If ever a rags-to-riches story were to be written about any Mayo team, the nuts and bolts of this incredible victory must surely push all the other ones — and there were many — aside.
Even the team’s most loyal supporters, particularly after such a poor showing in the Connacht League, were forced to admit that this season’s crop of minors were well below the average standard for the county, and a first-round defeat in the Connacht championship was the popular opinion.
However, the record books will clearly show that the predicted defeats against Sligo and, later, against Galway, Meath, and Cork, were as reliable as the weatherman’s forecast for a fine, warm 1985 summer season.
Ivan Neill, Western People, September 25, 1985
The Triple Crown, Dennis Taylor, Barry McGuigan, Bruce Springsteen in Slane, U2 in Croke Park: 1985 (except for the weather, apparently) was a good year to be alive in Ireland. It was an even better year to be alive in Mayo — and not just because of the new airport up in Knock.
Tomás O’Grady can scarcely believe that 35 years have passed since he was part of the Mayo team that won the All-Ireland minor football championship. In 1985, the county could scarcely believe it had won the All-Ireland minor football championship.
When Pat Walsh, from Ballintubber, scored a free in the last minute of Connacht’s opening round, to secure Mayo a draw against Sligo in Ballymote, it was easier to believe in the moving statue down in Ballinspittle than it was to believe in Mick Burke’s side ending up in Croke Park.
Nor was expectation heightened seven days later, when Mayo conceded four goals in the first-half of the replay at MacHale Park, to trail by seven points at half time.
And yet, on September 22, 1985 — the day after Michael Spinks beat Larry Holmes to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and a week before Charles Haughey wrecked his yacht, Taurima, off the rocks of Mizen Head — it was Michael Fitzmaurice, born in London, raised in Lacken, son of a Kerryman, captain of Mayo, who hoisted aloft the Tom Markham Cup, receiving the cherished chalice from one of his own. Mick Loftus, from Crossmolina, was attending his first All-Ireland finals as GAA president and here he was, packing the silverware back off to the Plain of the Yews. Great days.
“I was about two weeks late for college, and I never made up that ground, either,” says Tomás O’Grady now.
Geesala sticks in the wing-forward’s mind as the greatest of all the stops on that celebratory tour. The players overnighted in the care of the Munnellys (of High Chaparral fame) and a host of other local families, who supplied the sort of hospitality that only Erris can. “I remember having wild salmon the following day and thinking it was the greatest thing ever,” says O’Grady.
‘Dancing in the Street’, by David Bowie and Mick Jagger, was top of the charts that week, quite apt when you think about the size of the party that was unfolding in Mayo. “The homecoming was a big thing back then, because our senior team hadn’t been getting to any finals. To get to a minor final and win it — ’78 was the one before it — was major. There were big crowds anywhere we stood up,” O’Grady says.
Mayo had won the All-Ireland final like they had the Connacht final, by scoring just six times. They were champions despite conceding eight goals in four games en route to the decider, against Cork.
“There were question marks around our defence all along but, obviously, we didn’t let teams score more than us. But nor did we set the world alight at the other end,” says O’Grady, from his home in Westport.
“We had a good inside line and I can’t explain why we didn’t score more in other games. Maybe it’s a credit to some of the other defences,” says the man who started all five matches and finished all but the first.
“The Meath game was the big one, where all the scores came and where everything fell into place. That was the performance that demonstrated the way we had been encouraged to play, which was to run at teams,” O’Grady says.
Mayo had given a glimpse of their ability when they hit Sligo for 3-10 in the Connacht semi-final replay, the 5-00 on the other side of the board leaving for the most unusual of scorelines, if only slightly more unusual than Mayo’s 0-6 to Galway’s 1-1 in the provincial final at Dr Hyde Park. Eight scores between two bluebloods during an hour’s football.
Against Meath, however, and playing prior to the famous drawn senior semi-final between Mayo and Dublin, at Croke Park, things had clicked much better for Burke’s boys, who ran out 2-12 to 2-8 winners, both of the goals finished by Michael John Mullen.
“I really enjoyed that day, because it was my kind of game, as a wing-forward, to go at players,” O’Grady says. “It was soloing past players and laying off the ball or having a shot; what you want as a young fella. I got two points that day, one with either foot. They’re the things you’d like, because it’s all part of your skills.”
Writing in the Mayo GAA Yearbook later that year, Mick Burke reserved special mention for O’Grady’s influence in the second-half that day, after wind-assisted Meath had closed their arrears from five points to one inside the eight minutes after the restart.
“Grady’s [sic] and Tony Munnelly’s solo runs from deep inside their own half were clear answers to those who would do away with this great individual skill,” wrote the manager. “Those runs inspired the whole team.”
“The final was a lot more controlled,” says O’Grady now. “Space was a biteen tighter.”
He’s not half wrong. Mayo scored 3-3 to Cork’s 0-9 over the course of the hour. The last time a final had been won on six scores was in 1954, when Dublin also hit 3-3, in a victory over Kerry.
Cork, the more fancied of the teams, led 0-7 to 1-0 after 22 minutes, the Mayo goal arriving just four minutes in, again from Michael John Mullen. However, a second goal from Mullen, early in the second-half, gave Mayo a two-point lead, until a 41st-minute point by Ger O’Regan halved the margin.
As Terry Reilly, editor of the Western People, penned afterwards: “We frittered away chances set up through some wonderful fielding by Fitzmaurice, Greg Maher, Declan Bourke, and David Fitzgerald, either through hasty shooting, or due to a mixture of greed and over-elaboration, which would have been most tellingly punished by a sharper side than Cork were on the day.”
O’Grady, scorer of Mayo’s final point of the opening half, couldn’t disagree with Reilly’s assessment.
