Monday, March 08, 2021

The Mayo team that was beaten by Fermanagh in Round 4 of the All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers in 2003. For four of the starting players and two of the substitutes used, it marked their last games in a Mayo jersey. Pictures: INPHO

By Anthony Hennigan

It was 18 years ago on Tuesday since the Mayo footballers travelled to Breffni Park to take on Cavan in Division 1B of the National Football League. They were to suffer their heaviest beating of what was a disappointing campaign, one that also saw newly returned manager John Maughan’s team lose home games against Laois and Fermanagh, and by seven points away to Meath.

But it was the eight points trouncing by the Breffni Blues on March 2, 2003 that really seemed to sting the most.

It was Mayo’s second defeat on the trot, having opened the season rather encouragingly with wins over Sligo, in Castlebar, and Down, in Newcastle.

But if the performance that resulted in a one-point defeat to Laois in Flanagan Park, Ballinrobe (remember those days, when MacHale Park held no monopoly over league fixtures) was, in the words of then Western People journalist Denise Horan “disappointing”, then the display against Cavan was, she said, “abysmal”.

“Picking out the negatives of Mayo’s play was easy. Grappling for something positive was an impossible task,” said Horan, sparing nothing in her criticism. But the Ballinrobe native was better qualified than most to pass judgement; by then she herself had won three All-Ireland senior football titles as goalkeeper with the Mayo ladies team. By year’s end she would win her fourth.

“Mayo’s play was disjointed and laboured. They lacked cohesion and, for the most part, played as 15 individuals rather than a single unit,” wrote Horan, adding: “One could generously say that is due to the amount of chopping and changing that has taken place in the team of late, some of it forced by a catalogue of injuries, but at this stage of the year one would expect some kind of game-plan to be manifesting itself and a certain amount of singing from the same hymn sheet to be apparent. It’s not happening.”

And nor did much else happen for the team that year. Not of a good kind at least. Mayo did manage to avoid relegation to Division 2 despite losing more games than they had won, but a four points loss to Galway in that summer’s Connacht final was followed by an immediate exit from the All-Ireland Qualifiers when Fermanagh had their number in Markievicz Park. Beaten twice by Fermanagh in the same year – it’s not every county can ‘boast’ that record.

Fermanagh’s Kieran Gallagher is challenged by David Tiernan as Noel Connelly looks on. during the 2003 championship clash at Markievicz Park. For Tiernan and Connelly, that match was to be their last as members of the Mayo senior football team.

Some will remember the fateful March day in Cavan more than most. For example, Pat Kelly was one of only three Mayo players to score from play, and that despite the Kilmaine man operating from full-back in what was only his fourth appearance in the county jersey. And making his debut was goalkeeper Fintan Ruddy.

“Ruddy rose to the challenge, everyone else flopped,” declared Denise Horan. The Cill Chomain man had been called in as a replacement to Peter Burke who was suffering from a hamstring injury.

“Though Cavan’s goal didn’t materialise until the 66th minute, killing off the game, they would have had at least three more earlier on were it not for Ruddy’s alertness,” reckoned Horan.

Among those introduced off the bench was Alan Dillon, who was still to be handed his first start as a Mayo senior. It was also the debut season of one Andy Moran, who that day had been handed his third consecutive start, and yet ultimately this was a year perhaps more notable for the number of players that got left behind.

No fewer than nine of the top club footballers in the county played their first and last games for Mayo during that 2003 NFL campaign. You’d wonder if as many careers have ever begun and ended in the same season.

Brendan Prendergast will go down as one of the finest footballers Tourmakeady has ever produced; he started Mayo’s first four games that season and was only substituted once – against Cavan. That though was his last game, his Mayo senior career having lasted all of one month, from February 2 to March 2.

Liam Moffatt, now the Mayo GAA chairman, also started the Round 1 game against Sligo but his first league appearance also turned out to be his last league appearance. An All-Ireland Club winner with Crossmolina, Moffatt did manage to retain his panel place for the rest of the year however, and even made three championship appearances as a sub against Sligo, Galway and Fermanagh. But there his story ended.

