Divided they stand and alone he falls
Capable of inspiring both delight and despair, Conor Mortimer has always had a complex relationship with Mayo supporters, writes KEITH DUGGAN
CONOR MORTIMER made his return to the Mayo squad in the most subdued of circumstances: 20 minutes remaining in an FBD league game against Leitrim on a January evening. Mortimer had missed most of the previous season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury and it was known that he was working ferociously hard to recapture his intercounty form.
But the Shrule man’s enthusiasm was evident from the beginning: he hit a perfectly weighted pass to Darren Coen for an important point and later registered a score himself as Mayo went on to win. Walking off the field, he was probably as surprised as anyone to hear a sustained applause from the small band of Mayo supporters at the match.
Flash forward to Mayo’s championship match against Leitrim, when Mortimer made another appearance as a substitute. By now, his mood was different.
As former Mayo manager John Maughan mentioned in the wake of Mortimer’s withdrawal, the player was deeply disappointed not to have made the starting line-up. Maughan had made reference to Mortimer scoring six points in an A versus B training game. Mortimer got in touch to point out that he had, in fact, bagged nine. It was a light rebuke but showed how deeply the forward wanted this.
He had gone through the league fighting for his position and officially became Mayo’s highest ever scorer with 14-380 during the rout of Dublin in MacHale Park. But the ground had shifted beneath his feet during the year when he was laid up. Cillian O’Connor had emerged as not just a high-calibre free-taker but an emerging county player of note. In addition, the Mayo squad had responded well to James Horan’s arrival, performing solidly in the league and advertising their credentials with a brilliant All-Ireland quarter-final win against Cork.
Horan managed to reshape and streamline the Mayo side with tremendous efficiency – moving Trevor Mortimer to defence and giving Aidan O’Shea a role at midfield among his innovations. Word from the Mayo camp is that training is consistently innovative.
The decision by Robert Hennelly, the reserve goalkeeper, to quit the panel earlier this month reflected this. Hennelly was compromised due to work and decided to leave of his own volition, commenting that he didn’t want to give anything other than his full devotion to the most committed squad he had ever been involved with.
There was no question that Mortimer was doing his level best to catch the eye of the selectors in the build-up to the Connacht final and was reportedly kicking excellent ball. But Enda Varley, who starts at corner forward, was also said to be lighting up training. The call was made and Mortimer decided to walk.
The statement released on behalf of his family reveals the sense of frustration and hurt the player felt. It also complicates the preparation for tomorrow’s final for James Horan. As ever in Mayo football, nothing is ever simple.
From the beginning, Mortimer was prepared to give plenty of ammunition to anyone who wanted to shoot him down. The peroxide hair and the white boots he adopted were bound to attract attention even if the flamboyant playing style, based on speed and a meaty left foot, did not.
Mortimer’s style drew criticism on The Sunday Game and on days when games did not go well for Mayo, he was an obvious target for the crowd. Much as they loved Ciarán McDonald for his individuality, they have a more complex relationship with Mortimer. In good times and bad, Mortimer could affect a couldn’t-give-a-damn persona.
His decision to celebrate a goal in the Connacht final by pulling up his shirt to reveal a scribbled tribute to the recently deceased Michael Jackson was bound to cause a stir in the predominantly conservative world of the GAA.
But it wasn’t that Mortimer was pulling a stunt to get attention. He was just being himself, as his older brother Trevor pointed out before the league final in 2010.
“Take any other sport and you can look how you want. Every man to his own. Sometimes Conor can be his own worst enemy. But then, he probably plays better when he feels he is annoying people. When he has a cause. I think he has quietened down in that way anyhow. He has that bit of experience now.”
The experience departs with Mortimer and, suddenly, Mayo football people have to review a career of a player who always provoked strong opinion.
Austin Garvan followed Mortimer for his entire career. He regularly saw him play for St Jarlath’s in the company of his friend, the late Fr Ollie Hughes and remembers the Mayo teenager as impossibly slight and an absolute scoring machine. The first time he saw him wear the county colours was in Markievicz Park.
“He won that game for them on a dirty, murky day.”
Mortimer was probably the leading light on JP Kean’s minor team which went on to contest the 1999 All-Ireland minor final and he has been ever-present on Mayo teams ever since. And that was the thing: even though he looked like a dandy to traditional Gaels, playing for Mayo meant everything to him.
“There is no question that Conor Mortimer has done some marvellous things for Mayo and he has got big scores in tight situations for us as well. He has shown bottle. And there were times when the ball into him hasn’t made it easy for him. He needs the ball goalside and low . . . often he was fed the high ball in Croke Park. You have to use his strengths.
“I would always say that there were a few scores in him at least. He is not the strongest of players . . . the defender will be stronger than him and he looks flamboyant with the hair and everything but nobody can take the natural ability away from him . . . that left foot of his.”
In the decade that Mortimer has been playing for Mayo, physical strength has become critical. Mortimer was never obsessed with pumping steel. “They are always telling me to go at it,” he sighed in an interview with this newspaper in 2004.
“But I suppose I don’t get into situations where I would be trying to break tackles. That would be more the like of Trevor or Ciarán Mc. I would as soon give it off or rely on speed or skill or whatever.”
His attitude hasn’t changed much since but he continued to post scores for Mayo, season after season until he eclipsed Joe Corcoran’s record this year.
Even Mortimer’s detractors were forced to admit that significant achievement. If nothing else, it proved his longevity – and that he had been indispensable to several different management regimes.
The pity now is that that James Horan’s plans for Mortimer will remain unknown. Horan’s decision to reignite Michael Conroy’s career after a five-year absence offered further proof of his imaginative thinking.
Equally, his decision to cut Ronan McGarrity, who for eight years was regarded as a first choice midfielder, was indicative of his fearlessness when it comes to making tough decisions. Horan was always going to pick his own team, as was his prerogative.
The unhappy end to Mortimer’s career mirrors the departure of their favourite son, Ciarán McDonald, whose involvement with the county side ended after a difference of opinion with John O’Mahony.
Many still pine for McDonald and the obvious gap left by Mortimer has led to the inevitably fevered rumour that the Crossmolina man might be in line for a sensational return. He operates at full-forward for his club now and has been in scintillating form, kicking 0-9 in a recent championship match.
But if anything, James Horan is taking Mayo further and further away from the McDonald years and from the teams that were defined by the crushing All-Ireland losses of 2004 and 2006. They still play the Mayo game but are more cautious: the emphasis is on defence and on hard work.
The league defeat to Cork, when they did a rabbit-in-the-headlights act as Cork reeled over point after point and basically robbed a win, was evidence that they are capable of slipping into bad habits. It could have been that Mortimer’s future would have been as an impact substitute, there to slip into the gaps his quicksilver speed could exploit once games began to open up.
It is all academic now as Mortimer leaves as he came; a tantalising figure who could delight and infuriate all at once. The irony is that if things go badly for Mayo against Sligo tomorrow, Mortimer will be appreciated like never before. But you go back to that round of applause in that nothing January game against Leitrim. It seemed like recognition that the irrepressible young pup of Mayo football had grown up.
“It was an ovation,” says Austin Garvan. “No question. It showed that people had a lot of time for him. He had that goodwill behind him this year and I wish he had stuck with it.”