NO-ONE remembers who won the league. Except the Memory Man Jimmy Magee, and he is dead. I can just about remember that Mayo won the league a fortnight ago. The details of the game escape me. I know it was Galway. After that, my mind is a blank.
On Sunday, Mayo faced Roscommon, in Castlebar, in front of their fanatical home support. If the rest of the Mayo team took the field naked, the cameras would still focus on Aidan O’Shea. On Sunday, he complained about every decision and raised his arms and rolled about on the ground. At one point, he blocked a ball and celebrated in front of the crowd as though he had just won Wimbledon. Sad stuff.
A few years ago, he did a photoshoot a week before the All-Ireland final against Tyrone, running through the waves in skimpy speedos holding a mobile phone. The Tyrone boys appreciated that. On Sunday, Roscommon – with a much inferior team – did exactly to Mayo what Tyrone did to them in 2021. George Orwell said that all serious sport was war without the shooting. Not for the first time, Mayo forgot to bring their guns.
In 1995 we won the National League final for the second time in three years. I broke my arm in that final and watched in agony as we capitulated to Tyrone a month later in the Ulster semi-final. They brought war. We didn’t. They won by a point.
At the end of the season, a night was held in a hotel in Limavady to present the league medals. It was a hollow, awkward affair. After the bishop had made his speech, the MC Gerry Donnelly said, “Thank you your eminence, that was (pause) long.” Not even Gerry could mask the stench of anti-climax.
On our way home in the car, we were going over the Roe bridge at The Burnfoot when Fergal McCusker said, “Stop the car.” He got out and fired his medal into the Roe. We fired ours in too. It was the only decent thing to do.
In 1992, we won the county’s second ever National League title, beating Tyrone in Croke Park. Exactly one week later, we met them again in the first round of the championship in Celtic Park. The phoney war was over. The real one was about to begin. The atmosphere in Celtic Park that day was electrifying. Walking into the dressing room, there was dread and fear and grimness. Tyrone had complained after the league final that they had thrown it away. A youthful Mattie McGleenan had gotten the better of Tony Scullion. Peter Canavan had mortally offended Kieran McKeever by scoring a goal off him.
When we were changed and ready to go, Eamonn Coleman stood on the benches and opened the Sunday Independent with a flourish. “Tony, do you want to hear what Mattie McGleenan said about you in the paper?” he roared, flecks of spit coming from his mouth. “Do you want to hear it?” he roared again.
Coleman started reading. McGleenan had told the reporter he thought marking the great man would have been harder. That he regretted not getting a chance to play against him in his prime. That Croke Park had given him the confidence to finish the job today. That – and this was the most shocking thing of all – he was going to finish Tony Scullion’s career in Celtic Park in front of his home crowd. Coleman finished by scrumpling up the paper and firing it at Scullion. “Are you going to take that Tony? Are you finished? Is that all you have? F**king Mattie McGleenan?” he roared at him.
Tony is a mild mannered eccentric with lunatic tendencies. As Coleman spoke, his face transformed, getting redder and redder and angrier and angrier. When Coleman was finished, Tony stood up and punched a hole through the door.
We left the dressing room like soldiers going into some terrible battle. At the throw in, Dermot McNicholl took off and launched himself at Tyrone’s midfield icon Plunkett Donaghy. Donaghy saw him at the last second, side-stepped slightly and McNicholl came off his hip and somersaulted into the air over the top of the midfielders.
What followed was a bitter, heavy assault on Tyrone. We got a goal early on. I went to the far post to palm the ball to the empty net, but Dermot Heaney didn’t need me, the big man driving the ball to the corner of the net, setting the mood. A primeval roar went up. Mattie never touched the ball. Wee Peter was irrelevant. After we had showered, I was sitting beside McCusker and I noticed the newspaper lying under the bench. I picked it up, straightened it out, and opened it at Mattie McGleenan’s interview.
As I read it, I started smiling. It was an honour, McGleenan said, to have played in Croke Park against Tony Scullion, one of the greatest players the GAA has seen. He said having to come up against him again in the championship so soon was the toughest challenge any young player could face and he hoped that he wouldn’t let himself or the team down. As I scanned through it, I realised we had been had. That Scullion had been had. Coleman felt there was something missing in the dressing room. He made up the interview because he knew it would enrage us and put us on a war footing.
We went on to win the All-Ireland in 1993, defeating four All-Ireland champions in the process: Down (1991), Donegal (1992) Dublin (1995) and Cork (1990). The entire year was war. Every ball was a battle. There were no distractions.
Before the final, the legendary Down forward and team of the Millenium number 10 Sean O’Neill, called me over to the sideline and said, “Joe. This is it. It’s war now. It’s about your character. It’s who you are as a man. You’re ready.” I could feel my face settling into a mask of grimness. Waves of emotion surged through me. After that, I don’t remember much. Diving headlong into the battle. The final whistle. The immediate, surprising anti-climax. The deep lifelong feeling of satisfaction. A lifetime of knowing I have the stuff. Of knowing we had the stuff.
Philly McMahon said last week that winning the league final was a pretty achievement, but it does not tell us if Mayo have the stuff. If I were them, I would go down to the Moy river some evening soon and fire those nice new league medals in the deep water. Then get ready for war.