Andy Moran: ‘In my 17 seasons as an intercounty footballer, I failed’

Former Mayo footballer on the struggle for Sam Maguire and his new life in coaching

"It was the chance. You have to say that," Andy Moran says of his first true experience of watching an All-Ireland football final as a Mayo supporter. The long-range camera lens caught him in paroxysms of joy against Dublin but the next visit to Croke Park to watch Mayo turned into another day of tolls for his people.

This was his second championship removed from the inner sanctum of the Mayo dressingroom. As a civilian, Moran allowed himself to be swept along a little by the mood that the county’s time had come in the long, muggy lead-in to the delayed All-Ireland final. If he was a little anxious by the talk that Mayo ‘had’ to win this one, just because, he also had a base sense that his former team-mates would have enough to do that.

“I think these opportunities come once a decade where you play a team that hasn’t won an All-Ireland. We got it with Donegal. Cork got it with Down. There was a chance here. There were possibly nine goal chances in all in that final with only two taken. My fear going in was that our power was going down slightly with [Eoghan] McLoughlin and Cillian [O’Connor] not playing and that their power was rising with [Cathal] McShane and [Darragh] Canavan coming back. But still I did feel this was our time and that fate, timing and luck were coming together. I thought we were there. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.”

So another autumn of what-ifs is sweeping through the county. Nothing stops: the club championship is in full swing. On Thursday night, Moran found himself on stage in the Traveller’s Friend hotel alongside Tom Parsons, David Clarke and Donal Vaughan. The occasion was the release of his book, Andy - Lessons Learned In Pursuit of Glory. It is partly a reflection on his service to Mayo: 184 games spread over 17 seasons in which the drama and emotion was usually set at fever-pitch. But the personal reveries are broken with in-depth appraisals of his team-mates: what they brought and what he admired about them. The only player who gets a rough time is himself. Moran charts his progress from a peripheral, football mad adolescent in Ballaghaderreen, a town he describes as having “a history of being the outsiders” to a Mayo minor panelist with “a persecution complex that will always be there.”

In the opening pages, he bluntly states, “In my 17 seasons as an intercounty footballer, I failed.” It’s a brutally reductive assessment: he is one of the few to finish a summer with the Footballer of the Year accolade. But Moran has a relentlessly logical approach to life and in the currency of the All-Ireland senior championship, he fell short. In the weeks before the Tyrone final, he found himself conducting internal conversations which revolved around one question. How would he feel if the others got there without him? How would he feel standing among the crowd in Croke Park and watching his team mates having broken through the fourth wall?

“ I am 38 next week,” he reasons.

“Jesus, I had six chances at it. That conversation is quite easy. I sometimes laugh when I hear that if Andy was there in 2012 we would have won it. Well, I played in five others and we didn’t win it. I look at my little ones now coming home decked out before the final and learning the Green and Red. There is no part of me who wants to be there for the training and preparation. Do I want them to go thirty, forty years without seeing this? No. I want it to happen right now. Because once it is over, all the past hurt will disappear.”

The aftermath of last month’s defeat felt different. In 2021, Mayo weren’t supposed to be in a final: few anticipated their presence. They turned up anyway. But mystifyingly and infuriatingly, the team lacked the ballistic energy which sets them apart. They were edgy and rushed and, in the last quarter, disintegrated as Tyrone made the metamorphosis to All-Ireland champions. There was little solace for Mayo people to take from the game. People felt frustrated and it was vented, both within the county and across the land.

"Mayo people are smart football people. When you see a performance like David Clifford in the semi-final, it is clear that Kerry will be back and they should be taking two or three of the next five All-Irelands. Dublin will come back. Tyrone are champions. So in Mayo we can see that 2022 will be harder again. I think that is where the frustration came from: being there and maybe not expecting to be and knowing it was a chance. But that tension has always been there. That frustration was there in '04 and '06. I remember coming out of Carrick on Shannon when Declan Maxwell hit the underside of the crossbar and we were lucky Leitrim didn't beat us. And we got to an All-Ireland final that year. In the last ten years we were probably spoiled by a team performing to the max and maybe coming up against the best team of all time. So I think we had to let the Mayo people air their disappointment and give them time. I think it is easing back a bit now."

