Over the course of almost half a century, Liam Sammon has been in service to Galway football. Now he hopes a new generation can restore county pride.
The house Liam Sammon grew up in was cut off from the world of GAA. His mother Chris never saw him play. There were no family celebrations when he won his first Connacht title despite kicking the winning point against Mayo in 1966 to set up a famed Galway three in a row. No banners appeared over their pub and home in Eyre Square when they beat Meath by six points in front of 71,000 people to claim Sam. It was a different time.
“I don’t think there was ever that sort of thing. We had a business and that was it. Business was business and that was it, you had to be there.”
It’s a modesty he has retained. He’s uncomfortable talking about himself. Mention Godfather of Galway football and he changes the subject. Instead every team he ended up losing to deserved the victory. Everyone he played with or coached had a gift.
Maybe that’s why, when you ask him about 1966, he laughs off his role. The point against Mayo? “I was lucky. I got on the end of a move that was the winning point. The ball just came in from Jimmy Duggan and I just fisted it over the bar. It wasn’t from out on the sideline or anything.”
Fans that day tell tales about a Mayo-Galway rivalry at its height. That Mayo had thrown everything at Galway but hadn’t reckoned on a stylish 20-year-old.
What most people don’t realise is that Sammon could have had a collection of Celtic Crosses to rival the best collections in Kerry or Dublin. He was called into the side for the 1964 semi-final against Meath but picked up an injury and spent the rest of the season with his leg in a cast.
In ’65 he had won an All-Ireland junior medal on what was effectively the Tribesmen’s second team but broke his nose twice that summer and missed out again.
Going for four All-Irelands in succession, they were caught out by Mayo in 1967. After beating Dublin to win the home league final, they started a hectic tour. Two weeks in America, treated as a holiday, were followed by the Wembley tournament.
“We had only a fortnight to prepare for them [Mayo]. Really what we needed was a rest but we trained awful hard and it took a lot of the sting out of us. I’m not saying that Mayo wouldn’t have won because they were a good side and there was very little between Mayo and Galway back then but we were spent.”
In 1968 they won another JJ Nestor Cup and met Down in the semi-final. Liam had a bigger date the day before the game as he married lifelong partner Rosaleen. She’s a self-confessed football novice but went to the game with some of the bridal party.
It’s the only time over the course of two hours he accepts he played well.
He was captain in ’71 when they lost to Offaly. A downpour before the final turned the field into a floodplain. At half-time Galway’s style had counted for nothing. Sammon looked down at his boots and his socks had slipped into them.
That year they had prepared better than ever. It was his first year training the Galway footballers. He had just graduated as a PE teacher and started work in St Mary’s College. The county board thought he’d be the perfect fit and he stayed in the role until he retired from the inter-county scene in 1976.
“I was after coming back from Strawberry Hill and straight away I was told ‘you’re training the team’. I had to be always out there. There were lads who might need an extra bit and I’d have to stay back with them and do it too.”
In 1973 he led the team out again but their heads were in the wrong place. They had beaten Offaly, themselves on a quest for three in a row, in the semi-final and the hype hit Galway before they met Cork.
“No one gave a hoot about the final because we had stopped Offaly getting three in a row. For a lot of people that was the final so there wasn’t the same buzz for the final.”
Jimmy Barry-Murphy scored two goals before they had realised they were even in a game.
But 1974 is the one that will never be forgotten. For all he has done for Galway football before and since, one moment in that season has followed him everywhere — the missed penalty in the final against Dublin.
What few people realise though is he probably shouldn’t have played at all.
“We played Roscommon in the Connacht final that year. It rained heavy that day and I went down on a ball and some fella slid into my back and I punctured a lung.
“I remember trying to train the week of the semi-final against Donegal. I was still only half jogging around holding myself like that [whipping his arm up to cover his chest] and suddenly it just popped and I was fine.
“Once it collapsed they put in a needle and sucked out the air. And once it came back up again it attached to the bone and there was no movement. The doctor told me ‘just one of the days it will click’. But I was very nervous of it for a long time after.”
But despite risking all to play, like so many before and since, one moment made him notorious. That Paddy Cullen save.
“He judged the right way to go on but was well off his line. Back then you could come out and he covered a fair bit. Cullen was a big fella. That’s the way it goes.
