John Casey: 'They are a special bunch of players this crew'
By Cian O'Connell
John Casey announced himself on the national stage. Out west Casey’s potential and promise had been hotly discussed, but a wider audience soon started to appreciate the Mayo forward’s style.
On August 11, 1996 Casey contributed four points from play for Mayo, who defeated Kerry in an All Ireland Semi-Final.
The subsequent Final and replay brought heartbreak, but Mayo were back being classed as serious contenders. With a nice blend of youth and experience Casey felt that the green and red were primed for that particular Kerry clash.
“From memory people would have been saying were you going up to try to catch them on the hop, but we would have been going up there as a team that would have been relatively well known around Mayo,” Casey tells GAA.ie.
Signs of Mayo progress had been available. “We played Kerry in an Under 21 Final the year previous,” Casey recalls. We drew with them in Tullamore and then lost a replay in Semple Stadium.
“A lot of that Kerry Under 21 team made up a lot of that senior team and vice versa with us in 1996. We were relatively well known to each other.
“We had played Division Three Football in 1996, and we would have gone up there full of confidence to be honest, not fearing Kerry.
“We lost a League Semi-Final that year to Derry from Division Three which had been a learning curve. It was a game that at the time I didn't realise the relevance of it. I hadn't realised that Mayo hadn't beaten Kerry since 1951 and it is bizarre that it is the only time we had beaten them. It is time to do it again basically.”
That sort of defiance marked out a famous Mayo win. James Horan’s bizarre goal, Maurice Sheridan’s six sweet frees and Liam McHale’s midfield enterprise ensured Mayo returned to a first All Ireland Final since 1989.
Difficult days had been endured in that seven year stint, but Casey was very much part of an emerging pool of talent.
“Our 1994 Under 21 team, we lost an All Ireland Final against a Cork team laced with stars,” Casey says. “Our 1995 team lost an All Ireland against Kerry laced with stars. I have pictures of the teams somewhere in my house and I think 13 players played Senior Championship Football for Mayo from them two years, that is a big number, it is a lot of players.
“We went up to Croke Park fearless, not knowing anything about the history of it. I was a Mayo fanatic when I was a young lad and I would have gone up there not having a clue about Mayo's record against Kerry.
“I think somebody said from '51 that we went 45 years without beating Munster opposition which I'm glad nobody told us beforehand.”
Casey acknowledges that previous meetings count for little when the O’Neill’s is thrown-in and the action commences at GAA headquarters. “Of course it doesn't matter when you are playing because you are in a bubble, it is as simple as that,” Casey admits.
“People research and read, but when you are a player you are away from an awful lot of that. You try not to give it the time of day basically for fear it will deter you or set your mind off to go wandering. It is amazing because you hear about the flak players and managers get, half of the time you wonder do they actually know.
“A lot of the criticism is harsh, bordering on ridiculous at times. We would have went up there not having a clue of what would have gone on beforehand. There is a bit of a history now, but it is time for Mayo to try to right all of them defeats, to turn Kerry over.”
Casey is really impressed with the resilience and resourcefulness of the current Mayo crop, who have developed well since the James Horan era commenced in 2011. Mayo deeply want to scratch the Kerry itch. “Going back to 2014 snippets of it have been popping up on social media in the last couple of days,” Casey states.
“We were so unlucky in both games, the drawn game and the replay. You couldn't make it up. I had forgotten some of it. Mayo have played so many high profile games in the last five years that I'm mixing them up and you tend to forget that some things happen in one. I had forgotten that Lee Keegan was sent off in that drawn game in Croke Park in 2014.
“The introduction of our old nemesis Mr Donaghy on the edge of the square was the reason for that Kerry turnaround. He wreaked havoc, setting up the goal for James O'Donoghue which basically pulled Kerry back into the game.
“Down in Limerick too, Mayo had that game well under control. They were unbelievable games, just the tension.”
An All Ireland Semi-Final replay for the ages made for gripping viewing. The Gaelic Grounds rocked, but at the end it was the Kingdom who prevailed. “It was crazy, 3-11 each at full-time, it went right down to the wire,” Casey comments.
“Robbie Hennelly had a really late chance, I just watched it online. If the ball was a yard closer. The referee blew the final whistle after the attempt, you could see the relief on Kieran Donaghy's face that it didn't go over the bar, it was that close. It was unbelievable the contest - the joy and excitement that these lads as amateur sportsmen have given us.
“I'm looking forward to something similar because Mayo are still in this Championship, maybe they have limped into it in a way. Kerry have cruised into it, three weeks ago nobody gave Mayo a prayer of doing anything. Our replay with Roscommon was a classic case of who is going to be the best in the west and that was as far as anyone was going.
“Now, all of a sudden, they are talking about Mayo having a chance of beating Kerry so it is a little bizarre how the season has gone. People have to give credit to our players for that fact, they have held something in reserve to give one last throw of the dice, to put everything into this couple of weeks.”
Unfortunately serious injuries ravaged Casey’s inter-county career, but his respect and fondness for Mayo never diminished.
That is why Casey is so taken by the gritty manner in which the Mayo panel keep returning to try to hoist Sam Maguire every year. “Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I think it was Chumbawamba had the 'I get knocked down, but I get up again' it couldn't be more apt in their case,” Casey says.
“They get knocked and battered and flak and slated - they are called has beens, get rid of them now, they're finished - all the things I have listened to in the last couple of weeks. It is amazing now you have others saying we are going to win the All Ireland. I suppose that is the beauty of football.
“They are a special bunch of players this crew. Some of the finest exponents, some of them will go down in Mayo folklore as the greatest players we have ever produced.
“What they have achieved and the fact they keep coming back for more, people tend to give them a bit of flak and have a cut at them, but they have given us more enjoyment and the biggest roller coaster that any set of players could have given any set of supporters in the country. You could nearly even say in world sport.
“For enjoyment purposes they have certainly given us more highs than lows and we have another massive day out on Sunday. Put it this way, we would rather be going to Croke Park on Sunday than watching it on television.”
Another green and red invasion is imminent at the Jones Road venue. Hope will never leave Mayo hearts. Expectations are beginning to rise again too.