Sunday 18 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'It's pastures new for a rivalry like no other as West's old firm face into shoot-out for survival'

SFC qualifier focus

Galway’s three-in-a-row heroes before the 1966 league final in Croke Park. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Galway’s three-in-a-row heroes before the 1966 league final in Croke Park. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's a rivalry like no other in football, locked in a battle of enduring intensity and intrigue throughout its 117-year history.

What makes Galway v Mayo different from the rest is the remarkable results pattern. As the latest instalment takes them to a Munster venue for the first time today, there's literally nothing between the counties in 88 championship games.

Galway - 41 wins

Mayo - 41 wins

Draw - 6

No other major rivalry can match that in terms of closeness. Kerry and Cork have met much more often, but the win ratio is running at 2.5 to 1 in favour of the Kingdom.

Dublin and Meath have had 62 championship meetings - 26 behind Galway v Mayo - with the blue column much more prominent. It's 36-19 in Dublin's favour, with eight draws. The Dubs lead Kildare 37-13, with five draws.

There are some great Ulster rivalries too but, in a nine-county province, they don't occur as often as Galway v Mayo. This will be the seventh successive year they have met in the championship and their 21st clash in 25 years.

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And, as if to underline that the rivalry hasn't lost any of its competitiveness, wins stand at ten each from the last 20 games. That's why it would be no surprise to see them draw for the first time since 1992, in which case extra-time will be played.

And if it that didn't separate them, a penalty shoot-out would decide who took the 'Super 8s' slot. Penalties settled their FBD League game last January, with Galway winning 4-2.

Satisfaction Roscommon people will look at this evening's game with a sense of real satisfaction, noting how Connacht's self-proclaimed 'Big Two' are engaging in a survival duel while their team has been booked into the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the past three weeks.

Galway and Mayo have beaten Roscommon much more often than they lost, but it counted for nothing this year as Anthony Cunningham's well-primed outfit won in Castlebar and Pearse Stadium without conceding a goal at either venue.

With Galway and Mayo in different bowls for last Monday's Round 4 draw, there was almost an air of inevitability about what would happen. For while there were various other available permutations, it was as if the gods wanted a Galway-Mayo showdown.

It's quite bizarre that the game had to be taken out of Connacht, but with Dr Hyde Park's capacity not deemed sufficiently high and no willingness among the counties to toss for home advantage, the LIT Gaelic Grounds gets to host the most interesting of the Round 4 qualifiers.

It will be the first time that Galway and Mayo have met in a championship game at a venue outside Connacht since the 1916 provincial semi-final was played in Athlone.

The history of Galway v Mayo is fascinating, from their first meeting in the Connacht final in Claremorris in November 1902, when Mayo won, to last year's Connacht quarter-final, which Galway won.

The rivalry has so many strands that two years ago it became the subject of a superb book, written by James Laffey, Editor of the 'Western People'.

He focused on a specific decade - the 1960s - weaving the football story in with the social changes which were unfolding at the time. The west had been hit very hard by emigration, with over 40,000 people leaving Mayo and Galway between 1950 and 1965.

Yet, as Laffey explains in his book 'Will Galway beat Mayo', something exciting was beginning to happen in the mid-sixties.

"The west suddenly found its voice. At the heart of that reawakening was one of the oldest rivalries in the GAA, a gripping power struggle between neighbours that left everyone asking the same question in the summer of 1966: 'Will Galway beat Mayo?'" he wrote.

They did, winning the Connacht final in Castlebar by a dramatic late point, scored by Liam Sammon deep in stoppage time. Two months later, Galway completed the All-Ireland treble, beating Meath in the final.

That defeat haunted Mayo for a long time, as there was a widely-held view that they were the second best team in the country at the time, denied All-Ireland glory only by being unfortunate enough to repeatedly come up against one of the greatest powers in championship history.

Taking great delight in bursting each other's bubble has always been part of the green-and-red v maroon-and-white saga.

Galway were fancying themselves for the four-in-a-row in 1967, only to suffer a humiliating defeat by Mayo in the Connacht semi-final.

"Befuddled in defence, distressed almost to a despairing degree at midfield, and depending on one forward - John Keenan - to carry the attack, Galway fell with a resounding thud at Pearse Stadium, routed by 3-13 to 1-8 by Mayo," wrote John D Hickey in the Irish Independent.

It was another 31 years before Galway won their next All-Ireland, a period in which Mayo also remained unacquainted with the Sam Maguire Cup.

Mayo's All-Ireland misery extends back to the early 1950s, but has been especially acute since the mid-nineties, a period in which they have lost eight All-Ireland finals.

Galway supporters took great delight in 1998 when, after watching Mayo lose the 1996 and 1997 finals, they enjoyed an out-of-the-blue All-Ireland success.

The fact that Galway were led by John O'Mahony added to the irony, as Mayo had allowed him to walk away from the manager's role in the early 1990s, rather than grant him a level of control that's taken for granted nowadays.

Mayo watched O'Mahony preside over another All-Ireland success with Galway in 2001. Galway haven't even reached an All-Ireland final since then, whereas Mayo have had seven attempts, losing six and drawing one.

Despite coming so close at the very highest level, they have surrendered control in Connacht, losing to Galway in three successive seasons and to Roscommon this year.

It makes this evening's clash utterly fascinating. Mayo haven't lost to Galway in the championship in four successive years since the 1960s, a time when the Tribesmen had their best-ever team.

It's different now. Galway are much improved on what they were when Mayo beat them five times between 2009 and 2015, but they haven't quite figured out the Croke Park conundrum.

That contrasts with Mayo, who have been the only team to consistently challenge Dublin over several years, whereas Galway were well beaten in last year's semi-final.

How could Mayo be so competitive against possibly the best team of all time, yet lose three times in a row to Galway? How could Galway beat Mayo, but make no impression whatsoever on Dublin?

Rivalry It's probably back to the nature of the Galway-Mayo rivalry and the sense that what has gone before counts for nothing when they turn their backs on the rest of the football world to wage private war.

Up to 1950, Mayo held the balance of power, leading Galway 24-14 in championship wins, but there was a dramatic change from there on. By 1970, Mayo's lead was down to four (27-23) and by 1990, Galway had moved ahead (31-29).

Mayo were back in front (34-33) by the turn of the Millennium and were three ahead at the end of 2015 before Galway levelled it up again last year.

Now, at a most unlikely venue for a clash of western giants, one will not only regain the lead, but also eliminate the other from the championship, just as it used to be before the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001.

It will make the success all the sweeter for whichever set of supporters is celebrating on the Ennis Road around 8.35 this evening.

One thing is certain; they will let the others know how they feel - in a good-humoured way of course.

Irish Independent

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