Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Galway v Mayo: Never the Same Game Twice

One of the many knocks on the provincial system is that it’s always the same. People say this like it’s a bad thing. But it’s not. It’s a great thing, the very DNA of the Championship itself.

When Queensland play New South Wales in Rugby League’s shuddering State of Origin games, you don’t hear Queenslanders saying they were sick of playing NSW all the time, and why couldn’t they have a crack at Tasmania for a change. But in the football Championship, the almost-annual clashes are said to be, somehow, “boring.”

As another encounter between Mayo and Galway fast approaches at the end of this week it’s instructive to notice that, whatever else you may say about the rivalry, it has been anything but dull. In the modern era – the qualifier era – Mayo and Galway have played ten times, with five wins each.

Both teams have won twice away, and three times at home. There have been no draws and all ten games have been played in the province, never in the qualifiers a la Cork and Kerry.

But in looking back over those ten games, there is no real pattern. There is no story arc, rising and falling with the development arcs of the respective teams. Each game was played on its own merits, with no relation to form that year or the last time the teams met.

The first Mayo v Galway game of the modern era was in Castlebar in 2002, when Michael Moyles charged from midfield to rifle home a goal into the An Sportlann end in the first minute. Sadly for Mayo, that was as good as it got, as Galway slowly and surely reeled them back in a game memorable only for that goal and some very peculiar betting patterns when the Sunday Game decided to make Man of the Match open to a public vote.

Galway won again in 2003 in Salthill, the first seaside meeting between the teams in 1994, when the match swung on a missed Mayo penalty that was followed up by a goal from the subsequent kickout by Declan Meehan, if memory serves. A six-point swing is nearly always fatal.

In 2004, it looked as though Galway were going to bury Mayo where their bones would never be found as Galway went 1-3 to no-score ahead after ten minutes. Galway then had a penalty at the Albany end to nail the lid on the coffin before people had even finished their post-anthem ice-creams but Michael Donnellan – somehow – either pointed or missed the thing entirely. And then, over the course of the next hour, Mayo did what they weren’t, until that time, particularly noted for doing – they clawed their way all the way back for a win.

Galway had their revenge in 2005, when Peter Ford’s first term in charge saw Galway beat Mayo in the Connacht Final in a robust encounter in Salthill.

Ford’s style sat badly with the aristocracy, and two Connacht titles in three years were not enough to save him. In the light of how football has evolved since, would Galway have been better off had they stuck with Ford? Who knows?

2006 was the year of Mickey Moran and John Morrison, a year like no other in Mayo, with starburst formations in the full-forward line, Ger Brady at centre-half forward, negativity left in builders’ skips and all the rest of it. But the eternally level-headed Ford had Galway put it up to Mayo in the Connacht Final in Castlebar, when it took a last-gasp Conor Mortimer free to win the day.

Galway won two straight then, in 2007 thanks to brace of goals by Cormac Bane on a sweltering day in early, early summer in Salthill, and again in 2008 when a Padraic Joyce-inspired Galway won the Nestor Cup in Castlebar by one point.

Galway fell to Kerry in a quarter-final that year, in an epic game played in monsoon conditions – the rain was so heavy that Jones’ Road itself flooded for a while. There was no shame in it, but there was no silverware either, and that’s the bottom line.

Since then, though, it’s been all Mayo. Mayo beat Galway in the Salthill sunshine in 2009 before having their heads stoved in by another old rival in Croke Park, Meath. That win over Galway was the last Championship win for any team managed by John O’Mahony. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sunday will be the third time Mayo will have played Galway under James Horan. The first was a nail-biting win on a squally wet day in Castlebar; the second a hammering of Galway by Mayo so comprehensive that it’s hard even now to believe that it happened, and we have to wait until the end of this week to see the third encounter’s charms.

That hammering last year served notice to the country that Galway’s line of credit for the All-Irelands of 1998 and 2001 had run out and Galway were now just another team. In Galway, much is made of their inability to win in Croke Park since they beat Meath for their ninth All-Ireland thirteen years ago.

But Galway have only got to Croke Park to lose there five times in the past twelve years. The other seven have seen them dumped out of the Championship in Sligo, Belfast, Navan and, most humiliatingly, twice on home soil. Galway were knocked out of the 2006 Championship when Westmeath beat them in Salthill in the fourth round of the qualifiers, and Wexford beat them in the second round of the qualifiers four years ago this week.

They say that the seeds of an empire’s doom are sown far earlier than its actual fall. Instead of those Croke Park failures, could Galway’s decline be traced back to that Connacht semi-final in 2004, in Castlebar, when Mayo came back from a six-point deficit?

For Mayo people, it would be nice to think so, not least in a week when the rivalry is to resume again. Every Mayo-Galway game is different from the one that went before, and Sunday’s will be different again. Will a new Galway imperium rise in Castlebar, just as it did in 1998? Or will the Mayo backs return Galway’s young tyros to the schoolyard, and her forwards finally click in time for another tilt at the citadel? We’ll have to wait and see.