GAA Legends - James Nallen
By John Harrington
Former Mayo football star James Nallen hopes he can be a lucky penny for his county in Croke Park this weekend.
On Saturday, he’ll host the latest Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour of the stadium, and he suggests it may be “a good omen” that he’s following in the footsteps of Ollie Canning who hosted the previous tour on the eve of the All-Ireland Hurling Final.
The following day Canning’s native Galway ended their long wait for the Liam MacCarthy Cup, so Nallen is hoping the Gods will smile down on him in similar fashion.
In Mayo, they’ll take any sort of good Karma they can get on All-Ireland Final weekend because they’ve had so little of it since last winning the Sam Maguire Cup in 1959.
They’ve contested 10 All-Ireland Finals in the intervening years, two of them replays, without tasting victory, and Nallen was directly involved in seven of those matches.
Five times as a player – 1996 (draw and replay), 1997, 2004, and 2006 – and twice as a team-selector in 2012 and 2013.
He’ll have more than his fair share of painful memories of big-day defeats in Croke Park to share with his audience on Saturday, but there’ll be some good ones too.
The All-Ireland Senior Football Club Championship he won with Crossmolina in 2001 is the obvious highlight of his career, but the two-time All-Star also won a National League in Croke Park as well as four All-Ireland semi-finals.
So even though he never got to lift the Sam Maguire Cup, when he reflects on an inter-county career that stretched from 1993 to 2009 he does so with pride above all else.
“It was a great honour and I enjoyed most of it,” says Nallen. “Obviously, I guess maybe when you lose you're a bit more reflective.
“But even in those years we lost, we were blessed with a supporter base that just always loved coming out to support the team.
“And there was a lot of good stuff leading up to some tough defeats.
“At the end of the season the focus is always the All-Ireland Final, but there's lots of peaks along the way as well. It's important to realise that.”
He can appreciate those peaks, because he certainly didn’t expect he’d be scaling so many of them or making 183 senior appearances for Mayo after failing to make the grade as a minor.
He describes himself with you can be sure is some excessive modesty as “definitely not the most skilled footballer” in his youth, but he was always the sort to work hard at his game.
As soon as the first cut of silage made the fields on the family farm playable in May, he and his brothers Micheal, Tom, and John would be out kicking a ball, pushing one another to improve.
As well as his footballing skill, the young Nallen also honed his natural athleticism by travelling all over Mayo to compete in local sports meets that traditionally took place on Sundays.
The high-jump and sprints were his favourite disciplines, thanks to the long stride and ability to cover ground that would become his hallmark as a Mayo footballer.
Even though he had never played minor football for Mayo and had not as yet played for the county U-21s, he caught the eye of the then Mayo senior manager, Jack O’Shea, in 1993 after a strong run in the club championship with Crossmolina that saw them reach the County semi-final.
He was involved in the ‘93/94 League season before dropping off the panel, but was called back in the following year by O’Shea’s successor Anthony Egan and began his long association with the Mayo number six jersey.
John Maughan was then appointed Mayo manager in 1996, but there wasn’t an immediate sense that the team was about to embark on an adventure that brought them agonisingly close to an All-Ireland title.
“John was a young guy and he brought freshness and was very positive and we trained extremely hard,” recalls Nallen.
“But we were playing in Division Three of the League that year and we were only scraping by teams. We were getting the right results, but they were often one-point or two-point wins.
“You couldn't say at an early stage that you knew where you were going to go.
“We played Derry in a couple of challenge games and they wiped us. Physically, it was men against boys for a lot of us because a lot of us weren't long out of the U-21 grade and they had won the All-Ireland in '93.
“We played Derry then in a League semi-final that year and I think they beat us by six or seven points. They looked like the contenders at that stage, we didn’t.
“But then we got the win over London in the championship and we built from there. Every game you were winning was building your confidence.
“There was no expectations. Then, all of a sudden, we beat Galway in a Connacht Final which was fantastic for the group to win something. We were on the right path I guess.
“Then the win against Kerry in the semi-final was huge for us because I'm not sure when we had beaten Kerry in the championship before that day.”
That victory over Kerry set up a joust against a hotly fancied Meath team in the All-Ireland Final, and it looked like Mayo were on their way to a famous victory when they went six points up against the Royals in the second-half.
