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Dublin: 13°C Tuesday 20 October 2020

'Either way there’s going to be huge emotion and joy' - Mayo stars eye club glory after county heartbreak

Big names are in action as the 2020 Mayo senior decider pits Breaffy against Knockmore.

The O'Sheas and Kevin McLoughlin are in opposition today.
The O'Sheas and Kevin McLoughlin are in opposition today.
Image: INPHO

JOHN CASEY CASTS his mind back to the 90s, the days when his Mayo football career was in full flight.

Back then, as it is now and has been in between, the county was consumed by the attempts to end their wait for the ultimate prize in Gaelic football.

They invested plenty in themselves to make it happen but when falling short as county players, the task in lifting their spirits to switch into the mode of club players never got easier.

“I think it was the hardest thing ever to do. I’d some experience of it. I’d to go down after losing one of the All-Irelands, back to Tralee where I was in college. I particularly remember David Brady after ‘96 with Ballina, facing into it. Your mind really isn’t in it, your mindset is all wrong. You’re just forever thinking of the one that got away with Mayo.”

In more recent times Casey has been an observer, avidly following the marathon campaigns Mayo have been embroiled in. When the county was hit with the sadness and anguish of near misses in Croke Park, he was struck by the mental challenge facing the beaten players in resetting to go again in pursuit of local glory.

Those that will line up in Castlebar this afternoon with the Paddy Moclair Cup up for grabs can relate. Kevin McLoughlin is the figurehead for Knockmore. The O’Shea brothers fly the flag for Breaffy, joined by Robert Hennelly in goal and the emerging Matthew Ruane at midfield.

It is a Mayo senior football final pairing bristling with novelty and one that has the inescapable theme of great opportunity. After all the heartbreak endured with Mayo, participating in the club arena has proved fruitless. Breaffy lost finals in 2013, ’15 and ’18 while Knockmore were beaten in the ’16 decider. This title has never been won by Breaffy while Knockmore must venture back to 1997 for the last such happy day for their club.

The national pain in Mayo colours has been well-documented but the autumn and winter journeys in the club championships have brought scant respite. McLoughlin has started all four of Mayo’s All-Ireland final losses over the last decade, Aidan O’Shea a constant fixture alongside him with his older brother Seamus in from the off in three, and then appearances thrown in for Hennelly and Conor, the younger O’Shea, as well.

“You’re not in a happy place for a few months after that and you’ve to try to go out then, play down against a tough breeze in a place like Belmullet, when everybody’s watching you,” says Casey.

“The fellas that were probably supporting you the week before are on your back now giving you abuse. It is very, very difficult to go out the week after a game, put on your club jersey and try to perform. This is probably what’s bringing the best out of these players now and allowing them to express themselves.”

The reference there is how the season has been flipped on its head. The transformative impact of the pandemic on club schedules seems of particular relevance in Mayo football circles, a chance for a clear run through the summer rather than trudging into the depths of winter. Breaffy and Knockmore have acquitted themselves best, still standing in a year when heavyweights have fallen.

Since Casey’s Charlestown team won out in 2009, the Mayo senior titles over the next decade have been monopolised by two clubs. Ballaghaderren charged in to claim the spoils in 2012 but otherwise it has been the preserve of Ballintubber and Castlebar Mitchels, the former winning five titles and the latter picking up four. 

Their dominance has been expressed in the fact that they faced off in four finals during that time frame. Castlebar completed three-in-a-row in 2017, Ballintubber have collected the last two. Their exits this season represented major news with Castlebar missing out after the group stages where they lost a round-robin tie to Breaffy. Knockmore pushed Ballintubber aside at the quarter-final stage. Prior to all this there was another duopoly at play, Crossmolina and Ballina hoovering up nine Mayo championships between them in the period that spanned 1998 to 2007.

So today’s protagonists represent something fresh and different.

“I’d have a soft spot now for Knockmore,” admits Casey.

“(Ray) Dempsey, (Knockmore manager), would have been a good friend of mine when I was playing with Mayo. They’ve done remarkably well.

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“They’re known as the parish of the backs for a reason. Dempsey has them playing really well. They played some lovely stuff in their game against Ballintubber.

“Apart from Kevin McLoughlin, they don’t have many standout players. He’s huge for them. In years gone by there might have been disappointment at what Knockmore got out of him. But that’s maybe something that’s happened with this Covid thing he’s been with the club all along. He’s been absolutely brilliant when you see him in full flight.”

The influence of star men is also visible in the Breaffy ranks.

“Breaffy after round one after Westport beating them, I’m not going to tell you a word of a lie, I thought they were gone. They went on to play Castlebar and if Castlebar had beaten them, they were out. It’s funny Charlestown played Westport the night before in the same group. We drew with Westport which gave us a fighting chance of still making the quarter-finals.

“Word went around Westport, it was a gloriously sunny evening, that Aidan O’Shea was 100% out for the game the following day, hamstring gone. For me automatically Breaffy’s chances were gone. Lo and behold O’Shea turns up, puts in a tour de force, Breaffy win the game, all of a sudden gain momentum and they’re in a county final now. They’ve just grown into it. They’d just never got over the line and people were wondering were the O’Sheas ever going to get their hands on the elusive county senior medal. But you have to give them massive credit, that game in particular against Castlebar they stood up.”

If Breaffy continue to chase a maiden crown, Knockmore’s narrative is different. They have a rich history, mining eight titles from the period between 1973 and 1997. From 1989 they lifted four of the next nine crowns and contested another county final. Two Connacht championships followed and they lost out on the All-Ireland in 1997 at the hands of Crossmaglen.

Then the success dried up and they have faced an interminable wait to grasp the trophy in Mayo once more. Five final defeats, one of those after a replay, increased their pain. Breaffy have also suffered, quarter-final and semi-final defeats lobbed into the mix as a picture of incessant disappointment has been painted.

Casey finds himself admiring the resolve of both. He was doing local radio commntary in 2014 when Knockmore felt the full force of Ballintubber’s attacking punch. By the close of that semi-final they had conceded 9-11, seven goals arriving in the first half alone. That humbling seemed difficult to recover from but they have ploughed on. Breaffy carry expectations due to their star-studded team sheet yet have managed to keep reinventing themselves.

Either way today offers the prospect of a landmark success and an outcome to savour for a Mayo football name that is well-versed on the harder side of the sport.

“I was lucky enough to win two Moclair Cups as a goalkeeper with Charlestown,” recalls Casey.

“Did I ever think I’d get my hands on one? No, because I got crippled with injuries at 25. I thought my chances were gone but our team got stronger. Look it’s the best party you could have and best atmosphere after winning a county. We still talk about it here the craic we had in the town, just to come home from Castlebar with the cup and the feel good factor it brings to the community. Breaffy never having won it, Knockmore craving it, either way there’s going to be huge emotion and joy.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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