I have fond memories of the summer of 1985. The Mayo football team was managed that year by Liam O’Neill. He was an excellent manager and coach, a driven man who really wanted nothing more than a Mayo team to express themselves in a meaningful way on the national stage. The former Galway player left no stone unturned in generating a self belief in the players in order to shake off a perceived mental weakness of the Mayo team back then. He was working with the nucleus of an All- Ireland winning under-21 team that had claimed the title in 1983. We were blessed at the time with a number of great footballers, players like Willie Joe Padden, TJ Kilgallon, Martin Carney, Eugene Lavin, Frank Noone, Jimmy Burke, and Jimmy Browne to name just a few, all talented footballers that in hindsight should probably have won lots more. We lost the Connacht final in the old Pearse Stadium in 1984. I remember big Tom Byrne scoring what appeared to be a perfectly legitimate goal in the dying minutes of that game that would surely have won us the final, but for some reason the goal was disallowed by the referee Mickey Kearins, he of Sligo fame.
There were all sorts of scandalous rumours circulating after the game that the referee had Galway backed to win the Connacht championship and had pocketed a sizeable sum of money at the time as a result of their success! Anyway we put that defeat behind us and underwent a winter strength-conditioning programme of weights to have us ready for a crack at winning the title the following year.
Just before the championship we got a huge boost when Sean Lowry, an All-Ireland winning centre back with Offaly in 1982, arrived on the scene. He was relocating to Crossmolina to work in Bellacorick power station, having been promoted with the ESB. Although in the twilight of his career he had an enormous influence on the Mayo set-up at the time, bringing a wealth of experience. I often travelled with him from Crossmolina to Mayo training and I always togged out after the drive, believing I was the best footballer that ever played football. He had that kind of an influence not only on me at the time, but I am sure on many more of the younger players that needed to be told they could play! Sean played full forward on the team and he had a great Connacht championship. We beat Roscommon in the final that year and went to Croke Park full of confidence we’d beat a well-fancied Dublin team. As it transpired that particular game ended in a draw. We had a two-week break to the replay. There was a great intensity to training during those two weeks and Big Tom Byrne was in mighty form at training. When the team was picked for the replay Sean Lowry was dropped and Tom got the nod to play full forward. To say that decision caused consternation in the Lowry household would be an understatement. Sean was devastated, as indeed were his entire family. He didn’t turn up for the final training session as I recall and didn’t travel with the team to the hotel the night before the replay. Thankfully for all concerned he did arrive at the hotel later to take his place amongst the subs for the game. We lost the replay and of course the debate started almost immediately as to whether we would have won it had Sean started. I should add at this juncture that Big Tom was selected on merit and was selected on his outstanding performances at training in the weeks leading up to the match. Sean did, of course, play with Crossmolina for a number of years and managed the team a few years later. He was a great inspiration to us at the club and definitely left his mark. I have met Sean several times since, most recently at the Bernard Dunne fight here in Castlebar a number of months ago. He is infectious good company and we often reminisce about our days playing in Crossmolina. I rarely, if ever, mention the 1985 All Ireland semi final!
A family affair
Crossmolina played Mullingar Shamrocks last Sunday morning in a challenge match. Driving home later that afternoon I was listening to the coverage of the Irish Open golf championship from Baltray. Of course I was well aware of developments over the weekend, with the amateur Shane Lowry leading the field going into the final round. On Friday he grabbed the tournament by the scruff of the neck and refused to let go. In conditions where you wouldn’t let a dog out, Lowry carried on regardless, playing the most brilliant golf of his career. I heard Des Smyth mention on the Des Cahill show on Thursday evening that he was expecting a big tournament from this guy, but come on, very few would have reckoned with this. He was leaving some illustrious company cursing and toiling in his wake. Anyway I was anxious to get home in time to see the few closing holes of the final round. And what a drama it turned out to be! It was brilliant stuff. Lowry was displaying nerves of steel not normally associated with a rookie in these situations. He see-sawed for the lead with an English pro, who himself was going for his first big win. Shane (I feel I can call him by his first name! ) had a ‘gimme’ of a putt on the 18th hole to win the championship in regulation. He missed. But in hindsight it was meant to be drawn out and nailbiting right to the death. The look on his mother’s face when he missed that putt on the 18th was scary. I since discovered that she had €50 each way at 250/1 on her boy to win the tournament. I now know why she had that cross look! Shane went on to play another 50 minutes of golf, playing the 18th hole another three times. He produced it when it mattered most, displaying nerves of steel by holding out for a famous victory. It was incredible stuff, great TV, and it was great to see one of our own winning in such a fashion. There in the middle of the 18th green was none other than uncle Sean, the All Ireland winning centre back from 1982, leaping about the place with the brother, Brendan, the corner forward from ’82, Shane’s dad. It looked like they had taken a piece of the action at 250/1! Ah mighty stuff indeed.
It’ll be tough up north
While this drama was unfolding I was switching over and back to the Ulster championship match between Down and Fermanagh. I had earlier that morning considered putting a few quid on a small double. I fancied Louth to beat Carlow, which they just about did and I thought Down would beat a Fermanagh team that really struggled in the league. But thankfully I was advised not to touch the match up North as my advisor didn’t trust this Down outfit. And how right he was. They played with all the naiveté of youngsters and it was the streetwise Fermanagh boys that recorded the victory. And you have got to hand it to Fermanagh. They appear to box above their weight every year, which is to their great credit. They appear to draw strength from adversity and I personally would love if this particular team could win some silverware after their years of toil. That unfortunately is a tall order as I fancy Derry to win the Ulster championship this year. Fermanagh could get to an Ulster final, however. Remember they were so unlucky last year to lose the final to Armagh. If you recall they had several chances to win the drawn match but missed several easy frees that would surely have carried them over the line. They have, it seems, addressed that problem this year, but they just don’t have enough firepower up front to trouble the big boys. Were they to win a final it would be on a score line of 0-9 to 0-8 or something like that. They have excellent defenders, a very good midfield but are weak up front. Still they proved they were better in this department than their fancied opponents Down.