But Meath somehow snatched a draw from the jaws of victory when they came with a late charge that culminated with Colm Coyle’s long-distance kick somehow bouncing over the bar.
Mayo also established a six-point lead a replay made infamous by a first-half mass brawl, but, once again, they were reeled in by Meath who eventually won by a single point.
“They were hugely competitive matches and there was a steel to them,” says Nallen.
“Meath had beaten Tyrone in the other semi-final and there had been big expectations for that Tyrone team because Ulster was so strong at the time and they'd lost to Dublin in the All-Ireland Final the previous year.
“Meath just totally dominated them physically though and coming into that final we knew we needed to man-up and be brave because Meath brought that physicality.
“We got into great positions in both the drawn and replayed game, but I think we got into positions where we wanted the games to finish rather than to just keep playing.
“We tried to hold out and didn't game-manage it, I guess, unfortunately.
“We hadn't possibly anticipated finding ourselves in such a comfortable position in the game. It sounds very simple to just say, 'keep playing', but we seemed to go into our shell a little bit.
“And when you do that you're inviting the opposition to attack.”
Even though Mayo came up agonisingly short against Meath in 1996, Nallen has more regrets about the All-Ireland Final they lost the following year against Kerry.
“Personally, I felt that '97 was a bigger missed opportunity than 1996 because we had already been there and I guess we knew we could compete at that level,” he says.
“In 1996 we performed but in 1997 we were just so flat. It was like we didn't have energy. We tried, but we were nowhere near the level we would have expected to be at on the day.
“We were playing Kerry and had obviously beaten them the previous year in the semi-final. They raised their game but I just think we maybe tried too hard in the build-up to it and maybe got things a bit wrong and overshot it.
“That's my sense of it anyway. On the day we were just lacking that punch and energy you need.
“So, from my perspective, I would say that 1997 was a greater disappointment because we should have had the experience of the previous year and managed it better.”
The pain of those defeats to Meath and Kerry was salved in 2001 when Nallen’s club Crossmolina triumphed over Nemo Rangers of Cork in the All-Ireland SFC Club Final.
“It was a sense of completeness, really, to have finished something,” he says.
“We had a really good group of guys. There was a core who had grown up together and some older lads and younger lads. The mix was just right.
“It's like anything, we put in a big effort and we had good good guidance from the guys who were training and managing us. That was the year of the Foot and Mouth and in some ways I think that helped us.
“We ended up playing that Final in April rather than on Paddy's Day because of the Foot and Mouth outbreak.
“And that worked for us because we had some players who were struggling with injuries around the Paddy's Day time-frame. The extra month worked out well for us."
Ciaran McDonald was Man of the Match in that Club Final for Crossmolina, and Nallen counts it as a pleasure to have played so many years at club and county level with one of the most skilful players of the modern era.
“No question,” says Nallen. “His skill level was that far ahead of others. Some days he'd be toying with defenders. He just had the skill and the natural talent.
“When it came to work on the field and in training, he'd lead by example on that front as well. It wasn't like he was looking for handy ball, he'd go and win it.
“The best thing about playing for him was that he always wanted the ball. For a defender or a midfielder, when you have possession, you're looking to move it on to someone and then support again if you can.
“That was one thing you were certain with Ciaran, he'd always look for and demand the ball. He was always making that run into space which was great.”
Nallen himself had many of the same qualities. Very much a ball-playing defender, his ability to break the tackle and charge downfield to create overlaps in attack was one of his trade-marks.
“I suppose I was athletic,” he says. “It was natural for me to support play and keep running. I enjoyed that. What you find if you break the tackle is you usually get a bit of space. It's the close-quarters where your skill-set really gets tested.
“You need to break the tackle and find some green grass, that's what I used to like to do. Support the play, because I didn't mind running.”
In the Australian Football League they have an annual award called the Brownlow medal for the ‘fairest and best’ player in the League.
Were a similar award to exist in Gaelic Games, Nallen would have surely picked it up on a couple of occasions.
Because not only was he a fine footballer, he was a thoroughly fair one who was never sent off in his career and never seemed to resort to cynical methods to stop an opponent either.
“That was just the way I played the game,” he says. “You play to whatever strengths you have. Some players, a strength of theirs perhaps is to intimidate their opposite number through their physicality in their space kind of play.
“It wouldn't have been a strength of mine. It's something that's in the game, there's no right or wrong way, there's rules there and you just have to keep within those boundaries.
