Mayo wary of Galway’s gathering momentum

The experienced All-Ireland champions may be hot favourites to reclaim their Connacht crown – but fortunes can change suddenly when these two counties meet

Galway’s Shane Walsh in action against Sligo’s Neil Ewing during the Connacht semi-final. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Galway’s Shane Walsh in action against Sligo’s Neil Ewing during the Connacht semi-final. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho


An attendance of 31,000 descended upon Tuam when Galway hosted Mayo in the Connacht final of 1999. Derided in the early part of the decade as the sick man of Gaelic football, the western province counties had responded stirringly. First was Mayo’s gallant and cinematically vivid September close-run things against Meath and Kerry in 1996 and 1997.

Then came Galway’s velvet revolution, when they seemed to get better with each passing Sunday to thrillingly win the 1998 All-Ireland championship after a 32-year gap.

The team was backboned by stoics like Kevin Walsh and Ja Fallon and the charge led by Pádraic Joyce and Michael Donnellan, the most prodigiously gifted youngsters on a famous St Jarlath’s school team.

Galway won it all with dash and pointedly expansive football and they were managed by John O’Mahony, the former Mayo player and manager who had proven himself as an alchemist on the sideline. Little wonder that counter space was at a premium in the Sportsman bar that afternoon.

The match is significant because it marked the last great consequential provincial final in the west between the resident landlords of the Connacht game. There was a general consensus that Mayo’s best chance had come and gone and entering the amphitheatre of Tuam stadium wasn’t an easy task at the best of times.

Family silver

Mayo won. They held Galway, the All-Ireland champions, to a single point in the second half. David Nestor, who scored the goal which gave the visitors a surge of belief, spoke of having “an apparition” as he ran towards the ball.

“I’d a funny feeling it was going to hit someone’s hand and pop into my hand. I don’t know whether it was the full back who got the touch but it bounced lovely and I just remember looking at the O’Neill’s logo and hitting it as hard as I could.”

There was nothing of the ambush about Mayo that day. They reeled the All-Ireland champions in slowly and methodically to win by 1-14 to 1-10. The second half contains one of Gaelic football’s obscure moments of genius: a pass from Ciarán McDonald – recently restored to the panel and now loitering in the corner with the ball – played through two converging Galway defenders and whipped into the path of James Nallen as he bore down on goal.

Nothing came of the move so the quality of the pass didn’t register as it might have done.

To parity

James Horan

Flash forward to Tuam last March. Nothing except, perhaps, the odd light bulb had changed in the stadium. But Galway were hosting Down in a league match and defeat would almost certainly consign them to Division Three. The atmosphere was moribund and low -key. On the previous Saturday, Galway had lost to Laois by some 15 points.

Afterwards, some visiting supporters voiced their displeasure. Alan Mulholland acknowledged that the effort hadn’t been good enough. The county board made a statement backing their manager but the Salthill man was in a very lonely place for that week.

Of all the players who lined out for Galway in the middle 1990s, Mulholland was probably the most unlucky not to have been around for the summer of 1998. From 1987-97 he was a leading light on the team. He made his Connacht final debut in 1990, when Galway brought the Mayo bandwagon, ongoing since an historic All-Ireland final appearance the previous September, to a shuddering halt.

That defeat ended John O’Mahony’s period in charge as Mayo manager. A year working in California and general fatigue prompted Mulholland to take a break when O’Mahony drew up his first Galway panel seven seasons later. He thought about returning in the new year but by then, Galway had gone in a different direction.

“So it was an expensive break I took” he told this newspaper shortly after his own appointment as Galway manager.

Mulholland’s managerial qualities were evident during the two years he guided Galway to U-21 All-Ireland success. But on that Sunday in Tuam, nerves were fraught. That drab day proved to be the pivotal point of Galway’s season and you could sense the relief in the stadium as Mulholland’s young team found its voice again at just the right time.

Mulholland looked drawn on the pitch when he spoke to reporters afterwards.

“It was a tough week. But I have a very good wife! And look, we had messages of support too from what I hope was the silent majority.”

On track


Suddenly, the programme was back on track and Mulholland led Galway back to their first Connacht final in six seasons with a convincing and unflashy win against Sligo. The immediate reference point is, of course, last year’s unholy trashing by Mayo in Salthill.

“It was a very bad day,” Mulholland admitted at a recent press event. “You know, okay: I think it was 17 points in the difference. Were we 17 points worse than Mayo? I don’t think so. I like not to think so. . Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. What we learned was that we were maybe codding ourselves a little bit as to where we were; to the effort we were putting in and to what it takes to compete at top level. Could we compete in intercounty football? We can but if you are going to compete against the top teams, it’s gotta be flat out. And that was a major lesson and I think the lads have taken that out of it.”

Cold lesson

Joe Brolly

“We are in the last 12 in the country and that is where we wanted to get to at the start of the year. It is where we got to last year. I suppose you could see this as bonus territory, a shot to nothing: going up to Castlebar to play the All-Ireland finalists of the last two years, going for four Connacht titles in a row in their home ground. So it is going to be difficult to take them on. But there is no pressure on us and we will go up and have a lash on it.”

It is a smart line Mulholland takes, at once removing all pressure from what is a young team, tempering the hopes of Galway supporters and reminding them that come what may, they will have another championship match and most of all subtly placing all pressure and expectation on the home team. It will be enough to make Mayo people queasy.

Into overdrive

Already, the anticipated duel between Galway’s young midfield pairing and the Mayo axis is a key point of Sunday’s fixture. In a recent interview with Newstalk, Mulholland spoke of being liberated by Dublin’s attacking play into giving his team license to express itself. To play the Galway way, in other words. Just four months after that damp day in Tuam, Galway have gathered momentum.

Now, with Galway’s appearance in Castlebar comes the knowledge that these two counties have the habit of tripping one another up. That was what happened in 1999, when Mayo knocked what was the best team in Ireland out of the championship. Tomorrow can only hold faint echoes of that.

But James Horan and Alan Mulholland, more than most folk, know the suddenness with which seasons can turn when Galway and Mayo colours mingle. Each day is a law unto itself.

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