Kings from the West: Remembering when Connacht football ruled the roost
In 2001 province provided different winners for league, Connacht and All-Ireland
Marty McNicholas of Mayo goes past John Whyte and Francie Grehan of Roscommon during the 2001 Connacht final. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
This weekend 20 years ago, the wheels got rolling on an extraordinary year for Connacht football. By the end of the year, the province had provided three different winners for the league, provincial championship and in the first year such a thing was possible, the Sam Maguire.
Throw in also for good measure the 2001 club All-Ireland and even the under-21s had a story to tell despite losing in the final to defending champions Tyrone. No province ever managed such a disparate sweep.
Like today – albeit to a far lesser extent – the season had been disrupted by a fearful disease, foot-and-mouth, which the State was frantically trying to keep out of the country in order to preserve Ireland’s status as FMD-free.
Sporting life was postponed, including GAA fixtures, and the All-Ireland club championships were running a month late. When the finals, displaced from St Patrick’s Day eventually took place, Mayo champions Crossmolina added the All-Ireland title, the first club from the county to do so.
It was the narrowest of margins against Cork Brahmins Nemo Rangers, the most successful club on the roll of honour.
A week later Connacht provided all four semi-finalists in the league: Galway and Mayo topped their divisions, Sligo were runners-up in Division 1B and Roscommon got the last place because Tyrone couldn’t play after a case of FMD was identified in Ardboe.
Mayo were motoring, recalls their then manager Pat Holmes and by the end of the campaign they were one of only two unbeaten teams in the whole competition.
“Before the national league started at all we had won the FBD (Connacht League) and a trip to play in New York in the ‘away final’. We decided to use it as a training camp as well. We headed off for 10 days, five in New York and five in Chicago and came back and into the national league.
“I suppose we got great momentum from that. First game back was against Fermanagh. We just arrived home on the Tuesday from Chicago and played them the following Sunday. John Maughan was their manager at the time. We went up and the 10 days together really stood to us and we won the game comprehensively.
“That started us on a run and we went through the national league undefeated. That was the year of foot-and-mouth and I always remember the footbaths outside the dressingroom and having to take certain precautions. In fairness people did adhere to the guidelines and the only casualty in the campaign was Tyrone.”
In a way the Mayo under-21s were also a casualty. The form team in the country, their championship was meant to conclude at the end of April but with Tyrone in quarantine, other counties involved agreed to defer the championship until the autumn.
Mayo manager Kevin McStay had timed an overseas posting in Lebanon to coincide with the projected end of the campaign. At the time, then head of the Games Administration Committee and future DG, Páraic Duffy said:
“Kevin was particularly good about it. He said that the important thing was that the situation in Tyrone was cleared up. There’s been a high level of sportsmanship and I hope he is able to find some way to get back for the final when it is fixed.”
He did the following October but Tyrone won.
In April, Mayo were closing in on their first league title since 1970. For Holmes the fillip provided by Crossmolina’s success was significant.
“It was Mayo’s first club All-Ireland and even from an intercounty perspective it was a very, very important win. We hadn’t had Crossmolina players for most of the league but it gave the whole county a great lift. We went on to win the league and they were available by then but I genuinely believe that Crossmolina’s win had an impact on the whole county.
“We beat Roscommon in the semi-final, a very close, congested game. We went on to beat Galway in the final by a point from Marty McNicholas. Then in the Connacht final, Roscommon beat us with a late goal and had already beaten Galway. But Galway came back to beat them in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The Connacht championship at that stage was just so, so competitive.”
The plot for the championship thickened when 1998 All-Ireland champions Galway were beaten in the Connacht semi-final by Roscommon. It was the first year of the All-Ireland qualifiers and there was a second chance for everyone. Manager John O’Mahony rebuilt the team’s challenge with some redeployed players and a slowly rebuilding sense of purpose.
For Mayo though the sucker punch of the provincial final when Gerry Lohan scored deep into injury-time left them flattened for their fourth-round qualifier date with the year’s surprise packets, Westmeath.
Already in the first year of the new system it was becoming apparent that for teams who had lost a provincial final, a match against opponents with the momentum of at least two championship wins was an unbalanced contest.
“We’ll always look back with the ‘ifs,’ the ‘buts’ and the ‘what ifs,’” says Holmes, “we hadn’t conceded that injury-time goal to Roscommon. I think we were two points up when it happened. We turned over the ball cheaply and it was in the back of the net.
“We weren’t experienced in turning around after a defeat – like that particularly. Westmeath had momentum.
“Connacht football was in rude health then. Even in the 1990s, when Mayo and Galway were competing for All-Irelands, it was very strong.”