Across the broad Atlantic on the west coast of Ireland, the Mayo football team hit the nadir of their sixty-years and counting wait for a fourth All-Ireland senior football title. For some reason, the defeat to Sligo in 1975 is seen as Mayo’s Guernica – the greatest horror among a long catalog of horrors.
And at thirty-seven years’ remove and in a week when Mayo face Sligo in the Connacht Final once more, it’s reasonable to ask why. Why was that 1975 defeat so much worse than any of the other horrors that happened before or since?
Sligo were no bad team in 1975. Barnes Murphy, an All-Star winner in 1974, was coach and captain at centre-half back, and even in those amateur days Sligo went to the effort of bringing Brian McEniff down from Donegal to take some training sessions. Sligo had form, having dispatched Galway to get to the Connacht Final in the first place. And they had Mickey Kearins, Eamon O’Hara’s one challenger to the title of Greatest Ever Sligo Player. Kearins had a lot of miles on the clock by 1975 and looked it, but he was the one man Mayo feared.
Sligo certainly didn’t fear Mayo. In the week leading to the game, the Irish Press quoted a bullish Barnes Murphy on how glad he was that it was Mayo that Sligo faced in the final, a quote that places what Mayo football was like at the time in context: “You always have an inferiority complex if you come up against Galway while Roscommon are a bit of a hoodoo team for us. But we do not feel that way at all about Mayo. After all, in recent matches, we have beaten them as often as they have beaten us.”
The Connacht Final in Markiewicz Park on July 6, 1975, was a draw, 2-10 to 1-13 on a beautiful day for football. Sligo went into a six point lead which Mayo slowly clawed back in the second half. Each had their chances of winning of it in the last ten minutes, but didn’t take them. A replay was fixed for two weeks later in Castlebar. Sideline 50p, schoolboys 20p.
Which of them left it behind in the drawn game was a matter of perspective. The Western People felt that there was a “primary difference between the counties: Sligo’s self-doubt based on years of inferiority as against Mayo’s utter conviction that, when they put their minds down to it, there is no way Sligo can deny them.”
Barnes Murphy didn’t much care for them apples. On the Saturday before the replay, he provided Mayo with more dressing-room material, again courtesy of the Irish Press: “We know we have the beating of Mayo and indeed we had the winning of the drawn game. Remember we were on top in the opening stages and then that unlucky penalty knocked us out of our stride.”
While the drawn game was a fine game, the replay in Castlebar was just plain dirty. It was scrappy, with a lot of needle and no small amount of off-the-ball exchanges. Mayo’s best line was at half-back, but in midfield there were serious problems.
Mayo named Richie Bell and Frank Burns at midfield for the drawn game. Burns, who also played rugby for Connacht, was a veteran, while Bell was part of a Mayo Under-21 team that won the 1974 All-Ireland and came into the senior squad in the winter of ‘74. But Bell got injured before the drawn game, with his place taken by Charlestown’s Eamon Brett. Brett hurt his shoulder two minutes in the drawn game, and Des McGrath came on then.
Mayo makeshift midfield struggled badly in the drawn game, and had to haul Seán Kilbride back from full-forward to bail water. It was a bridge too far in the replay, where Sligo’s mustachioed hero Johnny Stenson bossed the skies and Mayo, even with Kilbride brought back to help out, couldn’t compete.
When you lose midfield your full-backs will be exposed to shot and shell. Mayo famously hauled John O’Mahony ashore after eleven minutes but the real damage was being done on Johnno’s left.
Mickey Kearins had been quiet in the drawn game but he wrecked havoc in the replay, smashing home a penalty and setting up the second Sligo goal. When the dust cleared, Sligo had won by a point, 2-10 to 0-15.
The Mayo News was phlegmatic in its analysis: “This is a young Mayo team. They have the winning of a number of Connacht titles and possibly an even bigger one. They have the spirit and another year will make a better team of them.”
The Western People was more robust: “A total indifference to warnings about the quality of the full-back line, being too smart by half with full-forward/midfield switches, and the employment of doubtful tactics which robbed the half-forward line of impact, finally culminated in disaster, just as emphatic, in fact, as in the league semi-final against Meath.”
Quite the rant, and there was more to come: “There is no use in selectors dodging the issue by asking where the replacements needed might have come from. It was their job to find them and they didn’t have to cast their net very far. For, and make no mistake about it, there are certainly better players around than at least eight of the men who were on duty or standby last Sunday.”
Unfortunately, the Western didn’t go so far as to name an alternative team, and it’s all in the realm of conjecture now. But on the face of it, it’s hard to understand why that game above all others was seen as such a low-water mark.
Sligo might be poor relations historically in Connacht, but that was a good team they had in the 1970s. They got destroyed by Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, but that Kerry team would munch up and spit out far prouder counties than the Yeatsmen. Cork, for instance. That Sligo team always had a Nestor Cup in them, and it was Mayo’s bad luck to meet them when destiny smiled.
It was also Mayo’s bad luck to suffer that bizarre series of injuries at midfield. Not that Bell playing would necessarily have changed things – he and Stenson both now field the dropping ball in Heavenly pastures, may God be good to both of them – but the makeshift third-string midfield can’t be dismissed as a factor in Mayo’s defeat. JP Kean reflects in Keith Duggan’s magnificent House of Pain that if his shot on goal in the first game had been three inches lower and avoided the crossbar the entire history of Mayo could be different. But of course, it didn’t, it’s not and life is very much like that.
Sometimes it’s not a curse. Sometimes the other guys are just better. Mayo lost to Sligo in 1975 because Sligo were better and wanted it more. Simple as that.