THAT'S WIDE!: David Heaney instructs the umpire as Mark Vaughan takes a late free in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. See number one below.
I must admit that the heart strings are pulling at me as I write this because we will no longer see two of the greats of the modern generation wear the Mayo colours again.
The retirements of James Nallen and David Heaney may have been coming; heck they may even have been unavoidable but it can’t not make me feel emotional about the end of an era.
A WATCHING BRIEF: It will be a view from the stands that two legends of Mayo football, David Heaney and James Nallen, have of Mayo football for 2010.
Time will wait for no man but it is a poor world if we cannot reflect on what people have brought to us when their careers finish and James and David have been the two greatest servants of Mayo football in the last 20 years and I know I am not exaggerating in saying that.
Over on gaaboard.com there has been a infantile debate about whether James Nallen is a legend or not. To anyone in Mayo the answer is not in doubt. But I would go further in terms of James and David – the men were true warriors of Mayo.
No men did more in the last fifteen years to bring us to the promised land. I’m filled with anguish when I realise that neither will ever hoist the Sam Maguire on a September Sunday. Is there two more deserving men of All-Ireland medals (James does have his glorious club medal with Cross’) on the island of Ireland? I think not.
So, when looked at in those stark terms, their careers have ended in failure. That’s the view others may have but, of course, it is not a view I subscribe to.
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it – winning the All-Ireland is where we want to see ourselves but if we can’t enjoy the journey then we may as well throw our hat at it. And James and David have given us some wonderful moments on that journey.
FLEDGLING STAR: James Nallen in action against Kerry in 1996. See number 2 below.
Sunday sees the start of Mayo’s 2010 National League campaign but Team Mayo will look different without these two greats. I won’t say whether it will be better or worse without them because that would bring up a futile argument about ‘sell-by dates’ that is not the theme of this entry. But we will be lacking a special something.
James came on the scene at senior level in 1996. Prior to that he had played in the unsuccessful Under 21 finals of 1994 and 1995. He made these teams despite not playing minor for the county. That gave us a sign of his commitment and application and, boy, how much more of that we would see over the years. Despite being posted in Maynooth and then Galway with continuous work and studies, James never let club or county down and his commitment to both is, truly, the stuff of legend. Tales of him travelling to midweek Crossmolina sessions, despite instructions to ‘do his own thing’ in Galway are common currency.
After those Under 21 defeats, All-Ireland Senior final defeats followed in ’96 and ’97 to make it a pretty heartbreaking first four years wearing the county colours for James but he was undeterred and went on to be, to my mind, the outstanding centre-half back of this generation.
The sight of James bursting out of defence, ball tucked under his oxter, setting up another attack, was his trademark but he was, of course, far from a one trick pony. His pace and athleticism meant he was a wonderful covering defender too and he read the game very well. Very few centre-half forward shone playing against James.
More than all of his traits as a player James was a wonderful leader. He had an onfield presence that led a wonderful example for his teammates. I’ve heard newcomers to the panel in recent years say how much confidence they picked up from just being around James. It might be a word here, an action there. The man had and still has an aura that speaks of control and calm in the most inobstrusive way.
NO COMPROMISE: James Nallen celebrates with Sean Cavanagh, Martin McGrath and Dessie Dolan after series success over Australia in 2004.
Not that he was a lightweight. No, James could give and take it. But he preferred to play football and encapsulated the Corinthian spirit better than any other Mayo man I’ve ever seen.
David Heaney joined up with James on the Mayo senior squad in 1997, just two years out of minor. Incredibly he lined out at midfield in the All-Ireland semi-final and final of that year in Croke Park so there was a certain symetry with the fact that David played his last game for Mayo at midfield in Croker, in last year’s quarter-final defeat to Meath.
That he started where he finished was hard done considering his travails around the numbers 1-15. The debate will still rage – where was David Heaney’s best position? The most common answer will be wing-back but he rarely had the chance to shine there.
His selflessness meant David always went where he was needed most. He has played at centre-half forward, full-forward, midfield, every position in the half-back line, full-back, and, even in goal, when called on in an emergency against Galway in an FBD game in the late 90s.
In fact a little known fact is that had David Clarke picked up an injury in New York for last year’s Connacht Championship opener, it was David Heaney who was on standby as Kenneth O’Malley couldn’t make the trip.
So versaitility became his curse. It was full-back we saw him at most, in a firefighting role after the retirement of Kevin Cahill left us without a natural full-back. David looked comfortable most of the time there but, no more than Seamus Moynihan with Kerry in the same position, David looked like a trapped lion, unable to gallop around the open prairies of the field.
HEROIC: David Heaney makes an inspirational burst against Fermanagh in the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final replay. See number 3 below.
Always he was a leader. 2006 saw him as captain under Mickey Moran and a great captain he was. It was just a pity that management naivity saw him isolated on Kieran Donaghy in that final and we all know what happened there.
Like James Nallen, David Heaney’s commitment was fantastic. Based in Galway, a successful career as a Quantity Surveyor and further studies provided plenty of excuses to walk away before now. But, a trip to Australia aside, David was always at Mayo’s call.
There can be no doubt that James and David gave us so many good moments. Often, when a player retires, you hear the comment: ‘he owes us nothing’ from supporters. That’s nonsense. Truth me told we owe James and David so much.
