James Laffey’s new book Will Galway Beat Mayo? chronicles the rivalry between the two counties in the 1960s. The book includes an in-depth interview with the late Joe Corcoran (the last interview Joe gave before his recent death).
The Ardnaree maestro was inexplicably left off the Mayo panel for a prestigious trip to America in 1963, prompting a dispute with the County Board that saw him exiled in 1964, the year Galway won the first of their three-in-a-row. In this extract, Jinkin’ Joe is contemplating a return to the Mayo team…
A week before the All-Ireland Final in 1964, Ardnaree beat Belmullet in the North Mayo Junior Final and Joe Corcoran delivered a virtuoso performance that had the whole county talking. The Connaught Telegraph said Corcoran had been the “star of the show” while the Western People credited the mercurial forward with beating Belmullet on his own.
“What a game this was for the once favoured Mayo intercounty player Joe Corcoran who hewed and sliced considerable portions out of the Belmullet defence when he shot into his stride, weaved and swerved his way around flatfooted defenders and shot with cannon gun velocity. His goal (Ardnaree’s third and his second) in the 48th minute was of a kind often talked about in theory but seldom put into practice.”
At 25, Corcoran was at the peak of his powers but instead of playing in front of 80,000 in Croke Park he was putting on dazzling displays for small crowds in modest venues like St Tiernan’s Park in Crossmolina.
It was a tragedy. Corcoran, the most naturally gifted Mayo footballer of his generation, had somehow only featured in five championship games since his debut as a 19-year-old in 1959. It wasn’t for lack of fitness because Joe took pride in keeping himself in tip-top shape, going so far as to take an early-morning milk run to enhance his conditioning.
“Tom Mullen in Ballina had a milk company and he was stuck for someone to deliver the milk,” Joe recalls. “I said to myself ‘This will be great running in the morning’, so I did the milk run till he got someone else. It was great training because I’d be running from house to house; sprinting, in fact. And I was drinking more milk than ever before! I was as fit as a fiddle.”
Having commenced his working life in Sloane’s Drapers in Ballina, Joe got a job sorting mail in the local post office before taking up a new post with the ESB. He still felt a deep sense of grievance over the American fiasco but as 1964 came to an end his mood softened a little. One man, in particular, was instrumental in persuading Corcoran to change his mind.
“Seán Duffy had me harassed to go back playing for Mayo. I couldn’t go anywhere but he was on to me so eventually I gave in.”
It must have been deeply frustrating for a proud GAA man like Duffy – himself a member of the Mayo County Board – to see the finest talent in his club frozen out of the Mayo team. Corcoran delivered one outstanding performance after another for Ardnaree through the summer and autumn of 1964, and the local newspapers were soon running out of superlatives for Mayo’s exiled genius. There was widespread delight when his return to the county colours was announced in February 1965.
“Joe Corcoran was the greatest of all time,” says Micksey Clarke. “If the rules of today were around then every man that played on him would get a black card or a red card. He was kicked, battered and fouled. He couldn’t stir. People said he was afraid but he was afraid of nothing. He would be a genius today.”
Photo: Will Galway Beat Mayo?
Mayo football was in a curious place in early 1965. The senior team had once again strung together an unbeaten pre-Christmas run in the National League but there was a lingering apathy amongst supporters in the aftermath of the craven defeat to Galway in the Connacht Final. The fact that the Tribesmen had gone on to comfortably defeat Kerry in the All-Ireland Final didn’t seem to matter to most Mayo supporters who were convinced their side was so far behind the new champions it would take years to catch up.
In January, the Connaught Telegraph asked that hoary old question ‘What Is Wrong With Mayo Football?’ and elicited the usual quota of depressing verdicts from its all-male jury. One man believed the players should be out training in the winter moonlight and snow while another claimed they were being over-trained. The coup de grace came from a Ballyhaunis man who said young footballers were now more interested in “dancing and visiting the pub”. The man in question was a publican who failed to see the irony of blaming his own trade for the demise of the Mayo team.
Seán Rice, a young reporter with the Telegraph, captured the morose mood in the county having watched Mayo easily defeat Roscommon in a challenge game in early February.
“There was no glory in it for Mayo… not a single movement that might stir the heart,” he wrote.
An electrifying player like Corcoran was just what Mayo needed to put a little bit of spark back into the senior team. He returned for the first National League fixture of the year, scoring two points as Mayo beat Leitrim by 1-9 to 0-10. The Western People believed the prodigal son was the best player on the field, but was less than impressed with Mayo’s overall display.
“Like John Browne’s body, Mayo goes marching on… but without glory!” wrote the newspaper’s correspondent.
A modicum of glory was restored a fortnight later when Mayo defeated the Ulster champions Cavan in their penultimate National League tie. Corcoran, who was a surprise choice at full-forward, gave his best display yet in a Mayo jersey, scoring seven points in a 1-11 to 1-7 victory.
“The game was a personal triumph for Joe Corcoran,” wrote the Western People. “He adopted a roving commission and used his speed and delightful body swerve to hoodwink the opposition.”
Cavan switched Gabriel Kelly onto Corcoran in the latter stages but it was no good, the Ardnaree maestro was now the master of MacHale Park. Some were surprised at his explosive return to the Mayo team, believing it would take him several months to return to the pitch of inter-county football, but Corcoran was one of the few footballers in those days to maintain the same standard of fitness all year round.
In an era when even the best inter-county footballers tended to winter well, Corcoran was setting exacting standards that were to become a benchmark in the years ahead.
“Fitness was a big part of my game,” he explains. “I trained on my own all the time. I was going up to the park in Ardnaree five nights a week. I’d always train with the ball in the hand, chipping it up and taking frees. I had to be fit because my style of play meant I couldn’t afford to go out on the field having not trained. I needed to be in tip-top shape all the time – otherwise I’d have been killed!”
Mayo’s prize for their six-game unbeaten league run was a tough tie against Leinster champions Meath in Navan for divisional honours. This was the same Meath team that had pushed Galway so close in the All-Ireland semi-final and hopes were not high for a Mayo upset. Yet for 45 minutes, the visitors put it up to the Royal County with goalkeeper John McGuinness saving two penalties and Corcoran leading the Meath rearguard on a merry dance, cheekily sashaying his way past some of the most formidable defenders in the game. Finally, Red Collier had enough.
“You’re coming in here once too often,” he warned Corcoran.
“I’ll be coming back,” replied Joe. “I don’t know where you’ll be but I’ll be back!”
With 15 minutes left, Mayo were leading by 1-8 to 1-6 and Corcoran had five points, including three from play. But a storming finish from the Meath men, which saw them score 1-6 to Mayo’s single point, put paid to the dream of another league title.
There was a silver lining though. Some of the sparkle that had been so glaringly absent during the past year was restored, and in Corcoran, Mayo had a footballer who could certainly stir the heart.
A week later, the Ardnaree man hit 1-7 as Mayo defeated Sligo by 2-10 to 1-9 in the Gael Linn Final in Charlestown. In just three games, he had struck 1-20 and was now the lynchpin of a revitalised Mayo attack. Suddenly supporters began to feel a tad more optimistic about the upcoming Connacht championship.
There might be a bit of glory left in “John Browne’s body” after all.
James Laffey’s new book is available in all local bookshops in Mayo and Galway, as well as at Dubray on Grafton Street in Dublin and online at www.mayobooks.ie.