Mayo final rivals united in grief
BILL Shankly's legendary sentiment that football was more important than life and death has never proven more poignant than in the case of tomorrow's Mayo senior football final between Castlebar Mitchels and Ballintubber at McHale Park.
The simple fact is that football of any code -- and the late, great Liverpool boss was talking about soccer -- isn't that important when it comes to the loss of family and friends.
And yet football in its own peculiar way reminds us that the wheel of life keeps turning, no matter what happens. Tomorrow's big game at McHale Park will afford the bereaved families of Ger Feeney, Donal McEllin and Gerry O'Malley a challenging, but tangible way to channel their emotions and remember their loved ones.
All three men, who sadly lost their lives within the last two weeks, were football men to the core. They would have loved to have been at the match and had planned to revel in the occasion, but they were called to the sideline in God's time, not theirs.
Thus, in a sad and unprecedented set of circumstances, death and a series of funerals have overshadowed the build-up to what was originally an eagerly anticipated town versus country clash.
The Ballintubber club, only relatively recently playing senior championship football, is 100-years-old and reached its first county final at this level by defeating Shrule/Glencorrib in the semi-final.
Castlebar Mitchels are celebrating 125 years in existence this year and overcame the 2009 defeated finalists Knockmore to reach the decider for the first time since 1994.
Football people in the county, and especially in the Castlebar and Ballintubber areas, eagerly anticipated the final, particularly as the two competing clubs have such close personal links. And then came the tragic death of former Mayo star Ger Feeney and his great friend and Mitchels stalwart Donal McEllin in a boating accident at Inishbofin last Sunday week. The late Ger was a brother of Mayo county secretary Sean Feeney and father of Mitchels players Alan (captain) and Richie (vice-captain).
Donal was an uncle of Alan and Richie's clubmate and Mayo player Tom Cunniffe. Ger was also the uncle of Ballintubber's captain John Feeney and among his many friends was Mitchels coach Tommy O'Malley, another former Mayo star.
Donal, a great servant to the Mitchels, was instrumental in arranging for a special jersey to be made for his pal Ger, combining the colours of Castlebar and Ballintubber due to the latter's close links with the two clubs.
He never got to wear it, and for Tommy, the deaths of Ger and Donal represented a huge personal loss. Worse was to follow for Tommy and the O'Malley clan, as Tommy's twin brother Gerry collapsed the night before Ger Feeney's funeral.
Sadly, Gerry never regained consciousness and his funeral took place last Tuesday. So, where does a county final fit into that context? Reality dictates that however hard it is, the match goes ahead. There's a county title to be won, and if anything, the occasion will stand as a tribute to the three men.
Alan Feeney, Richie Feeney and Tom Cunniffe showed their determination to carry on for the cause when they helped Castlebar Mitchels defeat Garrymore in a key league game last Saturday.
The result clinched promotion for the Mitchels and the three players mentioned above all played very well for the team. Ballintubber manager James Horan, recently appointed as Mayo team boss in succession to John O'Mahony, summed up the build-up saying: "It's been very low-key.
"During the week of the funerals we wouldn't have had any training, and last Friday we got together as a group to discuss where we were and what we needed to do.
"We just decided to move on from there. It's that simple. Castlebar beat Garrymore in the last round of the league last Saturday and the two Feeneys were the best players on the field. It's that old cliche that life goes on. The game is something for both clubs and for everyone involved to focus on now."
An intriguing contest awaits the large crowd expected at Castlebar. The Mitchels are favourites and nearly all of their team have experienced playing for Mayo at either senior, U-21 or minor level.
County player Barry Moran will carry a big threat to Ballintubber up front, while the Feeney brothers, Cunniffe and former Mayo player Pat Kelly, who won an All-Ireland club medal with St Vincent's in 2008, are of proven quality.
Ballintubber's marquee player is Mayo star Alan Dillon, while Cillian O'Connor, captain of the county minors and an U-21 player for Mayo, is highly rated.
The strength of Ballintubber is their team commitment, work ethic and honesty, not to mention a sweeper system that makes it hard for the opposition to get past them.
Horan describes Ballintubber as a "small rural parish," which it is, but when he says: "We are the simple country lads taking on the town team," it's time for Castlebar to beware.
The Mitchels manager Peter Ford has vast experience of playing and management at county and club level, so he won't be falling for the "simple" line.
Ford is on a mission to bring the county championship to Castlebar for the first time since 1993, while Horan wants to bring his club a historic success before concentrating on the challenge with the Mayo county team.
It promises to be a fascinating contest, and the hope is that the game provides a fitting tribute to the deceased men who can't be there to see it.