Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mayo v Kerry, Down Through the Years

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Kerry and Mayo are both western, coastal counties, with neither one likely to be mistaken for somewhere in the Golden Vale or the Garden of Ireland. Both are ravaged by emigration, both have Gaeltachta, and they even share an obsession with Gaelic football.

But here is the difference – when it comes to football, Kerry win and Mayo lose.

Every country’s folk literature has prince and pauper stories – two boys who look exactly alike but, through accidents of fate, are living completely different lives. In Gaelic football, Kerry are the royal sons, enjoying the spoils of victory. Mayo … well, Mayo are down in the scullery, washing the potatoes.

It’s hard to believe in the light of current events, but the Mayo and Kerry rivalry hasn’t always been one-sided. Kerry faced Mayo as Munster Champions when Mayo won their third and last All-Ireland, in 1951. They drew the first semi-final before Mayo edged past the Kingdom in a 2-4 to 1-5 victory in the replay.

Few on that 1951 team could have thought that Mayo would win just four Nestor Cups in the next thirty years, in 1955, 1967, 1969 and 1981. For the remaining twenty-six years, Mayo couldn’t get out of Connacht.

Mayo played Kerry twice in the four semi-finals that followed those four Connacht titles in those barren thirty years. In 1969, Kerry were reeling from their third-straight defeat at the hands of Down in an All-Ireland Final, a streak of northern dominance that gets Kerry backs up still, nearly fifty years later.

Mayo had a golden generation at that time that was born, to borrow Thomas Gray’s words, to blush unseen. It was the bad luck of Ray Prendergast, Johnny Farragher, Willie McGee, the peerless Jinkin’ Joe Corcoran and more to be in their pomp when Galway had their greatest-ever team. Mayo finally beat Galway in 1967, and had their best chance at an All-Ireland final appearance two years later, when they faced Kerry in the semi-final.

Mayo lost by a point. They had a free to draw, but it sailed wide. Kerry went on to beat Offaly in the All-Ireland Final, while Mayo went into decline. For twelve years Mayo lost to every county in Connacht in one year or another. Some years Mayo were unlucky, and some years they were just plain bad. But Mayo always lost, year after year.

Until Mayo finally broke through in 1981, and met Kerry again in the All-Ireland semi-final. At half-time it was all going to plan as Mayo led 1-6 to 1-5.

But Kerry’s greatest-ever team woke up in the second half, and scored 1-13 without reply. Mayo were buttered up and down Croke Park, scrunched up and put out with the rubbish. Welcome back to the big-time.

Fifteen years later, the teams met again in the first All-Ireland semi-final of 1996. Kerry had won only their second Munster title in the nine years since O’Dwyer’s men finally fell to Father Time, and were managed by one of Dwyer’s great lieutenants, Páidí Ó Sé. The early ‘nineties weren’t good for Mayo either, as every year the team found new ways to get knocked out of the Championship in a more humiliating fashion than the year before.

John Maughan was named the new Mayo manager in 1995. A former county player whose career was cut short by injury, Maughan had managed Clare to a Munster Final win over Kerry four years before. Mayo had beaten Galway on a wet day in Castlebar to win the Nestor Cup, but when the sides met each other in the All-Ireland semi-final, everybody knew who were the aristocrats and who hadn’t a seat in their trousers. And then the ball was thrown in, and the world turned upside-down.

Mayo have had many sweet days in the summers since 1981, but there’s a strong case to be made for that semi-final win over Kerry in 1996 to be the sweetest. It certainly wasn’t expected – there was strolling room on the Hill that day, room to wander down to another barrier, ask the people there if they could believe it either, and then wander back, shaking the head.

In their dreams, Mayo might have thought about scraping by Kerry, somehow. No-one saw a six-point thumping, 2-13 to 1-10, graced by goals by James Nallen (“Nallen has it now … to McHale … back to Nallen ... GOAL! JAMES NALLEN!”, as Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh put it at the time) and the current Mayo manager, who revelled in the great stage of Croke Park during his playing career.

The 1996 Final and replay were what they were, but none of that seemed to matter on the morning of the 1997 Final. Mayo were back in the Final after beating Galway in Tuam for the first time since the 1950s, and feared no man. Someone said later that Mayo must have been the first team to play Kerry in an All-Ireland final and think they just had to turn up. Nobody told Maurice Fitzgerald, and the Kingdom was restored by a man who is a bigger hero in Kerry than even the medal-laden heroes of the seventies and eighties.

Mayo and Kerry have met four times since, with Kerry winning them all. No; with Kerry unleashing Hell on Mayo, great waves of brimstone-filled fiery wrath and destruction, flailing Mayo to ribbons time and again.

But the defeat in 2011 was not like those of 2004, ’05, and ’06. James Horan’s team is being paid the greatest complement that can be paid a team, and they showed signs of that in the first year of Horanism. Mayo are now streetwise, and not to be tangled with.

By contrast, there is an echo of 1997 about Kerry, with their having discovered yet another skinny magician who seems able to command the very elements themselves. Kerry are hungry to make up for the 2011 Final loss to Dublin should Donegal fail to win the other semi-final, while Mayo have long ago gone past hunger to a deep and awful spiritual want. Who will triumph on Sunday? Reader, watch this space.