eaten again! Mayo, God help us!”
No, this is not another incisive Joe Brolly comment on the shortcomings of Mayo football.
Instead these are the concluding words of an incendiary letter addressed to the members of the Mayo County Board in 1947 and give the lie to the widely held belief that player power in the GAA is a recent phenomenon.
Incidents of players flexing their collective muscles and challenging authority are as old as the association itself.
A row over expenses in 1887 deprived seven Tipperary players, including the captain Denis Maher, of their place on the first All-Ireland title winning team.
Their pioneering attempt to establish player power was slapped down, the request for reimbursement of travelling expenses refused, replacements recruited and the seven ‘mercenaries’ were left standing on the platform of the Thurles railway station as the train departed for the final.
The peasant’s revolt of 2015 that ended with the installation of Stephen Rochford and his management team may yet prove to be the one of the most important players’ intervention in GAA history but the forgotten 1947 epistle was a major catalyst in transforming the fortunes of Mayo football and led to the county’s most successful era.
The letter was published in the Western People on 29 November 1947 and was signed, in alphabetical order, by Padhraic Carney, Seán Flanagan, Liam Hastings, Tom Langan and Eamonn Mongey who expressed their frustrations at the petty parochialism and prejudices, political infighting and general inefficiencies of the system that was retarding the latent potential of Mayo football.
These men were Dublin-based and familiar with football as it was played and managed outside the narrow confines of the Mayo club scene. Flanagan, Carney and Hastings were students in UCD and Sigerson Cup winners; Langan (Garda) and Mongey (Civil Service) also plied their football trade in the cosmopolitan Dublin championship. These were serious and thoughtful football men, leaders on and off the field.
The tipping-point came when Mayo travelled to play Kerry in a NFL match in November 1947. Seán Flanagan had resigned from the county panel after defeat to Roscommon in the Connacht championship and reluctantly travelled to Tralee as a favour to his friend Eamonn Mongey. (The debacle against Roscommon in the Connacht championship arose when an unfit and unprepared Mayo team was humiliated on their home turf in Ballina (the bad weather had forced the cancellation of Mayo’s entire League programme). The team failed to score in the first-half and were eventually beaten by nine points (1-10 to 0-4).
Only 15 players accompanied by the county secretary Finn Mongey made the journey south. Mongey and the hackney driver Johnny Mulvey stripped as substitutes. However, despite the apparent shortcomings, the players who made the long journey south produced an outstanding performance and carved out a draw with Kerry, the beaten All-Ireland finalists.
After considerable soul searching, those involved finally decided that ‘something must be done before football disappears completely in Mayo — unwept, unhonoured and unsung’.
Prior to this they believed that ‘it was outside our sphere as players’ to make such an intervention. The debacles associated with Mayo football were blamed ‘on the total indifference of the County Board’. The clamour of the Dublin based players for matches with other counties prior to playing Roscommon in the championship ‘with the view of giving the members of the team an opportunity of playing together and of perfecting their combination’ was unanswered apart from challenges with a makeshift Galway team and against Longford ‘when some of the players had prior engagements’.
According to the players, these games failed in their primary objective ‘as a conclusive try-out for the team’ and in their secondary objective, as an information gathering exercise for the selectors ‘for the simple reason that there were very few selectors present at either game’.
These were the days when teams were picked at board meetings and as the letter suggested ‘the selectors are permitted to depart home and never see the results of their work. They never go near an intercounty match either at their own or the Co. Board’s expense unless it is played in their own back garden’.
In Tralee, four players and the county secretary ‘selected in approximately ten minutes a team that was not afraid of Kerry.
The result proved that Mayo possessed the raw material to produce a team capable of competing at the highest level and also ‘that it needs much better management’.
The demands placed on Finn Mongey, the solitary board member in Tralee, were hardly indicative of good management. He was a multi-tasker of the highest order and apart from having to return to Mayo with ‘a full report on the prowess of each player’. He was also kept busy ‘meeting Kerry officials, making arrangements about hotel accommodation, meals etc , supplying bandages, elastoplast and embrocation, presiding at a selection meeting, massaging the team before they went on the field, towelling and rubbing and supplying badly needed refreshments at half-time and even then at the team’s request togging out as a sub’.
In short Mongey performed the duties reserved for a back-room staff of at least 20 of a modern-day county team. But he did more: ‘in the first quarter he made two match-winning switches, a practice completely foreign to Mayo G. A. A, officials’.
The final paragraph of the letter identified three reasons for the lack of success of Mayo football. The selection committee was ‘too unwieldy to be effective’ and it was suggested that the committee of ‘from sixteen to twenty members should be slashed to approximately five, as big numbers tend to retard than encourage progress’. Secondly ‘the players don’t get sufficient training as a team’, a deficiency easily remedied the players suggested by arranging challenge games so that a team could be selected and trained as a unit. Thirdly ‘too much time and energy has been spent on petty squabbles existing among officials but not among players’. The signatories called on the officials ‘to put aside petty jealousies and favouritism’ and pick a team ‘not of “historic” players nor of “friendly” or “kindred” players but a team made up of the best 15 players available’.
The letter ended with a ‘demand’ that the officials ‘do this and do it here and now’. Otherwise it will be a case of ‘Beaten again! Mayo, God help us’.
The concerned five remained proactive after setting out their road-map for the future of Mayo football; Liam Hastings penned another letter to Paddy Prendergast and convinced the future full-back to continue with his native county when he considered declaring for Donegal; Billy Kenny was recruited at a Sigerson Cup tournament; Seán Mulderrig was persuaded to return from London; the McAndrew brothers, from the football outpost of Bangor Erris, were also students in Dublin and were included in the panel. The county board retained control of team selection but Gerald Courell and Jackie Carey were appointed team trainers and were given control of tactics.
Mayo’s football fortunes were transformed in 1948, the Connacht title was secured and in the All-Ireland final the team recovered from a 3-2 to 0-0 half-time deficit to draw level before eventually losing to Cavan by a point in controversial circumstances. The road to the 1950 and 1951 All-Ireland title successes had been partly paved; the final piece of the jigsaw in the exercise of player power was put in place in 1950 when Sean Flanagan successful engineered a motion that ended the power of the county champions to nominate the captain of county team. As a result Flanagan himself was appointed captain in 1950. Flanagan was a sport scientist before the profession was invented who loved cricket and regularly attended rugby matches to observe Jackie Kyle; he also played soccer as a student. On a visit to London the Mayo forwards were dispatched to White Hart Lane and the backs to Highbury and asked to study the movement of the Tottenham forwards and the defensive skills of Joe Mercer and Arsenal’s ability to counter attack or to use a modern cliché their ability to ‘transition’. At the same 1950 convention, Dr Jimmy Laffey, ‘a players’ man’ was appointed county chairman. One of Seán Flanagan’s first acts as captain was to ban all members of the county board except Finn Mongey and Jim Laffey from having any contact with the team.
The rest is Mayo football history.