It’s 50 years since arguably the greatest Connacht football rivalry of them all fired its first shots.
The Mayo v Galway running battles from 1964 to ’67 resulted in three All-Irelands for the Tribesmen and a lifetime of wondering what could have been for Mayo.
Even though the warriors from the day have aged, their feats are still talked about it in the west in the same way Kerry’s golden generation’s bouts with Dublin are remembered in other parts of the country.
At the time it was all fun... wrapped in deadly seriousness. The two best sides in the country slogging it out in Castlebar or Tuam, each believing they had the edge. The lasting result was a tight bond between both squads.
The other day, John Keenan stood at the front gate of his farm in Dunmore and heard a shout. It was Micksey Clarke from Bohola, who made his name on the field for Mayo. Passing from a funeral, the two old foes stopped for a chat.
There was nothing unique about it. Two months ago Keenan travelled an hour-and-a-half to Ballina to see the man who marked him in the ’64 final, Willie Casey. They had a chat about old times, the state of football today and the prospect of another Connacht final.
“You’d be delighted to meet those lads,” said the former Galway forward, whose red hair and all-action style made him instantly recognisable.
“All the Connacht teams got on well. Sligo, Roscommon, Mayo, we still meet up with those lads. We’d go hammer and tongs in the game but shake hands afterwards and have a cup of tea in the dressing room.”
Ace Mayo forward from that era ‘Jinking’ Joe Corcoran from Ardnaree Sarsfields has similar memories. He missed the ’64 final in protest at not being brought to America for a tour in 1963 but was back for the later games.
“There was a very good bond between the two teams. We had very good time for one another... once you left the field,” he laughs.
“We always had a healthy respect for them because they had won three All-Irelands in-a-row. They had some of the best backs in the country in Noel Tierney, Enda Colleran, Bosco McDermott... and at midfield Jimmy Duggan and in attack the legendary Mattie McDonagh, a great team.
“They were very hard to play. They’d pull your tonsils out, they’d get so close to you. They were on top of every move you’d make.”
It was a camaraderie built on shared moments though. Galway blitzed Mayo 2-12 to 1-5 in the 1964 final, the foundation to their three in-a-row but went into the game after a narrow escape against a Mickey Kerins-inspired Sligo.
“We’d an awful hard job of beating Sligo that year. A soft goal by Mattie McDonagh got us through. We prepared well then for Mayo. There was about 30,000 there in Tuam that day. There was a great atmosphere,” recalled Keenan.
The paths didn’t cross in 1965. Sligo pipped Mayo in the semi-final and found themselves seven points up on Galway at half-time in the final. Again Galway rallied. Another All-Ireland followed.
It created a degree of hype not seen before for the 1966 Connacht final. A game that sparked a controversy that’s survived to this day. With Mayo leading 1-8 to 0-10 at the end of normal time, an extra four minutes was played. Galway struck an equaliser and Liam Sammon fisted over a dramatic winner. Mayo hearts sank again.
“It was always on a knife edge,” recalled Jinking Joe, so called for his amazing sidestep at pace (“It was lovely going out selling them dummies. But as Colleran said to me once, ‘you’ll do it once too often and I’ll kill ya if you do it again’”).
“We were ahead at full time but the referee played four minutes extra and they won it. Patsy Devlin, the referee from Tyrone, was nearly lynched. There was never an explanation why he did it because people never questioned things like that back then. Yet people talk about those added minutes everywhere I go. It’s amazing how far people can go back.”
When that recollection was put to Keenan, he laughed: “We didn’t mind once Sammon punched it over the bar. We were very lucky though. We relied on our defence. Noel Tierney was a great full back, I haven’t seen one as good since.”
It was a rallying cry for Mayo in 1967. Galway were champions for the third time. So Mayo trained harder, focused on revenge and dished it out to Galway 3-13 to 1-8, Galway’s dream of four in-a-row cruelly dashed.
“I was captain that year,” remembered Keenan. “It was our first game since coming back. We won the home league and had to play New York over there, they had a great team. We played two legs in New York: they beat us and we were keeled out after it.
“We had then to play the Whit Tournament in Wembley and came back training when we should have had a rest. Mayo hammered us. Seamus O’Dowd scored three goals that day. It was my first and only day being captain of Galway. We were hoping Mayo would win the All-Ireland then but they lost. John Morley had his appendix out a week before the match against Meath. They brought him on as a substitute for Johnny Farragher who was having a great game at centre-back. I watched it on TV in black and white and Meath got two goals. That was surely one that got away on them.”
The second best team of that era? “They were, easily,” added Keenan. “They were hard luck not to win it in 1967.”
Jinking Joe Corcoran is of a like mind. “Mayo should have won three or four All-Irelands from 1954 to ’71. We had great teams but Dan O’Neill and Seamie O’Donnell went off to Louth and won an All-Ireland and Galway emerged. We ended up being second best for a long time.”
Looking ahead to tomorrow’s game, neither man was willing to back Galway.
“We’ll put up a good show,” said Keenan with typical modesty. “There’s a lot of good young lads there who played U21 and minor. It will be closer than people think. If we can keep it to a couple of points it will help us in the qualifiers.”
Corcoran adds: “I think we’ll beat Galway. We were unfortunate against Dublin last year and could have beaten them. I’d put it down to foolish shooting at goal on the right side. When you go down that wing you work it into the centre for a shot for someone else, not pop one yourself. We lost a lot of points through that.
“Dublin are the cream of the country right now, a bit like that Galway team we went up against but that doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten. We were a fine team. We had chances that we didn’t take. I remember them all. It’s a long way back along the memory trail of might have beens, though.
“I’m 77 now. Still waiting. Hopefully these lads don’t find themselves in the same situation in 50 years.”
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