“More people have come up to me over that than anything else I ever did. I even got, when I was teaching, a young fella coming in saying ‘I saw you on television’ and this was 40 years later.”
Dublin went on to win well but was that the turning point? “You know the way games change, maybe if that went in… We missed a lot of good chances as well. Not taking from Dublin though. I don’t think it was a turning point.”
They returned to another semi-final in ’76, his last year captaining the side, and met a Dublin powerhouse.
“The following year we were playing Roscommon and I got a very bad break again, a facial injury, and I was out for about five months. Again a broken nose. It broke nine times in my career but thankfully that was the only thing I broke.
“I had children at that time and they were used to having me at home for the first time and I decided to retire.”
Following a lifetime lining out in Galway colours, that was his only regret. It wasn’t the penalty. It wasn’t leaving the senior manager’s job when he did. It was that team of the 1970s. The men he had helped to peak fitness who went unrewarded for their efforts.
His only Celtic Cross was not appreciated until years after. At the time he was too young to understand what it meant but if they had claimed one in the ‘70s...
“There were some fabulous footballers on those teams and even though they were good enough and played in three All-Ireland finals, they didn’t win one. That’s my regret for them.”
When Liam moved into his house across the road from where the imposing Pearse Stadium now stands, the spiritual home of Galway football was Tuam. Tuam Stars backboned the revival of Galway football in the 1950s, headlined by the great Sean Purcell and Frankie Stockwell, and gave the county a style they made their own. The ‘Terrible Twins’ were mimicked in the city where, for a time, street leagues sprung up to replace soccer as the dominant draw.
Those players were Liam’s heroes and when he joined Fr Griffins juvenile section with hundreds of others, he wanted to emulate Purcell.
The club formed the city’s main underage team with Liam Mellows and Griffins combining. There was a flaw though. The team-mates who joined Liam in winning a minor county football and two minor hurling titles saw no future. Back then the senior club was the preserve of army, gardaí and bankers who moved to Galway.
“Maybe a lot of our lads didn’t see the opportunities to progress and quite a few talented players who played county minor didn’t continue on.”
He was one of a handful who went on to play senior and he lined out there until he retired from inter-county football. Fr Griffins gave him the honour of captaining the county three times but the day job in St Mary’s took him back to the place he was born.
While training the Galway senior team, playing with Fr Griffins and managing the school teams he also took on the task of developing a nursery of footballers in Salthill-Knocknacarra. “Haven’t I a very tolerant wife?” he smiles. But he had help. Tony Regan joined him and together they helped build a club that went from junior obscurity to All-Ireland club champions.
“I used to do a Saturday morning football session from ’72 or ’73 for about 18 years and I’d have 100 national schoolkids down there. When it came to coaching that gave me the enthusiasm for it. I enjoyed it. I was more or less looking after the underage teams, and they were becoming successful and it was all kicking on. We were winning Community Games, Féiles, Óg Sports.
“When you’re involved you build up a great relationship with players. Even now, working with young people, gives you a boost. It keeps you young. I can see why the likes of Mick O’Dwyer does it. It’s a drug for him. He’s getting something back from the young people as well.”
The club’s young guns were starting to mature when he retired from the county team so he transferred to help them on the field as well. That spell spanned 13 years and it wasn’t until they won a senior league title in 1989, when he played five games, that he hung up the boots, aged 44.
Two years later they reached an All-Ireland club final but lost to Lavagh before eventually winning one in 2006. His proudest moment?
“No. I’d get as much pride from helping the U12s. If they put in a big effort and get the reward you feel pride from it.”
When Kevin Heffernan appointed Liam to coach the Compromise Rules side against Australia in 1984, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Heffo’s Army beat Galway the year before in one of the nastiest finals on record. While the 12 apostles were evangelised in Dublin they were vilified in Connacht.
But the duo struck a common chord and became friends for life.
“It was his understanding not just of the game but people and to be able to put it all together. Strangely enough we always agreed on issues but there was one player we didn’t agree on.”
Who? “Keep them guessing on that,” he laughed.
They lost that year but for the visit to Australia, Heffernan worked his backroom team hard. Sammon travelled the country watching players, teaching them this strange game and creating a winning side. Everything they did was geared towards improving the players and improving the game. Their philosophies became entwined and made Sammon a better manager.
