Belmullet are probably the biggest outsider to appear in the Mayo senior football final since my own club, Shrule-Glencorrib, appeared in the 2005 showpiece against Crossmolina. Indeed, it was Belmullet’s coach, Peadar Gardiner, who lifted the Moclair Cup that day for the Deel Rovers. Gardiner wreaked havoc in that final, rampaging up and down the right wing and was the key figure in ensuring us border boys were going to have lifelong regret.
The Erris peninsula has been hopping for the last few weeks. The Belmullet and Cill Chomain flags are flying proudly at full-mast. The buzz in training will have been electric. The local players have become household names and the talk of the town. Every parish in Ireland should experience County Final mania at least once a generation.
If I could offer some advice to Belmullet though, it would be to come down from cloud nine quickly and take advantage of the wonderful opportunity that Sunday’s final presents. This may be their one shot.
I played my first (and only!) county final on that day in October 2005 when I was only 19-years-old. As part of a young and exciting team stacked with oodles of talent, big names and a great manager, I thought that would be the first senior final of many for our club. In my innocence, I probably felt that we would give the final a good rattle (and we did, only losing by one point) but that even if it did not work out, it would be a great learning experience and stepping stone for brighter days ahead. That proved to be very naïve as in my sixteen years playing adult football since, I haven’t gotten near another final. Belmullet are similarly young and exciting with a future that could be paved with gold but in sport, as in life, tomorrow never comes. Win the county final now.
Underdogs get one chance. Balla appeared in a senior final in 1993 and haven’t threatened in the top tier since. Burrishoole also lost to Crossmolina in 2000 but have languished in the intermediate grade for a long time now. Kiltimagh appeared in the 1997 senior decider but now seem to be stuck in intermediate purgatory as if it were some sort of footballing Bermuda Triangle. The problem with coming from nowhere to appear in Mayo club football’s biggest day is that the powerhouses take stock, get their acts together and are forewarned when playing you the following season. Leicester’s Premier League win in 2016 is a prime example. After that astonishing fairytale victory, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City took note, strengthened and have won every league title since. Mayo club football royalty, Ballina Stephenites and Castlebar Mitchels, are in a rebuilding phase but their huge populations and stream of underage successes ensure that they won’t be gone for too long.
Belmullet have a momentum and impetus right now that this group of players may never generate again. This is a moment in time and who knows where any of their squad will be this time next year. The socio-economic factors impacting upon North Mayo will make keeping this squad together a challenge.
And football changes quickly. One minute you’re cock of the walk, the next you’re a feather duster. Our 2005 vanquishers, Crossmolina, now ply their trade in the intermediate ranks. Last month, Dublin club kingpins, St Vincent’s, were relegated from the top tier of the Dublin championship. The 2003 All-Ireland senior club champions, Caltra, played an intermediate relegation playoff in Galway last weekend. The year after losing to Crossmolina in the 2005 final, we were hotly tipped by many local publications to win the senior championship outright the following season. In reality, we fluked a draw against Louisburgh in the first round and exited tamely to Ballina Stephenites in the quarter-finals. My message to Damien Mulligan’s charges ahead of the weekend: win the damn thing on Sunday and don’t die wondering!