My Dad laughed on the phone the other evening when we discussed what I might say about the historic 1975 clashes between Mayo and Sligo. “You can’t remember too much about that” he said. He recalled that most of his memories were to do with the drawn match in Markievicz Park, where he said he was afraid that us kids would get crushed in the crowd leaving the ground and then with the long tailback on the journey home, where “we were only at Ballisodare by a quarter to seven and the cows still to be milked when we got home”.
He’s right, of course: I don’t remember much of those matches with Sligo in July of that year, apart from a few hazy details like being driven along in the convoy of cars on the way to Sligo or how hot the seats in the car were when we got back to it after the game or the sight of all the black and white flags being waved furiously after the full-time whistle was blown in McHale Park two weeks later and the let-down we all felt at Mayo’s defeat (the fact that it was Sligo’s first provincial title since 1928 didn’t really resonate with us, I think). As to what exactly happened over the two matches, I remember next to nothing and so I’ve had to go digging through the archives again to get some match facts with which to work.
But before I do, it’s worth reminiscing a bit more on those sepia-tinted memories of being taken to games as a kid because, along with the hay and the silage and the bog and milking the cows and all the rest, those matches are the stuff of my childhood. Were I to spend enough time on the psychoanalyst’s couch, they would, no doubt, be pinpointed as the root cause for my current obsession with chronicling the Mayo footballing scene. They are also the reason why, now that I have kids of my own, I’m so keen for them to experience summer match days for themselves, as I try, in the very different world in which we now find ourselves, to give them a taste of what I recall as a very happy memory from childhood.
Matches defined the summer for us back then and we were taken to all kinds of games – club games that took place up the road, under-age games, senior games and, of course, inter-county championship matches. The routine was always the same – load up after the dinner and off we went, with Dad looking after the financial side of things once we arrived at our destination where “one adult and a scatter of kids” was his usual line to the man on the gate.
Dad is, of course, old enough to recall at first hand Mayo winning the All-Ireland: he was, indeed, there in Croke Park to see them beat Meath to claim Sam for the second time in a row in 1951. As he traipsed around to all those matches with this clutch of kids in tow in the Sixties and early Seventies, he probably expected to see the county team punching its weight again on the national stage (in contrast, all I expected to see and hear was the guy shouting “Ices! Ices! Anyone else for the ices?”) but, with memories of Sean Flanagan’s all-conquering team beginning to slip away, there was precious little sign of a new generation of heroes coming together to claim the game’s ultimate prize for the Green and Red.
By the time 1975 came along, we hadn’t won Connacht in six years but, then again, we’d only won it three times since taking Sam back to the Yew County for the final time in 1951. But 1975 did begin as if it might be our year in Connacht, with Galway in visible decline and where a promising league campaign comprising five straight wins saw us qualify for the semi-finals against Meath. Sligo were in that same Division 1B as us and they only managed one win in that campaign – league form was as poor a pointer to championship progress then as it is now.
That league campaign ended badly for us with Meath knocking four goals past us at Croke Park in late April to beat us by all of ten points, 4-6 to 0-8, but a month later we opened our Connacht campaign by scoring four goals ourselves, albeit against more modest opposition in the form of London. Roscommon got by Leitrim to set up a semi-final date with us at Hyde Park on June 16th.
The week before that, Sligo hammered Galway in the other semi-final at Markievicz Park. Really hammered them – by 1-13 to 0-6. Galway, beaten All-Ireland finalists for the previous two years, were a complete shambles, with their ageing stars unable to rise to the challenge of one more campaign. Peter Byrne, writing in The Irish Times, described as “pathetic” the sight of the great Pat Donnellan coming on as a second half sub in a faded no. 23 jersey, noting that “the man, like the jersey, belonged to another era”.
The following Sunday, we huffed and puffed our way to a 1-12 to 1-9 win over the Sheepstealers at Hyde Park. The Rossies had the aid of a strong wind behind them in the first half at the end of which they led by two points, 0-6 to 0-4. We completely dominated the second half but in that period shot an incredible 19 wides (26 over the course of the whole game). Roscommon’s goal came seconds from the end, by which time we had the game well won, though the feeling was that had the injured Dermot Earley (who played despite not being fit) been on his game, the outcome could well have been different.
