"It was just fun to be with them and they were great lads and you couldn't ask any more" - is how 25 years on Martin Carney remembers the Mayo u21 team of 1995, that were beaten by Kerry in an All Ireland final replay that summer.
The 1995 final defeat was the end of a journey that had started five years previously, when Carney took over the Mayo minors, who reached an All Ireland final; and then the same crop reached the u21 final three years later in 1994 - but, as Martin said: "We repeated in a sense what we did in 1991 when we got to a minor final and regrettably, we lost to the same team in that final - Cork - in '94 too."
But the following year Carney and Mayo came back strong again and set off on a seven game odyssey that took in two replays in finals and a real scare in the very first round of the Connacht championship against a side you might not expect to get one from these days.
"Leitrim at the time had won the Connacht senior final the previous year and their confidence was high and we only got out of there by 0-11 to 0-8. Diarmuid Byrne had a great game for us that night where he scored four points. David O'Loughlin and James Mitchell equally had really good games for us that night - all told it was a struggle to be honest about it," remembered Martin.
Players stood up to be counted
He added that Castlebar Mitchels man, Byrne, was one of the main men for his side that year. "It was a summer that Ciaran McDonald was in trouble all summer with injury - he didn't get back until the drawn match with Sligo in the Connacht final when he came off the bench that day - Diarmuid Byrne scored 1-3 of the 1-10 that night.
"Diarmuid was an outstanding player for us that year; he was in the squad the year before and went on to be in the senior squad the next year and came on in the All Ireland senior final two years after. At u21 level he was so effective for us, the first night in Sligo we were so lucky to get the draw and he got a late point to bring us level and when we got another opportunity the next day, we gave them a right drubbing and Diarmuid scored five points that day."
Consistency in being able to select a number of players in every game was key to their drive towards the final that year, explained Martin: "The funny thing is, for the most part we had the guts of the same back line all the way though the seven games we played that year - you had a full back line of Fergal Costello, Liam Moffatt and Damien Mulligan or if it wasn't Mulligan David Leydon from Ballina came in.
"The other constant or almost constant we had, was David Brady and John Casey in the middle of the park. Bar one game, we played John at wing forward - when we brought in a lad from Lacken called Brian Forde into midfield; all the other six games Brady and Casey were in the middle of the field and were very, very effective for us.
"John had been wing back the year before and it was always his best position I maintain - with the likes of John, he would come up with important scores for us - the semi-final against Offaly he got three points from midfield and we won that game by two points in the end."
The duo of Brady and Casey in the middle of the park worked a charm through most of the season and the pairing just clicked together - with Brady embracing the role, according to Martin. "He's a beauty - he was great for us that year and I have all the time for the lad, he gave everything, was full of confidence and himself and Casey's confidence and cheek in the midfield was brilliant. They were something else."
Everyone involved played their part along the way, he was keen to emphasise, saying: "But the team was great - the sum of their parts was outstanding. You have the likes of Kenneth Mortimer there, he was a superb centre-back and a year later he was winning an All Star with the senior team. I remember when I got him first as minor in 1991, he wanted to play centre forward, he was mad to play there, a cocky young fella coming out of Jarlath's; I had Declan Ronaldson with me, who knew him from Shrule-Glencorrib. I could see that he would be a great foil in front of our full back line, he was wonderful as a defender, comparable easily with the best we have had."
The experience some of the players had the previous year was key to that run too, said Martin.
"It was great to be able to bring through the lads who had been there before in 94, I think Diarmuid that year played the best football of his life in 95 - David O'Loughlin was consistently a good player for us and also the likes of James Mitchell and Tony Corcoran.
"Maurice Horan came in for the final replay and scored five and started the semi-final and got two against Offally in that game and he went on to have an inter-county management career in Limerick. I'd have loved to have seen David Nestor have a longer senior career - he had great courage and heart and ability, a smart lad who was really good for us that year."
