Seán Moran: history repeating itself out west as contenders clash
Sunday's Connacht tie between Mayo and Galway brings back echoes of 20 years ago
James Horan of Mayo is tackled by Ray Silke of Galway as the two counties meet in May 1998. File photograph: Keith Heneghan/Inpho
It was interesting to see John O’Mahony still in the thick of championship drama at the weekend. The former Mayo and All-Ireland-winning Galway manager is in his second season back with Leitrim, the county he took to a memorable Connacht title in 1994, as a selector with manager Brendan Guckian.
On Sunday the county were on the verge of making history of a less-rosy hue for themselves when being stretched all the way to the dying seconds of extra time in New York.
In the team huddle before the additional 20 minutes were played, O’Mahony can be seen issuing instructions and/or encouragement to a very young team (average age 23), who must have been fearing the worst in the middle of a vibrant Gaelic Park.
They survived, and doubtless the extreme experience will stand to them when they take on champions Roscommon – themselves also glad to escape from the Bronx with a one-point win two years ago – at the end of the month.
Stress comes in different forms and trying to calm everyone down so that they don’t become the first team to get beaten by New York in the championship is certainly one form.
Another, undoubtedly, was the evening 20 years ago when, as Galway manager, O’Mahony waited in a hotel room to conduct a pre-championship meeting with his panel.
A month away from that year’s seismic championship opener against Mayo, that particular evening was the deadline for Jarlath Fallon, one of the county’s – if not the country’s – best footballers, to indicate whether he would be rejoining the panel.
He had been playing rugby with Galwegians and was the subject of some interest from then Connacht coach Warren Gatland.
O’Mahony later recalled that “until he walked through the door, no one knew whether he was coming or not”.
Fallon would go on to play a key role in Galway’s first All-Ireland title since 1966 and at the end of the year was an All Star as well as a Footballer of the Year award winner. But on that night in April 1998, no one was sure what his plans would be for the year.
There are loud echoes of that Mayo-Galway Connacht first round in Castlebar, 20 years ago this month, as the counties line each other up at the same venue next Sunday.
Then, as now, Mayo had come agonisingly close to winning the All-Ireland in the previous two years and had replayed the 1996 final, and Galway were a coming team, having just appointed O’Mahony as manager that season. Both teams had been in the same group of the NFL and had finished joint top, but lost in the quarter-finals to Derry and Offaly, the counties who would contest the final.
Mayo already had a high profile because of their championship exploits and wouldn’t have been heartbroken by departing the league, which didn’t have the modern close association with championship success.
Galway, though, came in, as O’Mahony recalled, under the radar: a good league which had nonetheless ended a little disappointingly.
Both he and Mayo manager John Maughan had built their sides coincidentally on underage teams from 1994, albeit ones that hadn’t won the All-Ireland. Six of Mayo’s under-21s from that year, beaten by Cork, had played in the senior All-Irelands of 1996 and 1997, whereas Galway featured six of the minors, who had lost to Kerry in the final.
There are similarities with this year because both counties have plenty of underage graduates – this time from winning teams – in their line-ups. Mayo won a minor in 2013 and an under-21 three years later, whereas Galway have two under-21s from 2011 and 2013 as well as a couple from the team that lost in the final to Dublin last year.
It was significant in 1998 that Connacht had two counties meeting in such an eagerly awaited and high-profile fixture
If there is a distinction, it relates to championship structure. Galway have actually defeated Mayo in each of the last two years but made no impact on the All-Ireland, whereas their neighbours have soldiered on through the qualifiers to end up with the breadth of a match ticket between them and Dublin in both finals.
This time, Galway aren’t in any way under the radar and their unbeaten run through Division One of the league, followed by a narrow defeat against Dublin, underlines their strengthening credentials.
It was significant in 1998 that Connacht had two counties meeting in such an eagerly awaited and high-profile fixture – one of whom had already demonstrated championship credentials, and the other who would actually crack the glass ceiling a few months later.
It represented agonies of frustration for Mayo that after two years hammering on the door, it was their neighbours who slipped over the threshold that September.
The Castlebar match took place the same day in May that newly crowned league winners Offaly faced the All-Ireland champions of the year before, Meath, in a Leinster first round that in those pre-qualifier days spelled the end of one team by the close of May.
There was some debate about which match should receive top billing. I chose Croke Park, as I believed that the winners were more likely to go on to All-Ireland success than whoever came out on top in Castlebar.
Not for the last time, I was wrong.