Maurice Horan contributed three points to Mayo’s ’03 league season and of his five appearances, the first four were starts until relieved of the jersey by a young Alan Dillon for the Round 5 win against Kildare. The latter, his first start secured, was rarely left out of the Mayo team for the best part of 15 years thereafter whereas Horan, from Ballinrobe, saw his senior career culminate in the next game with a substitute’s role in a 1-16 to 0-12 defeat away to Meath.

Paul McGuinness of Crossmolina is tackled by Nemo’s Brian O’Regan and Maurice McCarthy during the All-Ireland Club SFC final on St Patrick’s Day 2003. McGuinness’ only ever appearance for the Mayo senior football team had come a month earlier when introduced as a sub against Sligo in the National Football League.

Out of the nine players who played that one-off year for Mayo, Paul McGuinness is one of the two who didn’t even get to start a game. An All-Ireland Club winner like Moffatt, it was another Crossmolina player, Michael Moyles, who McGuinness replaced when sprang as the first substitute in the Round 1 victory over Sligo. McGuinness would subsequently move counties and play club football with Claregalway alongside other Mayo footballers David Heaney and James Nallen, yet another of the Crossmolina icons.

Indeed in something that simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen by the overpowering inter-county manager of modern times, no fewer than six Crossmolina players had featured for Mayo in that spring league campaign despite also preparing for their club’s second appearance in an All-Ireland Club SFC final on St Patrick’s Day, Ciaran McDonald and Peadar Gardiner included.

In stark contrast, never has the Moy Davitts club had two players on the pitch representing the Mayo senior football team at the same time but it was something that was within minutes of happening when the Green and Red made the long trip to Newcastle for their Round 2 clash with Down in 2003. Brendan Bourke, on foot of some impressive form for GMIT in the Sigerson Cup, made his debut at wing-back but had just been replaced by Alan Roche when John Maughan’s next move was to introduce Bourke’s fellow clubman Robert Moran to the attack.

Moran, a star of the Mayo side that reached the 1999 All-Ireland minor final, had also featured off the bench in the previous round’s clash with Sligo and so ended his career with a 100% win rate, given those were his only two appearances before going off to forge a distinguished career for himself on the New York GAA club and county scene. A second day out was all Brendan Bourke was afforded too, that when introduced as a first-half substitute for the aforementioned Brendan Prendergast in Cavan.

Sligo will always claim to have lost their share of players to Mayo but it was nothing to do with the vagaries of the border between them when Rory Brennan declared for the Green and Red ahead of the 2003 season. The Tubbercurry native had taken up station as a garda in Westport and so left behind his several seasons of toil as a midfielder with the Yeats County for a stint representing his new place of residence. That stint lasted all of 35-minutes as, having joined the Mayo panel before Christmas, he played just the opening half of the Round 2 victory over Down.

According to Western People reporter Padraig Burns, Brennan had “found it hard to juggle the commitments of work and training and he informed team management of his decision to call it a day,” having not featured in the consecutive defeats to Laois and Cavan.

Few forwards on the club scene in Mayo during the 2000s were as respected and so capable of striking fear into the opposition as Charlestown’s Richard Haran and yet the worth of all that was the 70-minutes he was provided against Laois in Round 3, operating at left-half-forward in a not too shabby looking attack that included Conor Mortimer and Andy Moran. Haran did have one other dalliance with the senior set-up but that came not in league or championship but when John O’Mahony gave him the start against NUIG in the opening round of the 2008 Connacht FBD League. Ironically, both matches took place in Ballinrobe’s Flanagan Park and it’s fair to say it wasn’t the happiest of hunting grounds for Haran who this time was substituted in the second half. His replacement was a debutante about to embark on a glittering career; anyone remember Seamus O’Shea?

