John Maughan sees light at the end of the tunnel for Mayo
TIMES were hard out west through the 1960s and 70s.
With neighbours Galway riding high, Mayo football was in the doldrums and the county went 11 long years – from 1969 to 1980 - without a provincial title.
Five finals came and went but things began to look up in 1981 after Sligo were beaten in the Connacht decider and the JJ Nestor Cup returned to Castlebar amid joyous scenes.
After the win, county captain and future manager John Maughan says a wave of “giddiness” swept through the county and the Mayo faithful descended on Croke Park to cheer on their side against Kerry (who’d won three Sam Maguires on-the-trot) in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The result was a 2-19 to 1-6 hammering, but at least the barren run had ended and by 1985 self-esteem had returned to Mayo football.
The county had beaten Derry to win the All-Ireland U21 crown in 1983 and several players from that team came through to blossom in the senior ranks under emerging manager Liam O’Neill who had arrived from Galway.
After beating Roscommon to regain their provincial title, Mayo headed for the capital again, this time to take on the Dubs.
Maughan recalled: “We went into that semi-final with a very talented team” and there’s no doubt about that.
The Mayo side was packed with household names including midfielders TJ Kilgallon and Willie Joe Padden, Maughan himself, star forward Kevin McStay and corner-back Martin Carney (both of whom became popular pundits on RTÉ).
Even so, few gave Mayo much chance of beating a Dublin outfit that won the Sam Maguire in 1983 and were beaten finalists the following year. But Mayo came within a whisker of pulling off an upset.
“We gave them a great rattle,” said Maughan.
“We had Padraig Brogan, who was an awesome young talent and we put up a very gutsy performance. Big Tom Byrne came on at full-forward and we had a fantastic opportunity at the end but instead of just tapping the ball to Billy Fitzpatrick (aged 43 at the time), who was running in off his shoulder and would definitely have scored the winning point, Tom shovelled it out to Kevin McStay who was surrounded by defenders. It was that close.”
The game ended deadlocked at 1-13 apiece and Mayo’s left half-back Tom Finn left the field with a broken jaw.
“That became the big talking point ahead of the replay,” Maughan recalled.
Forget the old wives tale of 1951, the real curse of Mayo football is that a good performance at Croke Park is followed by a sub-standard one and Dublin were far too good in the replay – they won it 2-12 to 1-7.
“Sean Lowry was dropped, which was another big talking point, and they beat us by eight points,” said Maughan.
“We had a team that could have went on and won titles, no question about that, we had good talented footballers and we felt that team should have won an All-Ireland title.”
Of course there have been plenty more Mayo teams over the last three decades who could have said the same. Maughan feels that losing that semi-final had a knock-on effect because, for him, the experience of getting to the final would have helped condition the side for future tests.
“If we’d won that came against Dublin we would have been into a final and that would have prepared us better for the final of 1989 (a 1-11 to 0-17 loss to Cork),” he said.
“Anthony Finnerty came on in that match and scored a great goal but missed an even better opportunity afterwards – we had Cork rattled in 1989 and I always think that had we got to the final in ’85, it would have stood to us.
“The sorry tales continued into the 1990s and we left a few behind us – the ’96 final in particular – but that’s football for you. You’re not guaranteed anything, I think this is our eighth final and we’ve lost them all.”
Maughan was manager for the 1996 defeat and again in 1997 and 2004. But hope springs eternal and despite the disappointment of those losses and subsequent reverses in 2006, 2012 and 2013, he senses a “lovely air of quiet confidence” in the county this week.
“Coming out of the Dublin-Kerry semi-final I didn’t think Mayo would have much of a chance,” he said.
“But as we get closer to the final there’s a lovely air of quiet confidence around Mayo – there’s no nonsense or no celebratory mood. Unfortunately we get a bit giddy down here before finals, but not this year.
“Our form has been very patchy but the theory down here is that this has been very deliberate and we want to hit our peak performance when it matters most and now all we want is one opportunity to play some glorious football for 70 minutes.
“We have a fully fit panel for the first time this year. The Mayo boys are very mature and experienced, they’ve been to six semi-finals in-a-row and they’re very, very hungry.
“I just feel it might come down to that real desire and hunger and I feel that Mayo should hold the upperhand in that department.”