The year Mayo finally got back to the top table

The last time Mayo faced Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final in 1989 it was the beginning of a long and so far unfulfilled quest

Mayo’s Michael Fitzmaurice tackles Tyrone’s John McGoldrick during the 1989 All-Ireland senior football semi-final. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Mayo’s Michael Fitzmaurice tackles Tyrone’s John McGoldrick during the 1989 All-Ireland senior football semi-final. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Fri, Aug 23, 2013, 01:00

A semi-final against Tyrone will resonate for Mayo supporters above a certain age. The counties met at this stage of the 1989 All-Ireland championship and after a claustrophobic encounter Mayo won by 0-12 to 1-6. It qualified the county for a first All-Ireland final in 38 years, bridging a gap going all the way back to the back-to-back All-Irelands of 1950-51.

It also re-established Mayo in the forefront of the game. All told, including 1989, the county has been in six All-Irelands plus a replay during the last 24 years – more than any other county apart from Kerry and Cork.

So, getting to the table has become a frequent occurrence even if winning hands have proved more elusive.

Since 1989 Mayo teams have always been able to field players who have started All-Ireland finals and that continuity has flowed through 1996, ’97, 2004, ’06 and ’12.

Ultimate level
If the experience of 1989 helped develop Mayo into regular contenders, the sharp irony is that it also helped to develop then manager John O’Mahony, who although unable to guide his county to the ultimate level was the man in charge when Connacht’s long drought ended in 1998 with the success of Galway, a feat repeated in 2001 also under his management.

He remembers the mentality that had to be addressed and in his first year in charge, 1988 Mayo gave an unexpectedly strong account of themselves in the All-Ireland semi-final against a Meath side then half way between back-to-back titles. A year later he was looking for progress.

“Back then Mayo had drifted. The county didn’t win a single Connacht title in the 1970s and although a couple followed in the 1980s, there was a culture to the effect that winning the province was the realistic height of ambition for Mayo. We set out to challenge that.

“Tyrone were favourites and had been in an All-Ireland in 1986 when they were seen to put it up to Kerry. In a way, that created an advantage for us. I remember seeing t-shirts among Tyrone supporters with “Unfinished Business” printed on them . . We clearly got the impression that Tyrone were looking ahead to Beecher’s Brook before they’d got over us.”

In an era when the triennial meeting of Ulster and Connacht champions in the All-Ireland semi-finals provided both provinces with their only realistic chance of getting to a final, Tyrone’s experience of having been in a final was seen as a big advantage.

In the event it was a tense match and although Eugene McKenna’s goal at the end of the third quarter put Tyrone 1-6 to 0-6 ahead, the Ulster champions didn’t score again and painstakingly Mayo reeled off six points to win by three.

“We’d great confidence that we had actually succeeded in raising the bar for Mayo and Connacht football and we ground out a result,” says O’Mahony. “We’d a couple of important things going for us: Liam McHale was excellent and we had a really good free taker, Michael Fitzmaurice.

Midfield partnership
“It was quite a confined panel so we ended up playing four midfielders. As well as Liam McHale and Seán Maher, Willie Joe Padden was at centre forward and TJ Kilgallon at centre back – they had been the regular midfield partnership but we had to deploy them in the most effective way for the team.”

McHale was everywhere on the day, catching ball in the middle, covering back and getting up to kick a point. Padden had an iconic afternoon, sustaining a cut on the head that necessitated him retaking the field bloodied but unbowed with his head swaddled in bandage.

The impact on the county was phenomenal. Mayo’s status as one of football’s biggest counties received a new lease of life. At the media night in Castlebar, local TD and minister for the environment Pádraig Flynn said it was all as good as a new factory opening in the county.

“It was huge in the county because we’d long lost the sense of belief that we had the same potential as anyone else to be in All-Irelands,” says O’Mahony. “There was a great feeling of good will. The other thing that happened was that local radio came on air and for the first time there was commentary on MWR (Mid West Radio) of our Connacht final replay against Roscommon . .

“ We travelled to Dublin for the final by air from Knock so there was this snowball effect, which didn’t help low-key preparations. Mayo learned from that in later years and it’s come right around now with a team and manager in James Horan who are comfortable being favourites.”