Flashback: 1989 All-Ireland Final – Mayo v Cork
By John Harrington
When John O’Mahony watches from his seat in the Mackey Stand as Mayo and Cork do battle in Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC Round 4A Qualifier, there’s a good chance his thoughts will briefly drift back to 1989.
He won two All-Ireland titles as Galway manager in 1998 and 2001, but the one he lost as manager of his native Mayo in ‘89 against Cork remains a painful regret.
Not many people expected Mayo to beat a seasoned Cork side that had lost the ’87 and ’88 Finals to Meath, but O’Mahony was convinced they would.
And when Anthony Finnerty scored a second-half goal that put Mayo a point ahead and on the front-foot, it looked like their manager’s faith would be vindicated.
“I remember I could feel the teetering from the Cork dug-out beside me,” recalls O’Mahony.
“I was thinking, these guys have lost two All-Irelands and now they're panicking here again. We had them on the cliff-edge, but could not apply the final push.
“That would be a great regret.”
Mayo’s journey to that ’89 Final against Cork started a year previously when they were beaten in the ’88 All-Ireland semi-final by Meath.
Totally outplayed for most of the game, they came with a late charge that fell just short yet was enough for many in the county to hail the defeat as a moral victory.
Not as far as O’Mahony was concerned though. It proved to him that Mayo were a mentally fragile team who didn’t believe they could win the game in the first place and only began playing when it was out of reach.
So, he figured that if Mayo were to be successful in ’89, then he needed to work on the team’s mentality as much as their physical fitness.
There was no such thing as sports psychologists in the GAA back then, so O’Mahony broke new ground by enlisting a Scottish man by the name of Bill Cogan to work on that aspect of the team’s preparation.
Cogan had no knowledge of gaelic football, but he was highly regarded for his work in human resources with the company Digital in Galway where his role was to challenge people mentally and boost their self-confidence.
He was introduced to the players at a team weekend in the Burlington Hotel in May, ’89, where O’Mahony laid it on the line that Mayo would be winning the Sam Maguire Cup that year and nothing was going to stop them.
“We only started performing in the last ten minutes of that ’88 semi-final defeat to Meath when it was already gone away from us,” recalls O’Mahony.
“I felt very strongly that if you were a team that really believed in yourself like Kerry or Meath, then you wouldn’t have allowed that kind of scenario to develop.
“You would have left everything on the field, but we didn’t start leaving everything on the field until we were 12 points down. It was too late by then, and only a moral victory could be won.
“We had to crunch all of that. You were dicing a little bit because on the one hand if it got out that you were saying in May that you were going to be winning an All-Ireland then they’d be sending in the men with white coats for you.
“We had to keep it away from the public that we were doing things a little bit differently because, again, it would have been seen as a ‘what the hell’ sort of situation.”
At the time O’Mahony was also something of a pioneer in the field of video-analysis, recruiting his friend, RTE correspondent Tommie Gorman, to help him put packages together for the Mayo players.
“I had gotten very friendly with Tommie when he was editor of the Western Journal and by ’89 he was working as a regional correspondent for RTE,” says O’Mahony.
“So he would put together video-clips for me that would be edited based on my own thoughts on the game and the points I wanted to get across to the players.
“I would get the tape of the match on the Monday from RTE, go through it, and pick out the pieces of play I wanted to highlight. You’d look at the things you did well and the areas you needed to improve.
“It built into doing analysis on the opposition as well.”
It looked all the work behind the scenes was paying off for Mayo when Finnerty scored that second-half goal against Cork and they subsequently laid siege to the Rebels goal for the next ten minutes.
But they failed to make that dominance count on the scoreboard and eventually Cork came back off the ropes and landed a late flurry of their own that won the match.
“After Finnerty got the goal we missed three or four chances,” recalls O’Mahony.
“We went a point up after the goal and still level with 11 mins to go. At that stage then, which is a regret, we didn't go for the jugular.
“We had some set-backs too, especially the injury to Jimmy Burke, because his loss was a huge one. He was just beginning to dictate the whole forward line in his understated way before he had to go off.
“It was a good game, but that was no consolation. We were very close to it. And it was simple things that cost us. We weren’t clinical enough when we were on top.
“For 10 or 15 minutes but we rushed it a bit and maybe didn’t have the composure you needed at that stage.
“It doesn't lessen the pride I had in the team. But the line either side of winning and losing is agony and ecstasy.
“When the final whistle came it was hard to deal with because we fully expected to win it. I was devastated.
“Because we had battled so hard to change the whole culture and the mental capacity of the county. At that stage it was a whole county on a mission.
“Two emotions. One was pride in the way we had achieved to get there, but devastation in not finishing. And thirdly that when this is all over we'll dust ourselves down and we'll do this again.”
They never did, though, and Mayo’s quest for a first All-Ireland title since 1951 still continues.
“It almost becomes a bigger burden year on year,” says O’Mahony. “In 1989 it was 38 years, now it's 66 years. And I suppose people won’t stop talking about it until we finally go and do it.
“When it will happen, and I have no doubt that it will, then it’ll almost be an anti-climax at that stage.”