“I was guilty myself. We got the ball into positions and were encouraged to have a shot at it,” O’Grady says.
“Football now is all about not giving the ball away until you’re nearly within 30 metres of the posts, but we were encouraged to have a go at teams and have a crack at it. We mightn’t have been hitting the target all the time, but maybe it was the naivete in us that we kept at it.”
The wastefulness is not something O’Grady would put down to nerves; anything but, in fact. Serving as the curtain-raiser to the Kerry-Dublin senior final — the second consecutive clash of those counties in the decider — meant a bumper attendance was in Croke Park for the second-half of the minor final. But for O’Grady, with the experience of the semi-final, the surrounds didn’t concern him. He was just happy to be handling a new O’Neill’s ball.
“You’d be used to playing with semi-worn footballs, but a new ball is something else: It feels heavier. You want to get the ball, you want to be on the ball all the time, and you don’t even notice the crowd, not when you’re tuned into the game. You do when it’s all over.
“Obviously, you’re aware it’s there, but it’s not something you sit and marvel at,” O’Grady says.
A goal from a penalty, by Pat Walsh in the 45th minute, was Mayo’s last score of the match and although diving Cork bodies had denied Mullen a hat-trick and Tony Munnelly from finishing the rebound for a fourth Mayo goal, the Green and Red held on for a three-point win. Kerry won the senior final by four to collect their sixth of seven All-Ireland titles in nine seasons.
The four teams arrived to the Burlington Hotel the following day for the traditional post-final banquet. “I remember seeing that Kerry team, which was one of the best-ever, and watching them all having a drink at 12 o’clock in the day. I was saying to myself, ‘Jesus, these are kind of normal people, as well’,” says O’Grady. For him, Mayo’s victory was revenge, in part, for the several minors, himself included, who were also members of the Mayo Vocational Schools team that had lost to Cork earlier that year in the All-Ireland semi-final. Mick Burke had managed that side, as well.
The Tourmakeady native, who sadly passed away last June, was renowned for the unique style with which he ran his teams. “You can only dance with the girls in the hall,” Burke told The Mayo News in 2009, when describing how he had pulled together that year’s minor panel.
“I spent a lot of time with him around that time, because he ended up managing Burrishoole, too,” O’Grady says.
“He was definitely different. There was no rule book with him. Maybe there’s a bit of that missing in football today. He was never shy at making a move or making a change on the day of a game. If I was called over and put in goal, you’d just go and do it; you wouldn’t even think about it. That’s the way it was. He wasn’t afraid to make a decision and he obviously had an eye for where the changes needed to be made, because they generally worked.
“He encouraged you to play football, he picked you for what you were good at, he didn’t try and change you or make you do something you weren’t happy with.”
Burke’s methods bore a rich fruit — and the satisfaction of that ’85 triumph never left him. “We got one chance against that Cork team,” Burke said in 2009. “If we met them again six times, they would have beaten us six times. But they didn’t beat us on the day. So many things went right for us. We knew we just had to be right for one game. For one hour.”
Tomás O’Grady dabbled in inter-county management himself, along with Kevin Beirne, another hero of the ’85 team. Together, they served as selectors to Ray Dempsey when Mayo reached back-to-back All-Ireland minor finals, in 2008 and ’09, losing to Tyrone and Armagh.
That he had been there before was a help. “It’s not always the rule, but if you’ve played at that level, you pick up signs and recognise where the players are coming from, too. These lads have full schedules outside of football, as well; academically, a lot of them might be going for high points and it’s important to recognise that,” O’Grady says.
“It’s okay making demands, but there’s big decisions made in people’s lives at that age: it’s huge.”
Two weeks late he might have been, but O’Grady did eventually make it to Sligo to take up his place at the RTC. Whatever about exams, the football was an unqualified success; in his first year, he was on teams that won Freshers and Trench Cup championships, bringing to three the number of All-Ireland titles the young man from Burrishoole had won within a matter of months.
O’Grady, however, was one of only a handful of players from that Mayo minor team to ever force their way into the senior set-up. Michael Fitzmaurice and Greg Maher were key cogs when John O’Mahony steered the Green and Red to the 1989 All-Ireland SFC final, Michael John Mullen had featured in some of the early rounds, and O’Grady and Kevin Beirne were on the bench.
“To get into a senior team then, you’d nearly have to be hitting it as they were rebuilding. But that senior team, having gone so close against Dublin, there were no big changes being made and back then there wasn’t a big turnover of players. You could nearly name your senior team for three years in-a-row. There were solid lads in that team, the likes of Noel Durkin, Kevin McStay; established forwards. I only got one or two league games; I didn’t get to play any championship. It was hard to get in there,” O’Grady says.
Not that he was ever fazed. “You’d end up in training marking the likes of John Finn, Frank Noone, Denis Kearney, or Peter Ford; bucks like that. You’d always fancy your chances against them. That’s not being cocky: That’s what you were there to do. You wouldn’t find that beyond you. You’d earn anything you’d get off them, but you’d enjoy the challenge.” That was always O’Grady’s way: To have a go, to have a crack.
- The Mayo team that played in the 1985 All-Ireland MFC final was: John Commins; Kevin Beirne, Enda Gilvarry, Martin Coyle; Declan Burke, David Fitzgerald, Johnny French; Michael Fitzmaurice, Greg Maher; Tony Munnelly, Pat Walsh, Tomás O’Grady; Pat Kirrane, Michael John Mullen, James Gallagher. Sub: Michael Mullaghy (for Munnelly). Also used during the campaign were Tommy McNicholas, Brendan Reilly, John Dempsey, John Loftus, and Pat McCarthy.