One man who would become part of the Mayo GAA folklore in years to come was also part of the squad that year and another graduate from the 1994 team - Ciaran McDonald - but injury scuppered his ability to play for a good bit of the championship. "McDonald got three points the night against Offaly in the All Ireland semi-final, but over the summer, Ciaran had a problem with his foot and he wasn't able to just get it right - he was trying to get it right and God love him he tried to get over it - he got three points against Offaly, but he wasn't able to play in the replay against Kerry, which was a big loss. He was only able to start two games that summer, the semi-final and the drawn final."
Facing serious quality in the final
As for the side that beat them in the final - you really have to only look at the roll call of players they had to call on to see they were a seriously quality side, Martin continued: "If I said to you Dara Ó'Cinneide, Liam Hassett, Denis O'Dwyer, John Crowley, Mark Moynihan, Darragh Ó'Sé, Mike Hassett, Donal Daly, Killian Burns and Diarmuid Murphy were all on that team - there were ten All Ireland senior winners on that team - and the majority of them were starters. Over a six or seven year period all those guys won All Ireland senior medals, it shows how good they were and how close we were."
As for whether things could have panned out differently for Mayo senior sides later on down the line had they managed to win that u21 title, Carney believes so.
"I really, really do - it's a thing that bugs me all the time. I really think we would have (won a senior All Ireland ). I remember the drawn match in Tullamore, Nestor got early goals and we really, really battled and battled. We scored 3-9 that day, Diarmuid got 1-4 and David O'Loughlin got two points and Brady got two from midfield, now we were hanging on a bit at the end and Diarmuid got a late point to level it up and send it to the replay.
"I am convinced that if we got over the line there it would have given the lads confidence and the county confidence that they could beat Kerry in an All Ireland final - and beating a Kerry team in a final for any county is a huge thing.
"The replay then was in Thurles, but the size of the pitch was huge and they opened it up and used the expanse of it that we weren't able to do and even though we scored the same number of times as them, they got the three goals that day - they were deserving winners. It is a crying shame we didn't get that one, it would have etched itself in the consciousness that they could beat a Kerry team in an All Ireland final. They opened us up in that game, we had no answer to Dara O'Cinnede that day."
Hectic times but great days
It was a hectic summer both at home and on the field and sometimes the business on the field ended up at home too, Martin added: "It was very busy but brilliant. Gina (Martin's late wife ) was the physiotherapist and we had four young children. The boys used to come out here to the house for physio and take turns minding the kids while one was in getting worked on by Gina. The summer of 95 weather-wise, was beautiful, and it was a privilege to be involved with them.
"Also I had three great lads involved with me - Micheál Collins, a real legend; John Moran, who was steady as a rock, a great guy and Billy Kearns from Davitts. Billy came in after, God rest his soul, Richie Bell passed away the year before - it's incredible to think it is 26-years this year since then. But myself and Billy have retained a great friendship to this day."
As for preparation, it was mostly just all about the football and Carney loved every minute of it: "They loved their football and were great lads, a very good group working with me, I was lucky to hit on a group of fellas who were full of enthusiasm for what they were doing, it was a magical time. We'd train in the middle of the week and on a Saturday, and it was mainly football.
"But Diarmuid Byrne did remind me about one night, we were out in Balla training and I got a group of them and said, you're going to go over there with Micheál Collins for a bit. Now Micheál would remind me of Donal Vaughan in the way he runs and just opens up and keeps going. I said he'll do a few laps with ye and he'll be a pacemaker and they didn't know what was coming. He just took off. Diarmuid reminded me of that himself and four or five other lads, who, we'll say, were not the greatest trainers and will remain nameless; he warped them that particular night just to show them they had just the bit more to go to where you want to be - but bar that it was mostly just football."
To finish off where we started - what Carney mostly remembers about this period in Mayo football is: "It was just fun to be with them and they were great lads and you couldn't ask any more."