In the dark old days of the National Leagues before each division (rightly) was seen as a separate competition which their own Final, trophy and the like, the knockout stages went in such a way that whoever qualified from Div. 1 played whatever team came out of the fourth tier. Thus, it went that whoever went through from Div. 2 were slated to take on their equivalent on the third rung of the ladder. With the arrangement alternating year on year. Now read on…
In 1996, that meant Meath – then in the top tier – taking on a young and burgeoning Mayo team at the third last hurdle in Dr Hyde Park. If only we knew then what we know now! Seriously though, that match earned a place in the vaults with yours truly for a few different reasons. (a) It was the first time Sean played both Brendan Reilly and Graham Geraghty in the forward line together, (b) it was the one and only time Tommy Dowd was sent off during his glittering playing career. It was a completely ridiculous decision too. And finally, (c) because it was the first time it properly dawned on the occupant of this seat that Mayo had an admirable penchant for punching above their weight.
Which it would have been at that time. Now though, they are long established as one of the heavyweights in the game. Acknowledgement of such is not only appropriate but necessary given the manner in which they have consistently contended for Sam Maguire over the better part of three decades.
Conversely, however, their agonising quest to win the big one has become one of the great Irish sporting tragedies in recent history. Made all the more gut wrenching by the realisation that, to invoke the spirit of Al Paccino in Any Given Sunday, it’s about inches.
Mind you, rather the patronisingly analyse the plethora of things which have gone against them over the years, perhaps it’s best to focus on how they could extract those few extra inches and get over that line.
To my mind, it may be a case that the most obvious solution(s) are in fact the right ones. Which in this instance meant the best man for the manager’s job finally getting it. That is not in the slightest to detract from those who have guided the green and red over the years.
Rather, just an inclination on my part that Kevin McStay holds the key to getting his kinfolk to the Promised Land. For a few reasons. One, he has had success anywhere he has managed. Two, the quality of backroom team he had assembled on his ticket prior to be appointed to the job.
Including Donie Buckley and Stephen Rochford, both of whom – for a while at least – had also been touted as being part of Colm O’Rourke’s crew here in Meath. What a pity that didn’t turn out to be true. It didn’t take long for what we missed out on to become obvious what we’d missed out on!
Naturally, when a new management team comes in, they may bring in players who have never played at that level previously. Or, as has unfortunately been the case in Meath, experienced campaigners may be cut adrift.
Off the top of my head, Jason Doherty and Robbie Hennelly are the only long serving warriors – other than those who’ve retired – who appear to be no longer involved. Against that, new stars (to this neutral observer anyway) such as Colm Reape, Jack Coyne, Sam Callinan, Jack Kearney and David McBrien have – all in differing ways – given McStay’s men something different.
Moreover, viewed through a different lens, the management team – which also includes McStay’s brother-in-law Liam McHale – have taken some of the county’s established stars.
Nobody does that apply more to than Aidan O’Shea. In my opinion, the Breaffy man is on a par with David Clifford and Brian Fenton in terms of being one of the most naturally gifted and influential footballers in the country.
However, where they differ is that, with the other two, positionally at least, their best spots are more or less set in stone, where exactly to place big Aidan with a view to making best use of his mercurial talents has been one of the great sporting conundrums of the past decade or more. For what it’s worth, this corner once saw him play a Sigerson Cup campaign at centre half back for what used to be called DIT and thought he excelled thence. Now though, it would seem the new Mayo boss has finally cracked the code.
Simply by letting him do whatever he wants. Giving him a free role. Licence to impact play wherever he can. Greatness should never by restrained by instruction. With the unfairly much maligned Advanced Mark in play, it would be counterproductive in the extreme to tie a player of O’Shea’s acumen down to a specific role. Especially when it became plain as the light of day that nobody knew exactly what his best position was.
This season, in contrast, where the opportunity has presented itself, donning the No. 13 jersey, he can stay inside and act as a target man – thereafter having the option to go for his own score or set up those around him. The latter option also comes more into play when he drifts outfield to turn provider of the bullets for Ryan O’Donoghue and the rejuvenated James Carr. Indeed, it must be said that the entire Mayo team look re-invigorated under the new management.
As is always the way when the two old foes meet, to an extent the form book goes out the window between Mayo and Galway. Typically, too, it was a very cagey affair early on. With, predictably, Shane Walsh and Rob Finnerty posting scores for Galway and O’Donoghue, ‘keeper Colm Reape and Carr replying for Mayo. There was then a frantic spell in the lead up to half time as Walsh, the returned midfielder John Maher and full back Sean Kelly all pointed for Padraic Joyce’s team.
Kelly’s effort definitely should have been a goal and the Tribesmen were left feeling even more aggrieved when wing forward Johnny Heaney was, as they saw it, ‘taken out’ by Reape with a goal at his mercy. Not in my book. It was a 50-50 ball and Reape did exactly what you’d expect any defending player to do, halted the attacker and diverted the ball away from danger. Angst felt by the shores of Galway Bay at the the loss of Heaney was then further compounded as Reape, Paddy Durcan and Jordan Flynn kicked Mayo into a 0-08 to 0-05 interval advantage.
Though they had a three point lead half way through, the second half was the ding dong it usually is between these two and, despite the best efforts of the admirable Paul Conroy, along with Walsh and Peter Cooke, the maroon and white could never get to parity and, as if to fit with the narrative of the new Mayo wave, a Reape free and an outstanding solo effort from the brilliant Jack Coyne ensured the first chapter of the McStay era got the best possible ending.
In their own minds – never mind those of their supporters – thoughts will no doubt have rapidly turned to this weekend’s Connacht SFC opener against Roscommon. They will be hoping to avoid a repeat of 1975 when Meath, having sensationally defeated Dublin in the NFL Final, were dumped out of the Leinster SFC seven days later by Louth.
For all that, last Sunday’s league victory deserves acknowledgement as the significant achievement it was. Gut feeling is to think it may well only be a springboard for more.