And so the Connacht final that year was the first provincial decider between Mayo and Sligo since 1928, which was also the only previous time that Sligo had won the Connacht title. That should have been warning enough for us. With Mickey Kearins playing in his fifteenth consecutive Connacht campaign and with a good mix of youth and experience, Sligo were obviously going to be no pushover, though, in those pre-paddypower.com days, we were obviously favourites to book our place against the Munster champions in the All-Ireland semi-final in early August.
The final was held in Markievicz Park on July 6th and it ended in a draw: Sligo 2-10 to Mayo’s 1-13. The Yeatsmen looked to be on course for an historic victory as they led by six points early in second half but we then scored seven points without reply. From then till the end, we traded points and missed chances, with Sligo’s Frank Henry and JP Kean (who had scored our goal from a penalty after only six minutes) missing clear-cut goal chances. Des McGrath also missed two late chances for points for us as, in the sweltering heat, the match finished all square. This was the Mayo team that day:
I Heffernan; J O’Mahony, TJ Farragher, S Reilly; G Feeney (0-1), C Moynihan, M Higgins (0-1, free); F Burns, E Brett; T O’Malley (0-3, two frees), JP Kean (1-0, goal a penalty), E Webb (0-2); W McGee (0-1), S Kilbride, G Farragher (0-3). Sub: D McGrath (0-1) for Brett.
There were two notable points about the match. The first was that we more than held our own at midfield despite the fact that (the now deceased) Richie Bell failed to line out and that his replacement at midfield, Eamonn Brett, lasted only 2 minutes before going off injured. The other was that Sligo’s talisman, Mickey Kearins, was well shackled all day and failed to impose himself meaningfully on the game. Both of these factors are worth noting, as neither obtained in the replay, which helped to turn the tie Sligo’s way.
The replay took place in McHale Park two weeks later, on July 20th. Des McGrath kept his place in midfield instead of Eamonn Brett but otherwise the team was the same as for two weeks previously. We led by nine points to seven at the break but, by then, there were already hints that it might not be our day, as Willie McGee had had a goal controversially disallowed for a square ball and when the same player saw his punched effort come back off the bar on 52 minutes, these feelings were compounded.
By then, Mickey Kearins had started to impose himself on the game, smashing home a penalty early in the second half and then, five minutes after McGee’s missed effort, he broke a high ball from midfield into the path of Des Kerins who slotted home Sligo’s second goal. With John Stenson and Tom Colleary lording it all day at midfield for the Magpies, we couldn’t do enough in the second half – despite a monstrous point from all of 75 yards out from Mick Higgins – to claw our way back in it. Sligo had done enough to snatch a famous victory by just a single point, 2-10 to 0-15, with Mickey Kearins contributing 1-4 to the winners’ total. This was our team that day:
I Heffernan; J O’Mahony, S Reilly, TJ Farragher; G Feeney, C Moynihan, M Higgins (0-2); F Burns, D McGrath (0-3); T O’Malley (0-4), JP Kean (0-1), E Webb (0-2); W McGee (0-1), S Kilbride (0-1), G Farragher (0-1). Subs: J Culkin for O’Mahony, M Higgins for Burns.
Although I was blissfully unaware of the fact as we trudged away from McHale Park that day, that loss to Sligo proved to be the end of the road in more than one sense. Johnno’s short career as a county player ended with that game, where he lasted only 13 minutes before giving way to Johnny Culkin. He would never line out for Mayo in the championship again though, of course, the bulk of his service to the colours still lay ahead of him.
But it was also the end of the road for my Dad’s days of following the fortunes of the county team at first-hand. “Never again” he muttered as we left the ground and, somewhat to our surprise, it turned out that this time he meant it. The following year, I remember being at home listening to the radio with the rain falling like stair-rods as we suffered the ignominy of losing to Leitrim up in Carrick. That year also represented the start of the Rossies’ hegemony in Connacht, which, by the time it had ended, so too had my childhood at home in Mayo.