In the old Croke Park in September, 1994. Down senior football manager, Pete McGrath, gives his final speech to the team. He then left to give them a moment to speak privately. Corner forward James McCartan kept a video diary of the year and recorded what followed. Their testosterone-fuelled captain DJ Kane waited until the door closed, then turned to the group and snarled, “Remember lads. There’s nothing for f***ing losers.” They won and became household names. Nowadays, they enjoy annual banquets, trips abroad and Golf Classics, all accomplished with chests puffed out in the time honoured Down fashion.
Quiz question: Who lost?
The disappearance of the vanquished team at 5pm on All-Ireland final day is a painful fact of life. The day after we won it in 1993, we attended the traditional banquet for the teams. We were exuberant. Journalists thronged around us. Behind us, the Cork lads sat at their tables, desolate and ignored. It was a vivid illustration of the falsehood that the games are about participation. During that golden era in the early 90s when four All-Irelands came North in successive years, I witnessed at first hand the pain of Tyrone. Ourselves, Down and Donegal all passed over the bridge to the land of milk and honey. Then in 1995, Tyrone failed, beaten by a point in the final by the Dubs. The following year they were trounced in the semi-final by a fresh-faced team of assassins from Meath, barely out of nappies.
Boy did the people of Tyrone suffer. In that 1996 semi-final against Meath, three of the Tyrone players ended the game with their heads bandaged. Next morning, their corner forward Chris Lawn arrived for work across the border in County Derry to find all his Derry workmates sporting heavily bandaged heads. After we defeated them in an Ulster Championship semi-final the following year – a game that seemed to signal the end of Peter Canavan’s quest for Sam – I was slapped in the face as I came off the field by a Tyrone woman from the Lough Shore. The vitriol was shocking. All that ended abruptly in 2003, when they cured themselves by winning the All-Ireland. Nowadays, you couldn’t annoy them. I go to club dinners and dancing nights all over Tyrone and get a standing ovation. They are gracious in defeat. They earnestly ask me what has happened to Derry football. They have taken their place at the winners’ table. A great Gaelic footballing county is now at peace.
When I read James Horan’s (right)outburst last week, I thought immediately of Tyrone’s experience. The pain James is feeling is the only rational explanation for his allegation that “RTE’s bias” towards Mayo before this year’s All-Ireland final may have influenced the officials’ performance. It is hardly a secret that he was referring to me. I do not like mealy mouths. If I have something to say about James I will say it publicly and if the opportunity arises, to his face. He should have the courage of his convictions.
“There should be no place for that type of biased discussion,” he said.
What he was complaining about – without saying so – was my pointing out on RTE radio that Mayo had adopted a strategy of systematic tactical fouling against the Dubs. In light of the allegation of ‘bias’, I watched the game again this week, which only confirms the accuracy of my observations. In the first half, Mayo committed 13 professional fouls. By this, I mean they made no effort to tackle, rather they just grabbed and held the Dublin player, then obstructed the free-kick. In the second half, they repeated this a further 14 times. Of this professional foul count of 27, 21 frees were awarded, the advantage was allowed three times and three instances were missed. No yellow cards were awarded. I simply pointed out that this was a well rehearsed strategy designed to destroy the opposition’s momentum and that Joe McQuillan had not done his job. I did nothing more than use my eyes. No-one, at anytime since, has attempted to contradict the truth of what I said. Instead, Horan, like the people of Mayo, has behaved like the Tyrone woman who slapped me in the face, ignoring the facts and simply howling bias. Later on in his interview this week, he said, “Did (RTE’s bias) impact the game? It’s hard to say.” Talk about not putting your money where your mouth is. He cries bias, but is unable to point out any evidence. Bias does not appear to have played a part in Murphy’s or McFadden’s goals.
The irony is that compared to Donegal in 2011, Mayo were scarcely criticised at all in the media. No one has ever been attacked like Jim McGuinness and his team.
Kevin McStay described their football as “Horrible stuff, you couldn’t watch it.”
“Shite,” said Pat.
Colm called it, “This monstrosity.”
For a while, they became the country’s leper colony. Yet Jim McGuinness never complained. When they had been defeated by Dublin, he said, “As the coach, I need to reflect on what we did wrong and how we can improve.” There was no whinging.
This sort of honesty is the bedrock of success. A year later, the Sam Maguire sits casually in the front of their team bus. When Kerry annihilated the Dubs in 2009, Pat Gilroy faced the RTE cameras, described his team as startled earwigs and said, “We were beaten all over the field. We have no complaints.”
That honesty was the springboard for their all-Ireland triumph a mere two years later against that same Kerry team. On Tuesday night past RTE re-ran the terrific documentary charting the late, great Paidi O’Se’s Westmeath miracle. The week of the Leinster final, he gathered them together and said, “Lads, ignore the outside world. If we let them dictate our thinking then we are in deep, deep trouble.” They bore his warning in mind.
James Horan’s insistence this week that, “We should have won the All-Ireland” is irrational. Once Donegal went seven points up in the first quarter, they withdrew into their defensive formation. Again, when they went six up in the 61st minute with Murphy’s palmed point, they retreated into their own half and soaked up Mayo, who were unable to test either Donegal’s defence or mental resolve.
Mayo have now contested an All-Ireland semi-final and an All-Ireland final in successive years. They have beaten Cork (2011 quarter final) and Dublin (2012 semi-final), both of whom were reigning All-Ireland champions when they met the Westerners. Before this year’s final, Horan, in a most interesting interview, said that, “nowadays the chance and sentiment must be taken out of football. It must instead be analysed very scientifically.” H
e ought to practise what he preaches. If on the other hand he keeps crying, “Down with that sort of thing”, he will blow the opportunity to banish his county’s pain for once and for all.