“I was interested in fair play, anyway. I wouldn't have picked up too many cards, but these days taking a card for the team seems to be a strategy almost as well, tactical fouling. The game has moved into that space.”
Good guys don’t always finish first, and in 2004 and 2006 Nallen would once again experience what it was like to lose All-Ireland Finals as Mayo were twice well-beaten by Kerry.
“In 2004 we were comfortable winners in the province,” says Nallen. “I don't know if that was a reflection on where the other teams were.
“We then had a good win over Tyrone in the quarter-final. They had obviously won the previous year so that gave us a boost. Then we struggled against Fermanagh in the All-Ireland semi-final and drew the first day and had a two-point win the second-day.
“I guess that kind of put some doubt into us again as to where we were at. We played Kerry in the Final and I think they had won an All-Ireland in 2000 and gotten to another Final in 2002, so they were an experienced team.
“You've heard the phrase mentioned since by Tomás Ó Sé since - 'hammer the hammer'. That was definitely something they did to us in the 2004 Final.
“I'm not sure if he was injured or suspended, but Darragh Ó Sé wasn't playing in the Final. There was an expectation that Mayo would control possession, that they should have the edge in midfield, and that was our expectation as well.
“But Kerry hammered the hammer and we really struggled to get enough ball on that day so our platform, which had been in midfield all that campaign and had been going really well up to the final, was taken away and we were on the back-foot.
“John Maughan was manager in 2004 and 2005 and then Mickey Moran and John Morrison came in in 2006. They brought some freshness to it, but also a naivety, I guess.
“I don't think we learned from our 2004 experience. We should have been smarter than we were.”
Nallen soldiered on for another three years after the 2006 defeat before eventually retiring from inter-county football at the end of the 2009 campaign.
He didn’t stay away from the scene long though, because when James Horan was appointed manager for the 2010 campaign the calm and collected Nallen was one of the first people he turned to when putting together his management team.
The upsurge in Mayo’s fortunes was immediate, but once again Nallen would experience the bitter taste of All-Ireland Final defeat as Mayo came up short against Donegal in 2012 and Dublin in 2013.
“Mayo were at another low ebb in 2010 having lost to Longford in the Championship,” says Nallen.
“James Horan came in and put structures in place and guys got their confidence back again and got competitive.
“It wasn't a case of trying to get it all done in a day. We were building towards something. 2012 and 2013 were two fantastic opportunities again.
“We got a bad start in 2012. Donegal went for it from the off, we were maybe a little hesitant. We were very competitive in the game, but the way they played it was always going to be difficult because you need to need to get ahead to change the way they played.
“We started off on the back foot and were unlucky with the second goal. It was just the luck of the positioning for that goal didn't go in our favour.
“In 2013 I thought we played really well for periods, we just didn't execute well enough, we didn't get the scores. We dominated the first 20 minutes but just didn't reflect it on the scoreboard and that's what the challenge is, to control the game and get the scores to match your dominance.
“Once Dublin were left in it, they got that goal against the run of play and got themselves back in the game again. Teams are going to have periods of dominance, the return you get from them and how well you control the game is what's important.”
Nallen stepped down as Mayo selector after the 2013 campaign because of work and family commitments, but he’s still good friends with many of the players involved.
He knows the sacrifices they’ve made for Mayo football and would love nothing more than to see them finally get the ultimate reward by beating Dublin in Sunday’s All-Ireland Final.
“There relationships there that have I suppose been fostered over that management era and playing era,” he says.
“There's no doubt that this group have worked harder than groups have gone before them because that's just the way the game has gone.
“What's expected of a player in 2017 is on a different level that what was expected when I played and when I played it was at a higher level than what was expected 10 or 15 years before that.
“There's definitely lives put on hold for football these days. There's no question that this group of players is the best group of players there has been in Mayo in recent generations.
“I'd love for them for all the effort they've put it to cap that off with a win on Sunday. It's not about deserving though, you've got to go out there and control the plays and get the scores and manage the scenarios.
“Hopefully. I live in hope. It would be great to end the talk. They're a fine team.
“I suppose it would be nice if all fine teams should win All-Irelands, but that's not exactly how it happens.”
James Nallen's Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour of Croke Park takes place on Saturday at 2pm. For tickets go here.