When he returned he heard tales of classrooms bringing in televisions to watch the game, of the country getting caught up in the experience. The GAA could now become a global brand.
“And I said it at the time. We should have had a 10-year plan to have our own world series in football. I felt because the ’80s were such a bad time with emigration and there were an awful lot of teachers that could have gone to these areas and coached if there was a real plan. We’d have a far stronger London and New York if that was there.
“It’s less likely to happen now, that was the time to do it.”
When it all finished Galway football came calling again. He coached Bosco McDermott’s team for three years in the mid 1990s. Their best performance came in 1995 against Tyrone in a semi-final where Peter Canavan announced himself on the stage.
“Out of that the bulk of the team came for 1998. The big difference was you had Pádraic Joyce and Michael Donnellan. That put it to a different level.”
That victory set alight the passion for football in the county again and board chairman Pat Egan wanted Liam to front a promotional campaign through coaching seminars and blitzes.
“I remember back in ’56 what winning the All-Ireland did for football in the town, it changed it completely but so did 1998.
“So the Burke brothers, Bobby and Sean, from London came on board and financed it [Egan’s idea]. There were huge numbers involved then and you could see them improving even during the blitz. That lasted for five or six years and then petered out because the clubs started their own blitzes and there wasn’t the need for it but there is again now.
“Everyone wanted to be Pádraic Joyce. Everyone wanted to be Michael Donnellan. Everyone wanted to be Seán Óg de Paor. They had their own players they were trying to emulate and you could see them moving the same way as these lads. That has played its part in our present successes.”
The players from Galway’s underage successes since 2007 all went through that process.
When the county board asked him to take over from Peter Forde for the 2008 campaign, he had just retired from the school and, after being approached three times since the 1980s, he finally relented.
By that stage he was writing coaching manuals and had just released the book Optimising Performance in Gaelic Football which has become a must read for aspiring coaches.
At 61, almost 29 years since he retired as trainer and player, he managed his first county team. With Joyce pulling the strings, they won a Connacht title in Castlebar and were beaten in a Saturday night classic against Kerry.
The following year Peadar Gardiner’s late point lumped them into the qualifiers against Donegal. After that loss he left the post. But he was too valuable to be lost to the game. The county board made him head of the football coaching committee and he’s been tasked with finding the next generation of stars.
“The secret to developing players is getting into the schools and clubs. If the work is not done there, you’re up against it. Clubs must challenge players to play at the level they’re capable of.”
If that works, and he can create of culture of excellence in their skills, particularly with kick passing, the changes in the modern game which he hates will count for nothing.
“I was a great believer, and still am, that every drill should be done with a ball and we never did one without the ball.
“Take any team with a mass defence, there were times in the game when they could have been beaten. Cork could have beaten Donegal. It’s not foolproof.”
But that could take years. In the meantime he’s getting frustrated with the game he loves. The changes at Congress did not go far enough and address the real problem — the hand pass.
“It’s fine to watch an All-Ireland final and say ‘what’s wrong with this game?’ But when you go down and watch a club game — my goodness — you know immediately. You know in the warm up when they’re down in the corner bumping off each other and you’re wondering is anyone ever going to kick this ball. You’d go to training and wonder why the goalposts are there because they never use them.”
He wants a limited number of hand passes in defence and doesn’t buy into the theory that referees would get confused.
“But how can they count the steps? They’re not eejits, they’re well able to do it.
“Maybe they should have looked at the solo run too. Most of them solo to get closer to give a hand pass. That’s the reality. Therefore if you solo you must kick it.”
Maybe someone will listen, maybe not. If Heffo taught him anything, it was to be patient. Watching the way Galway’s U21s beat Cork gave him hope that football could return to its strengths. That was the kind of football he’d travel anywhere to see.
“Colm Cooper, Jamie Clarke, David Kelly, Bernard Brogan... there’s so many really classy players around. They would have shone in any era. Skilful players survive but particularly those because they could win their own ball and are courageous.
“Take any team with a mass defence, there were times in the game when they could have been beaten. It’s not foolproof. It will turn around again.”
Don’t expect him to shout it from the rooftops but that’s this mission for Galway football. Taking on Heffo’s mission from a Galway point of view. Improving the game, improving the players and bringing it back to its roots.
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