And so to the ninth member of the Year Only club. When Mayo reached the ‘Home’ final of the 2003 Connacht FBD League, they fielded to this day what reads as an exceptionally strong team for the clash with Roscommon. Peter Burke was goalkeeper and among the defence were the likes of Kenny Mortimer, James Nallen, Gary Ruane and Aidan Higgins with David Heaney partnering James Gill in midfield. The attack included future All-Stars in Conor Mortimer and Andy Moran, not to mention future Mayo captain Trevor Mortimer, Declan Sweeney and Brian Maloney, who had already made his name as Mayo’s youngest ever championship goal-scorer. And the top scorer for Mayo that day, with six points, including five frees? Step forward Sean Mangan.

Mangan wasn’t to be seen for the first three rounds of the National Football League however, but returned to replace his Ballaghaderreen club-mate Andy Moran during that loss to Cavan 18 years ago today, and scored a 55th-minute point in the process. Curled over beautifully from way out on the left wing, it was described in the Western People match report as Mayo’s best score of the game, and yet it wasn’t until the final round game against Fermanagh that Mayo supporters got to see Mangan again. This time with the likes of Ciaran McDonald and David ‘Ginger’ Tiernan added to the attack, it was still Mangan who led the line in a scoring sense, with two points from play and one from a free. And yet never again was he to be seen in a Mayo jersey.

A little hint perhaps lies in a 2004 interview John Maughan gave to the Irish Independent in which he said Sean Mangan was one of numerous Mayo players carrying groin injuries. Mangan’s, however, was significant enough that he travelled to the UK for an operation.

Looking back on the newspaper coverage of the day, injuries to some of the more established squad members appear to be one of the main reasons why so many Mayo debuts occurred in 2003. It was something team coach Liam McHale had alluded to in an interview with the Western People ahead of a crucial fifth-round tie against the Lilywhites.

Brendan Burke of GMIT is challenged by NUI Maynooth’s Padraig Hurley in a Sigerson Cup clash on February 18, 2003. Burke had made his NFL debut for Mayo nine days earlier in a 1-11 to 0-12 away win against Down.

“If there’s a positive side to our injury crisis it’s that we are getting a prolonged look at a number of players who may not have featured otherwise. We’re finding out a lot about some players. Some fellows we’d have pencilled in for championship football might not make it while the opposite is also the case,” said McHale.

“So far in the league we’ve used thirteen forwards, seven midfielders and nine defenders. That’s a huge turnover in four games and puts out situation into perspective.”

The thing about 2003 though, was that it wasn’t a year that simply marked the end of some fledgling careers but one that saw the curtain fall on several household names. Noel Connelly had captained Mayo to the 1996 and ’97 All-Ireland finals, both years in which Kenneth Mortimer picked up All-Stars, and years in which Maurice Sheridan was unlucky not given his dead-eye accuracy from placed balls. The one point championship loss to Fermanagh marked their last games in the Mayo jersey, so too Charlestown’s David Tiernan whose debut had come six years earlier when, after losing the ’97 final to Kerry, the team travelled to Nowlan Park to face Kilkenny (yes, Kilkenny) in Section A of a National Football League which was in the process of being restructured.

There was another man for whom the All-Ireland Qualifier against Fermanagh represented his first and last run out with Mayo. Enda Sheehy would become one of the youngest ever players to win an All-Ireland senior football medal when as a 19-year-old he was drafted into the Dublin panel at the beginning of the 1995 season but then when finding himself surplus to requirements, he decided to play club football for his mother’s home village of Crossmolina on foot of which John Maughan asked him to play for Mayo. His only appearance came at midfield alongside James Gill against the Erne men.

Ray Connelly didn’t see championship action that year, with the last of his 24 Mayo appearances coming in the league defeat to Meath, and when you add in Ballinrobe’s Sean Grimes who made his last of four Mayo appearances across three seasons, it amounts to the retiring, by choice or otherwise, of sixteen players – a full team, if you like – in the one year.

It makes recent departures look like a trickle in comparison.

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