The two lost decades of Castlebar Mitchels
Perseverance and work at under-age maps a way back to the top. Now all that stands in their way are the All-Ireland champions
Castlebar Mitchels players Gerard McDonagh, Tom King, Neil Douglas and Fergal Durcan celebrate their Mayo SFC victory over Breaffy at MacHale Park, Castlebar, last month. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The feeling in Castlebar appears to be that whereas it’s a long way back to 1993 and the club’s last Connacht final success no-one would have foreseen the town club waiting for the entirety of those 20 years to win another county title.
In those two decades Mayo have been to six fruitless All-Ireland finals but Crossmolina and Ballina have broken the county’s duck and won the club game’s biggest prize.
Castlebar have watched and waited – at times from not even the standpoint of senior status until eight years ago the club won the county intermediate title – and at last, tomorrow they travel to Roscommon to take on local champions St Brigid’s, who also happen to be defending All-Ireland champions.
They make the journey hopefully. But why has it taken so long for a club second on the senior roll of honour – winning the first Mayo title in 1888 – to re-assert itself? Sunday Game pundit Martin Carneyhas had a long involvement with the club and was part of the management of the 2005 intermediate winning team – as was county manager James Horan.
“Why?” he repeats. “I don’t know but maybe one of the secrets of this team is they’re all Castlebar-born-and-bred. In ’93 the team had four or five outsiders whereas this year there’s that close bond between them, which is the cornerstone of any successful team.
Team is organic
“The present team is organic in that sense, born and developed within the precincts of Castlebar and a big majority of them were at school in St Gerard’s. It’s a strong point in their favour because while they’ve played good football there’s been that sort of togetherness and unity of purpose and that’s stood to them on a number of occasions.
“The club has won the under-21 in 2010, ’11 and ’12. In the first two of those years they also lost the county senior final to Ballintubber each time. In fact 10 of Sunday’s team would have lined out in the first final in 2011 – so they have been coming for the past few years.”
He also refers to the disadvantages of the urban or big-town demographic, the presence of other sports and even other GAA clubs.
“There’s competition in the codes. Castlebar Celtic would be very strong in soccer. Take two of the lads playing on Sunday, Tom King plays at the moment with Mervue United but has played professionally in England with Plymouth Argyle. David Joyce, who’s on the panel, was on the books at Spurs. There was also a two-way street here and it was never frowned on if players were also playing soccer.
“Then there’s the likes of Islandeady and Breaffy – which is an anomaly because it’s the same parish as Castelbar – and players can play for either club. It’s not a clear run and there’s been a history of turf wars and players moving between the two.”
If Carney’s instincts are correct and the team are more cohesive than their predecessors of 20 years ago, it’s ironic because it’s under the management of one of those imports the team has progressed.
Pat Holmes has a long and distinguished association with Mayo football, having won an All Star in 1996 and played in two All-Ireland finals as well as managing the county to the 2001 NFL title.
“Pat Holmes – and he deserves a lot of credit for this – has managed to keep them together after the disappointment of last year,” says Carney.
“Altogether they have played, I think, 17 games, 10 league and seven championship, and have only been beaten once – in the opening round of the league by Breaffy.”
The sense of optimism in Castlebar has been fed by the semi-final defeat of regular contenders Corofin, something that was sensed by John Maughan, who managed Mayo to three All-Ireland finals and was another of the 1993 “outsiders”, playing centre back for the club all the way to the All-Ireland defeat by Nemo Rangers.
“It’s an unfortunate statistic,” he says of the club’s long wait, “because Castlebar is a town with a great football tradition and a strong recent history at under-age. For them to have been waiting so long for a county title is a poor reflection.
“For a lot of the championship they struck me as a team who were afraid to lose but now with the title won, they’ve got that monkey off their back and I wasn’t surprised when they beat Corofin, because I know Pat Holmes well and he was very confident about it in the run-up to the match.
“I give them a right chance. They’re going to Hyde Park where Mayo teams have a good record and after winning the league last week there’s huge confidence in the camp.”