By Stephen Grealis
When the men from Westport last reached the county senior football decider, Martin Connolly had his togs tied and socks up and into MacHale Park he walked ready for battle. That was in 1991. While to some that will seem like an eternity ago, Martin remembers the day very well.
“It was a washout of a day, the weather was terrible and in truth so were we. We didn’t do ourselves justice, frankly our scoreline that day was pathetic.”
Losing the game and Westport scoring a total of 1-2 is clearly something he has thought about down through the years and something he would like his players to amend.
“I thought to myself if I ever got into that position as a coach or manager, the advice you give the players is to just make sure that the occasion doesn’t pass them by, to go out and play the way everyone knows they can.
“That’s the one regret I as a player have, that we never really showed what we’re capable of.”
This Sunday Martin Connolly will walk through the gates of MacHale Park and put on his bainisteoir’s vest, ready for the challenge lying in wait.
But he knows days like this are not assured and will be pushing his team to grasp the moment on Sunday.
“Thirty-one years later you come back to a final so the next day, who knows. Maybe they’re back in the final again next year, maybe it might be another 30 years. That’s why it’s so important to grasp the moment.”
Connolly knows that his side are lucky to be in the decider in the first place. It’s no secret, after all, that they had let their lead slip in stoppage time in the semi-final only for a quite spectacular finale to the game. When asked whether it would have been an injustice had his side not made the final he was quick to point out that that is ultimately the nature of sport.
“One of the things I have learned over my long tenure in sport is that you don’t always get what you deserve or what you think you deserve.
“In terms of the hop of a ball, fairness doesn’t come into it, you’ve just got to be ready to take what you can when the moment arises.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past fortnight, the Westport manager is of course referencing Shane Scott’s late match-winning goal. Connolly was keen to point out the impact of his bench in that victory over Castlebar Mitchels, not just from Scott, but the likes of Killian Kilkelly and Alan Kennedy as well.
“In the modern game a strong bench is now a massive factor. Jim Gavin often spoke about how his starters and finishers were of equal importance and it’s no different to us in Westport.”
He also noted that by not starting on a team speaks nothing about the quality of a player but that so often their mindset must be correct to make an impact on proceedings.
“There is a certain mindset about not being a starter, some players don’t take well to that as they can perhaps feel it’s a demotion of sorts. It’s the players that are happy to be entrusted with the role of seeing out the game that you really need in the trenches.”
Westport have needed strong depth in their squad throughout the year, with several players involved in the Mayo set-up and no fewer than seven players heading Stateside for the summer. But the opportunities presented to these players, particularly the younger players, have been grasped with both hands.
“The exodus to the States in the summer provided challenges but one we totally understood because we all need to go out and have experiences outside football, so we wished the lads well.
“But this also created opportunities for other players, the likes of Finbar McLaughlin and Conal Dawson, and they really used the chance to shine.
“There are four other lads still attending Rice College in with us who Shane (Conway) keeps an eye on, and he brought them all in and they acquitted themselves very well indeed.”
With it being such a unique final, in which no player from Westport has experienced an occasion such as this, it brings about an opportunity for the real leaders in a team to step up and the likes of Lee Keegan, Kevin Keane, and Shane Scott could have a massive impact on how things turn out next Sunday.
“We’ve got lads here who won the first intermediate title for the club, and won the intermediate All-Ireland in 2017, as well as players who played in the club’s first U21 success, so we know they have what it takes because they’ve played and performed on the biggest occasions many times before. I know next Sunday will be no different.”