Martin Breheny: Knocking on heaven's door
Martin Breheny reflects on Mayo's attempts at All-Ireland glory as they bid to free themselves from the shackles of 62 years of unwanted history
A COUNTY expects. All across Mayo, there's a feeling that the 62-year wait for an All-Ireland title is about to end. There have, of course, been several false dawns over the years but the general view now holds that the latest attempt to finally plant the green and red flag on football's summit is built on more substantial foundations than ever before.
Since winning their third All-Ireland title in 1951, Mayo have seen the Sam Maguire Cup go to Kerry, Cork, Galway, Dublin, Meath, Louth, Offaly, Cavan, Down, Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh and Derry (in some cases on a multiple basis) so their sense of longing has long since passed the point of desperation.
It has been six long decades, some of which offered real hope, while others were thoroughly miserable. As Mayo fans prepare for what they hope will be liberation Sunday, their sense of anticipation will be heightened by a look back at the journey the county has taken since last winning the All-Ireland title with a 2-8 to 0-9 win over Meath on Sunday, September 23, 1951.
FAMINE AFTER FEAST
After winning the All-Ireland double in 1950-51 and the Connacht four-in-a-row in 1948-49-50-51, Mayo naturally assumed that the riches would continue to accumulate but instead their wealth disappeared before their eyes. They won only one more Connacht title in that decade (1955), but their All-Ireland ambitions were scuppered by Dublin, who beat them in the All-Ireland semi-final replay. The decade ended with a defeat by Leitrim in a Connacht semi-final replay. It was all so different to the glory days of 1950-51 when Sam Maguire spent two winters in the far west.
Not so swinging Sixties
Mayo made a dismal start to the decade, failing to win any championship game in the first four seasons. And when they escaped from that depression, they found that neighbours Galway had produced one of the best teams in the history of Gaelic football. Galway won the All-Ireland three-in-a-row in 1964-65-66, beating Mayo in the first and last year of the treble, while Sligo saw off the green-and-red in between.
In 1966, Mayo could legitimately argue they were the second best team in the country, having run Galway closer than anyone else. Indeed, it took a late point by Liam Sammon to snatch victory for Galway in the Connacht final. A year later, Mayo hammered Galway in the Connacht semi-final and went on to win their first Connacht title for 12 years before being well beaten by Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final.
They were back in Croke Park as
Connacht champions in 1969 but lost by a single point to Kerry, who went on to win the All-Ireland final, leaving Mayo to rue
another lost opportunity. In the space of
four seasons, they had twice lost to the eventual All-Ireland champions by a single point.
The Hungry Seventies
The decade opened on a high when Mayo built on their Connacht championship success of 1969 by winning the National League title. The Johnny Carey-captained side hit Down for four goals in the final, raising hopes that big things lay ahead. Down had most of their 1968 All-Ireland winning side on duty in the League final, but three second-half Mayo goals powered them to a 4-7 to 0-10 win.
However, six weeks later, Roscommon dumped Mayo out of the Connacht championship at the start of the only decade in which they didn't win any provincial title. They did better in the League, reaching the 1971-72-78 finals, but lost all three to Kerry (2) and Dublin.
It was hugely frustrating for Mayo supporters who could not understand why the performances looked so encouraging in spring, only to lose power in summer. Mayo managed only seven wins in the Connacht championship throughout the decade, beating Leitrim four times, Sligo, Roscommon and London once each.
Truly a grim period for Mayo who finished the decade with an eight-point defeat by Roscommon in the 1979 Connacht final. The All Stars awards scheme started in 1971, when Carey became the first Mayoman to be honoured at right corner-back and they had to wait until 1979 for their second award when Joe McGrath was chosen at left full-forward.
A Change for the better
Mayo won 19 championship games in the 1980s, three more than their combined total in the previous two decades. They also won four Connacht titles, one more than their combined total since winning the 1951 All-Ireland final. Best of all, they reached the All-Ireland final for the first time in 38 years after beating Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final. With John O'Mahony at the start of what turned out to be an excellent managerial career, they played well for long periods in the final, but Cork's experience proved crucial on the home run.
Still, it's likely that Mayo would have won if Anthony Finnerty's drive for goal in the second half had found the net rather than whizzing narrowly wide. Mayo had done very well in 1985 too, forcing Dublin to a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Overall, it was a very encouraging decade and with the Kerry and Dublin empires no longer the force of old heading into the 1990s, Mayo seemed as well placed as anybody to claim an All-Ireland title.
Best Decade in Connacht
Since the 1930s
How did Mayo not win the 1996 All-Ireland title? They had Meath in trouble in both the drawn and replayed final but ended up empty-handed after being beaten by a point in the second game. A year later, they were back in the final but ran into Maurice Fitzgerald at his imperious best as Kerry won the All-Ireland for the first time since 1986.
Kerry were the better team in the 1997 final so Mayo could have no complaints, unlike the year before when they were just as good as Meath, only to get squeezed out on the tightest of marginals. They appeared to be in with a great chance again in 1998 but ran into a freshly-minted Galway side, managed by Mayo's very own John O'Mahony. Once again, Mayo had to watch as their neighbours came from nowhere to land the title.
It really was a frustrating time for Mayo. Galway took their first chance when it came along. Mayo dethroned Galway in 1999 but failed to take that form into Croke Park in the semi-final where they lost rather tamely to Cork.
The All-Ireland crown still eluded Mayo but the decade yielded five Connacht titles, the highest haul since they won seven in the 1930s.
Maughan and O'Mahony
in Second Comings
Mayo won their 11th Allianz League title in 2001, beating Galway in the final but then had to watch as their neighbours went on to win the All-Ireland title, via the back door. Mayo had two attempts at All-Ireland glory in 2004 and 2006 but came up well short against Kerry on both occasions. Four different managers took their turn in the latest pursuit of glory. Pat Holmes presided over the League success before later handing over to John Maughan, who led them to the 2004 All-Ireland final in his second term. Mickey Moran was at the helm in 2006 when they again reached the final before he was replaced by John O'Mahony, who returned for his second term. He won one Connacht title (2009) but it was as far as they got as Meath beat them in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Two more All-Ireland final defeats added to the misery stockpile but unlike in 1996-97, Mayo were well beaten in 2004 so there was no question of feeling hard done by.
Three successive Connacht titles for the first time since 1950... two defeats in their last 15 championship games... successive All-Ireland final appearances... a total of 14-81 scored in five championship games this year. That's the impressive record under James Horan as Mayo prepare for their latest attempt at liberation in Croke Park on Sunday. They are doing so with more confidence than at any time since Sean Flanagan led them out in pursuit of the All-Ireland double 62 years ago.