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  • Sport

Galway heroes of 1998 are all gone now

Wednesday, 5th December, 2012 10:50am


THEY were the men who did it all for Galway. In their retirement from inter-county football they had the huge satisfaction of knowing they'd been there, done that and worn the Tommy Varden jersey.

Padraic Joyce was the last of the golden generation to depart the big stage and bring down the Maroon and White curtain on a great, hugely entertaining show that was a smash hit with audiences everywhere from the summer of 1998 to when it all ended — prematurely, all Gaeldom felt — on the first Sunday of August 2002, in an All-Ireland quarter-final defeat by Kerry, 2-17 to 1-12.

Incredibly, Galway have not won a Senior Championship football match at Croke Park since the 2001 All-Ireland final victory over Meath, 0-17 to 0-8.

That's still hard to credit. Padraic Joyce is the last member of the two winning teams (1998 and '01) to retire from county football, following the retirement of Joe Bergin six weeks ago, while Kieran Fitzgerald departed the county scene in early February 2011 and a few years earlier several long-serving players, including Declan Meehan, Paul Clancy and Jarlath Fallon, kept their Galway careers going for as long as their legs carried them into top-class action.

A few others, including Derek Savage, Kieran Fitzgerald and Tommie Joyce, are still playing good football for their clubs at senior level and Joe Bergin will again be out there in the centre of the field for Mountbellew-Moylough in next year's County Championship.

But looking back to the glory year of 1998, now it seems so long ago since Ray Silke was leading them out; since Tomás Meehan and Tomás Mannion were manning the corner-back berths, a sturdy, determined Martin Mac safe and sound on the goal-line behind them; since a carefree, young John Divilly was driving the ball 70 and 80 yards off his hands up to the full-forward line; since lanky Seán Ó Domhnaill was catching the high ones that Kevin Walsh didn't bother going up for.

And so very long ago now, it seems, since the dynamic young Michael Donnellan was fast, thrilling, electrifying — for St Jarlath's and for Galway. No defender could stop him; the crowds turned up to watch him "take off" from one end of the field to the other. They were the halcyon days, the glory days.

It was magical, too, in 2001. Although not quite as exciting as 1998, except for Declan Meehan's blistering runs up the right wing and Padraic Joyce's ten points in the All-Ireland final against a shell-shocked Meath rearguard.

0-10 — five from frees, five from play, left and right.

One man hit ten points in an All-Ireland final — it was two points more than the whole Meath team got!

The star of the "Maurice Fitzgerald final" in 1997 scored only nine points!

Joking, of course; they were two truly great forwards, on the pantheon of greatness alongside Peter Canavan, Séamus Moynihan, Darragh Ó Sé, Colm Cooper, Michael Murphy, two or three more from Galway, and some I remember from earlier decades, such as Matt Connor, Mikey Sheehy, Dermot Earley and Tony McManus. It was a privilege to watch them all play Gaelic football as they gave beautiful expression to their extraordinary sporting talent.

Padraic Joyce won two All-Ireland Senior Championship titles; six Connacht senior titles; three All-Stars; four County Senior Championships with his beloved Killererin; an All-Ireland Colleges Hogan Cup victory, as captain of St Jarlath's, Tuam in 1994; and a Sigerson Cup medal with I.T. Tralee.

He represented Ireland as a player, as a winning captain, and later as a selector, in International Rules against Australia.

One more ‘stat' from that great year, 2001: he scored 3 goals and 45 points in the whole Championship. It was 16 points clear of his nearest challenger, Ger Heavin of Westmeath.

His overall record in Championship football for Galway is: Played 65 Championship matches (15 seasons). Scored: 12 goals and 231 points. Average: 4.1 pts per game.

All the tributes are well deserved, particularly those from men who played against him, from all four provinces. But it is hugely regretted by all who love the game, and Galway football in particular, that so much of Padraic Joyce's inter-county career was spent away from the September spotlight, away from the big stage.

Sure, he had home, he had club football, which he loved; he wore the Red and White of Killererin with great pride and distinction, but even there he knew disappointment — it remains a mystery that the very good Killererin teams who won four County Championships (1999, 2004, 2007, 2010) did not win even one Connacht Club Championship title and challenge for Croke Park on St Patrick's Day.

He did his brilliant best to keep Galway alive as a Championship force from 2002 to 2012 but he could not prevent a series of dreadful results that I believe have not been seriously analysed by football people in this county.

Ten years ago, in 2002, Galway were proud All-Ireland champions; the previous September they'd beaten Meath who had beaten Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final by 15 points — a point a man! Then the dream of a third "Sam" in the O'Mahony era died.

To their huge credit, Galway won an exceptionally high-class U-21 Championship in 2002, captained by Joe Bergin, and St Jarlath's won the Hogan Cup with a brilliant team captained by one of the school's greatest ever players, Michael Meehan.

But at inter-county senior level it was one bad year after another to come:

2003: Connacht champions again, but lost to Donegal in the ‘quarters,' in a replay, by three points.

2004: Qualifiers Round 3; lost to Tyrone by eight points.

2005: Connacht champions again but lost to Cork by three points despite leading in the 30th minute of the first half by six points (2-7 to 1-4). Galway scored a paltry four points in the second half, while Cork were hitting 1-8 on their way to a 2-14 to 2-11 win.

2006: Again at the ‘back door', for the third time, and Westmeath, a mediocre team except for the class of Dessie Dolan, caused a massive shock at Pearse Stadium, winning by 1-8 to 0-10. Earlier, Galway had lost the N.F.L. final to Kerry by eight points and the Connacht final to Mayo by one point.

2007: Lost the Connacht final to Sligo by one point. Led Mayo by three points after 47 minutes in the League semi-final; lost by one.  

2008: Led Kerry by two points after 50 minutes in the All-Ireland quarter-final; lost by five.

2009: Led Donegal by two points after 47 minutes in a qualifier; lost by one point.

2010: Led Sligo by four points after 30 minutes of the replayed Connacht semi-final and by two points after 68 minutes; lost by one point. Led Wexford by four points in the first half of a qualifier and by two after 62 minutes; lost by one point.

2011: Led Mayo by four points at half-time in the Connacht semi-final; lost by six points. Led Meath by a point going into stoppage time in a qualifier; lost by one point.

2012: Led Sligo by five points after 30 minutes; lost by five points. Lost away to Antrim in the qualifiers by one point.

Last two Championship exits, to Meath (2011) and Antrim this year: no goal by either side: Meath 0-11 Galway 0-10; Antrim 0-11 Galway 0-10.

I hope people will see in Padraic Joyce's legacy to Galway football that he hated losing, and that there must be a way for the county team to climb the ladder again and fight for a place at the top of the tree.

Through all the sickening defeats from 2002 to 2012, Padraic Joyce and Joe Bergin played on and wore the Maroon and White in the hope that they could re-live what it felt like to hold Meath, the team who'd crushed Kerry, to a paltry eight points in the 2001 All-Ireland final.

It is important to say, I believe, that all sportsmen and women should be admired and praised for their efforts on the bad days as well as in the good times, especially in amateur sport.

The likes of Padraic Joyce and Joe Bergin, who retired from the Galway team inside six weeks of each other, put their lives on hold so that we could enjoy our sport.

The rest of us didn't have to make that kind of sacrifice.

• See also Pages 26, 27

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