Seán Rice: Mayo’s long quest for All-Ireland redemption
Since 1951 the county have stumbled through the shifting sands of an unforgiving desert
The Mayo senior football team that won the 1951 All-Ireland senior football title against Meath at Croke Park. Pádraig Carney is five in from the right in the front row. Photograph: The Mayo News
We have walked the desert and wrestled with the mirages. And hope still triumphs. Six and a half decades have passed since 1951, a memory so threadbare now that it, too, seems to have been some sort of illusion.
It was the era of catch and kick, when backs were backs and nothing more, when, as Mayo’s All-Ireland winning halfback Joe Staunton told me, you won possession, kicked the ball and let the forwards to do the rest.
Dublin proved their stumbling block.
In drifting from his full-forward position in that semi-final, Kevin Heffernan had introduced groundbreaking rules to the game – and the purists were not well pleased.
The game ended in a draw and Dublin won the replay. The glow having faded from them, Mayo’s stars bowed out one by one leaving us with fine memories and the players that followed with a record they were unable to emulate.
It would be a further 12 years before a Connacht crown was again to visit Mayo. It came in 1967 at the end of Galway’s triple All-Ireland success, and in an unconventional preview this reporter set tongues wagging when vowing to walk from Pearse Stadium if Mayo lost their Connacht semi-final to the champions.
It is a measure of the depth of the morass into which Mayo football had sunk that few fans could visualise any sort of revival despite the exhaustive reign of the Tribesmen and their lengthy celebrations of a unique treble.
Mayo won easily, beat Leitrim in the final and then lost by six points to Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final, a failure we attributed to the absence of centre-back John Morley who had fallen victim to appendicitis a few weeks earlier.
In their desperation, management did persuade Morley to embark on a rescue mission late in the game, but you could almost feel the sting from the scar of his surgery as the brave young Garda stretched fruitlessly for a ball.
With the rising graph expectation also soared. Mayo, we felt, were at last breaking free from the mental binds of languor and lack of confidence until their potential took a nosedive the following summer when their nemesis across the border reasserted their dominance.
The disappointment was tangible and we in the Connacht Telegraph did not endear ourselves to Mayo fans when our report of the game failed to appear. In fact there was no report.
In bold print across the sports page screamed the words ‘I Refuse’ over a paragraph explaining why.
Needless to remark it had an explosive effect. Criticism shifted from the lack of resolve of the players to the thoughtless treatment by this reporter of guys doing their best.
In fairness, the Mayo of the late sixties was a team of many talents.
Morley, Joe Langan, John Nealon, Ray Prendergast, Johnny Carey and Jinking Joe Corcoran were singularly gifted. Their failure lay in the inability of trainers to knit those skills into a cohesive unit.
Maybe as a psychological spur our censure did have some effect. A year later (1969) they were back at the helm in Connacht and lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final by a point. That season they also won the National League for the 11th time, which was then a record.
In hopeful mood the following summer, Mayo set out to affirm their ascendancy in Connacht, but, mystifyingly, they crashed out in the first round against Roscommon. And for a further 12 years they were back in the abyss, back deep in winter desolation. Twelve years without silverware of any description, each year beginning with renewed expectation and each finishing almost before it had begun.
And then John O’Mahony came along. And, in 1989, for the first time in 38 years Mayo were in an All-Ireland final, which they lost to Cork by three points.
O’Mahony left and, fresh from his conquest with Clare in winning the Munster title, John Maughan came and lifted the gloom somewhat in 1996 guiding Mayo to an All-Ireland final replay against Meath, which they lost by a point.
Expectations reached a crescendo the following year. With colours blazing and real hope that their hour had come at last, we trekked in our thousands to Croke Park believing that Kerry were not in good shape.
Unseasoned hope was no match for the wily Kerrymen, however, as we painfully discovered having invested in Mayo a quality that was at odds with their experience.
And so it continued into 2004 and ’06 finals with predictable results, all the time stumbling in the shifting sands of an unforgiving desert, and with unrealistic dreams that the New Year would somehow be better.
In the wake of their dismissal by Longford from the qualifiers of 2010, James Horan was appointed manager. His credentials a couple of county titles to which he guided Ballintubber.
Within months Horan had pioneered a new Mayo. Bodies have been bulked up, mindsets changed irrevocably. The torch has been passed on again but the Mayo team Stephen Rochford presides over on Sunday are still struggling to bridge an awesome gap.
But it is now a Mayo with a realistic chance.
Until he retired 15 years ago Seán Rice was for 30 years a member of the staff of the Connacht Tribune. He worked previously with the Connaught Telegraph and now writes a weekly GAA column in the Mayo News.