With that in mind we will look back at their best moments:
10: James Nallen, Crossmolina v Ballaghaderreen, Mayo SFC Quarter-Final, McHale Park, Castlebar, October 2009
We didn’t know it at the time but it would be James Nallen’s last victory at McHale Park, the home of so many of his triumphs over the years. Ballaghaderreen were fancied to win and Andy Moran was giving James’ younger brother Tom plenty of it in front of the Crossmolina goal. Momentum after half-time was with Ballagh’. But John Maughan, fitting that he be the boss of Crossmolina at this juncture, decided to send James back from midfield for some firefighting.
Soon the threat of Andy was neutralised and Cross’ tightened their grip on proceedings and won by three points. They would hit the wall against the Kevin O’Neill inspired Knockmore in the semi-final. But, while not knowing it at the time, it was great to see James do it ‘once more with feeling’ before he hit on his merry way. And fitting too it was to see that he was picked on the 2009 Club Stars team at midfield.
9, David Heaney, Connacht Final 2009, Mayo v Galway in Pearse Stadium, July
There was a lot of shock when David Heaney was picked at midfield for the semi-final against Roscommon but by the time the Connacht final rolled along, he was playing with all the swagger of youth. Popping forward for two points, he helped Mayo into a controlling position that, ultimately, and just did enough to wrest the Nestor Cup back.
It was a performance all the more incredible when you consider David only returned to the Mayo panel in May, after the NFL. With Ronan McGarrity just back after a facial injury David needed to stand strong and tall. He wasn’t found wanting.
8, James Nallen, David Heaney et al, 2007 Championship Campaign
Imagine for a moment. You are James Nallen or David Heaney. Kevin O’Neill or David Brady even. You’ve suffered All-Ireland anguish in the 90s and 00s. The most recent mere months before, a hammering by Kerry, again. You are in your 30s. You owe nobody anything. No one would blame you for walking away. But you front up, go again and do what you can to set your county back on track. Heroic.
7, James Nallen v Michael Donnellan, various stages in the 1990s and 2000s
Two lean, cerebral athletes. It was nearly a pity to pit them against one another but one attacked and the other had to defend. Thing is James put Michael on the back foot plenty of times too. They enjoyed an enduring rivalry full of mutual respect and rarely much separated two greats of the modern game.
WHEN LEGENDS MEET: The healthy respect between David Heaney and Padraig Joyce defined their duels as much as anything. Here PJ congratulates David after Mayo's 2009 Connacht Final success.
6, David Heaney v Padraig Joyce, various stages in the 1990s and 2000s
Like Nallen v Donnellan, Heaney v Joyce seemed de-rigeur for Mayo Galway clashes either side of the millennium, with Tom Nallen giving the Swinford man an odd break from the merry-go-round. But it wasn’t that Heaney particularly needed it. He has Joyce sussed which is some achievement given that PJ is the pick of a modern generation of amazingly talented Galway forwards. They also enjoyed a wonderfully sporting rivalry.
5, James Nallen, All-Ireland Club Final, Crossmolina v Nemo Rangers, 2001
While his Mayo career ended short of the promised land, James managed to achieve something which people who have won both say is the most special – to win a club All-Ireland with neighbours and friends. He was, along with Ciaran McDonald, the key man for Crossmolina on an inspirational journey for the town and the county.
It was a much deserved medal for James and a great lift for the county.
4, James Nallen and David Heaney, International Rules success, 2004
Saying you played for your country in the International Rules may not carry as much credit as soccer or rugby internationals but being picked out from all Gaelic footballers in the country to take on the Aussies in the hybrid code is not to be sniffed at.
James and David both featured strongly in 2004 as their old foe Padraig Joyce captained Ireland to a series victory.
3, David Heaney, Mayo v Fermanagh, All-Ireland Semi-Final Replay, Croke Park, August 2004
We all thought we’d have no problem sorting out Fermanagh in this replay. The draw had been an apparition, hadn’t it? Well the second game was going just like the first except this one could have slipped away from us. We needed someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck. David Heaney was playing at full-back but didn’t like what he was watching out the field. He made a stand. Two inspirational runs would set up two crucial late scores for the brothers Mortimer and we were in the All-Ireland final by the skin of our teeth with no man more to thank than Heaney.
2, James Nallen v Kerry, All-Ireland Semi-Final, August 1997, Croke Park
Admit it, this goal is the first moment you thought of when you saw this list, right? Well it is a truly classic modern Mayo moment. Nallen was at the start of the move, forcing a turnover off Sean Burke deep in our own half and after exchanging a long one-two with Liam McHale (we’ll leave his debatable ‘control’ aside) before rifling the ball into Kerry net. In fact the goal was so good that Mayo ‘keeper John Madden had to look at the replay – he was starring at the big screen when Kerry caught him off-guard with a rapid goal in response!
1, James Nallen and David Heaney, All-Ireland Semi-Final v Dublin, Croke Park, August 2006
It was not so much their on field roles in this game but their leadership of Mickey Moran’s men, along with Kevin O’Neill, Ciaran McDonald and David Brady it should be added, that was exceptional. Heaney took the lead and decided to warm-up in front of the Hill and Nallen backed him to the hilt. The older players deserve huge credit for their roles in 2006, taking on much of the responsibility of management. The lads laid down a marker in front of the Hill – we will not be moved. And when Mickey Moran asked them to desist, David Heaney was polite but firm: ‘we will not be moved’. And they weren’t and Mayo ended up with arguably our best victory of modern times. Leaders of men both. Enjoy the retirement lads. Ye’ve been an inspiration to so many.