with their backs to the Mayo goal.
It worked until the opposition devised counter measures, and the ‘nut’ became obsolete and was abandoned. It was not the only novel idea Morrison introduced to training, and by all accounts the players were content to row in with his plans.
Still, a certain doubt rippled through the county about Mayo’s championship prospects. Followers found it difficult to adapt to the new style, and the direction in which management was leading the team.
Galway were expected to retain the Connacht title, but Mayo won in style. A dramatic last gasp point by Conor Mortimer edged out the Tribesmen and set Mayo up for a quarter-final against Laois managed by Mick O’Dwyer.
It went to a replay which Mayo won by three points, and guaranteed their advance to that extraordinary pre-match drill with the Dubs in the All-Ireland semi-final.
If, as Moran claimed, it was the players’ decision to take that course of action, it revealed a leadership maturity for which they had not been given credit. They seized the moment showing a latent inner force altogether too rarely unleashed.
It was the inflexible spirit of their resistance in the warm-up that transported them through a nail-biting semi-final, which had the aficionados drooling about the high standard of football not equalled in a decade.
Dublin were held scoreless for the first seventeen minutes while Mayo built up a four-point lead. But when the favourites raced into a seven-points lead and seemed destined for victory Mayo refused to submit as if prompted by their pre-match resistance.
It was Andy Moran’s goal in the 51st minute, from his left foot, that cleared the way for a final push. But it was Ciaran McDonald from the most difficult of angles on the left wing who scored the winning point with his elegant left boot.
In the wake of a splendid performance the chances of beating Kerry in the final excited hope. But amid the euphoria one of their star players urged caution:
“Look, there’s a 50/50 chance we can win the final,” Conor Mortimer told reporters. “There’s no point saying any different, regardless of who we’re playing. We’ll be hoping we don’t lose it as we have in 2004 ‘97 and ‘96.
“None of those Mayo teams wanted to lose either but that happens on the day. God isn’t going to come down and win you an All-Ireland. You have to do it yourself. Things have to go right for you on the day …”
As it turned out, things didn’t go right on the day. Mickey Moran was to learn that Mayo muscle did not match the size of the Kerry biceps. In terms of physical strength we lagged behind other counties.
It has been a feature of Mayo forward line selections that physicality is too often sacrificed on the altar of elegance, diminishing the ability to take on defences and to score goals.
In any case, grumbling commenced almost instantly about Mayo’s poor final performance … exceeding the criticism of much worse failures. And when John Morrison’s tactics were questioned at a meeting of the county board, the coach resigned.
There was criticism about excessive costs, about overnight stay that was not warranted; about club fixtures before important games, and other matters. It was as if Mickey Moran was a luxury they couldn’t afford.
Whether the criticism was staged we will never know. But around the same time rumours of the return of John O’Mahony, whose qualifications exceeded those of Mickey Moran, began to circulate.
The thought of O’Mahony’s return generated new dreams. Once more an All-Ireland looked imminent … and we got ready to grasp another straw. The air reverberated with hope, bizarre dreams, the return of old flaky belief.
John O’Mahony would fix it.
And somewhere amid this new speculation, Mickey Moran became the scapegoat. That Dublin semi-final, a Mayo performance outshining so many others that went before, was now in the past, a hazy memory.
The doubts, the reservations, the speculation came to an abrupt end. They couldn’t get rid of Mickey Moran fast enough.
In a Sligo hotel the short lived reign of the Derry man concluded when he was met by the top brass of the Mayo County Board … and sacked.