Thursday, February 04, 2010

James Nallen, and the Day Time Stood Still

If you look back on Mayo football over the past twenty-five years, from 1985 to 2010, and chose the zenith, the greatest combination of thrill and triumph and heady potential, James Nallen’s goal against Kerry in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final could very well be it.

The past twenty-five years are stories of what might have been, of course, and defeat snatched from victory. A house of pain, in Keith Duggan’s memorable image. But there have been blessed days too.

People talk about the win over Dublin in 2006, or the march to the Hill before that game. There was the win over Tyrone in 2004, the first victory over Galway in Tuam in 1997 for forty-six years, Padraig Brogan’s bullet goal against Dublin in 1985, the bandaged Willie Joe against Tyrone in 1989 and Jimmy Bourke’s famous goal against Roscommon in the Connacht Final of 1989.

But for a moment of the sublime, where the earthly and mundane are suddenly raised to a new level of wonder, those who saw Nallen’s goal against Kerry on August 11th, 1996, will never forget it.

Neither team started 1996 as favourites for their province. Galway were Connacht Champions, and Kerry were still suffering their long withdrawal from the end of their golden generation, and had spent the five years before 1996 watching Cork win four Munster titles and Clare one. Those were short summers by the lakes of Killarney.

Croke Park wasn’t even full that day, fourteen years ago. A beautiful day, as I recall, with strolling room on the Hill, into which Mayo played in the first half.

After a cagey opening, James Nallen got the ball on his own half-back line, laid it off to James Horan, the flying Kiwi from Ballintubber, and set off running himself. Horan moved it on to McHale, who loped up the pitch before passing to the now flying at full speed Nallen, who buried into the Hill goal, right before our eyes.

Sometimes, in weather like we have now, you can stand on the hills and heather at home, and all you see is grey. And then the sun breaks through, and the clouds clear, and everything is so beautiful you wish you could stop the world so it could look like this for ever, and never change.

That’s what it was like when James Nallen scored against Kerry in 1996, except that instead of taking half an hour for the clouds to clear, they cleared in the time it took Nallen to flash that goal home. Before James Nallen’s goal, Mayo were that county of bums whose last four Championship outings ended in defeat in Tuam against Galway, in the Hyde against Leitrim, humiliation in Croke Park against Cork and a defeat against Donegal the year before that lead to a players’ revolt.

After Nallen’s goal, Mayo were suddenly the county who had pucked the greatest name in football in the gob, and were on their way to the All-Ireland final, when all the world seemed dressed in green and red.

Of course, it would never be as good again. Nallen was the only survivor of John Maughan’s team from nowhere in 1996, and now he too has gone into the night, to join the pantheon of Mayo greats who have never won the All-Ireland medal their talents deserved. McDonald, McHale, Kenny Mortimer, Willie Joe Padden, Joe Corcoran, and now James Nallen.

As a Mayo player James Nallen owned the 6 shirt for over a decade. He was tall and angular, with long limbs that made him good at smothering men in the tackle, and James Nallen was faster than he looked with a deceptive speed in his stride.

He played midfield too, for Crossmolina and for the county, but it’s always at six that he’ll be remembered, watching for the break, collecting it and beginning his advance. Ending, most famously of all, in that earth-shattering goal that gave life to the modern era of Mayo football, the most successful we’ve seen since the black and white Brylcreemed days of Sean Flanagan, Tom Langan and the Flying Doctor.

Happy trails, James Nallen. Thanks for everything.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,