Moran has been a constant in the Mayo dressing through a decade of evolution for Gaelic football. The possibilities of amateurism have been stretched to the limit. When Moran was trying to make his mark on the Mayo squad in 2006, trainer John Morrison advised him on something he needed to change. Morrison was a warm and mischievous figure with an immense repertoire of unorthodox coaching methods. Players adored him . “You’re too fat, Andy,” he said one day. For ages afterwards, when the bus stopped at Ballagh’ to pick Moran up, Seamus O’Shea would greet him by shouting his best Armagh impression. “You’re too fat, Andy.” It became a standard: a sign that the team was on the road; an echo of a previous campaign.

Moran is talkative and brisk but it’s clear that he has always been an observer, too. He paid attention to the various personalities with whom he shared a dressing room over the past decade, from Ciaran McDonald to Caolan Crowe, the defender who gave him “unmerciful cleanings” in training without ever truly breaking into a team crowded with excellent defenders. To his mind, Mayo produced three elite players in his career: Lee Keegan, Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea. Keith Higgins was in the panel before him so that makes four. Of that quartet, O’Shea has come under the most scrutiny and, after the Tyrone game, an intense bout of vilification.

“I don’t think there is anyone immune to that. I think he will use it to drive him on. He has a lot of Gaelic football played. He probably needs to reset and readdress his game and probably come up with a new strategy of how to play. You can’t just be the wrecking ball for sixteen and seventeen years. He probably has to reinvent himself slightly but I think he has the hunger to do it. The media attention never frightened him. It goes against him when he has a bad game. But he can shrug his shoulders and just say: let’s go. Like he will be training in January and he will keep showing up, I feel.

"I am not here to defend Aidan O Shea. But in my time I have never met a player who could go in fullback, centre back, midfield, centre forward and full forward and do a job for you. If he is inside with Cillian and me, then I'm marked by the third best defender, probably. He gave me that level of protection. What he did on Donaghy at fullback was amazing. Yes he had some tough days there, too. He is a different character. He thinks differently and is his own man but for our key he is absolutely key."

The question of why Mayo did not win an All-Ireland during Moran’s time is not a subject he chases. That’s partly because he thinks the answer is fool’s gold. There was a different reason for each final, each game a self contained universe. And Mayo were outsiders in four of those six finals. If there is one common theme, it concerns the dearth of natural born score getting inside forwards. Moran was recognised as Footballer of the Year in the position but argues that his game was based on thought and learning and hard work rather than inherent instinct. “We all aspire to be marauding wing backs in Mayo, myself included. I found I didn’t have the aerobic capacity. But do we really trust that 14 year year old who just wants to score and score. And: could he be the guy who could win Mayo an All-Ireland in ten years time?”

It’s a valid question. After retiring, Moran immediately began working with the county U-20 team. They lost in the February lockdown “on penalties, in a storm” to Galway. As a coach, he was appalled by the abrupt halt to their project. “I just said to Mickey Conroy: is that it? When do we see these guys again?” He was also serving as player-manager for Ballaghderreen. It was not an ideal scenario: “You have the headphones because you have to perform or else what you are trying to implement won’t work.” The thought of coaching another Mayo club against Ballaghaderreen didn’t appeal. So when he got a phone call about becoming Leitrim manager in early autumn, something about the idea appealed. He had a cup of tea with John O’Mahony, his former teacher and one of his enduring mentors in his life. He had known some Leitrim players from college. It felt like a good fit.

“They are starting at ground zero, the same as myself.” The unholy caning Mayo delivered to Leitrim at the outset of the championship alarmed the GAA and was held up as a reason why the old provincial structure had to change. He admits he can see both sides of the debate.

“As an agenda, if I am a Mayo footballer the provincial championship is my best route to win a final. As Leitrim manager I want seven games in the summer. So I am conflicted from my previous life.”

There’s a reasonable chance he will come up against Mayo in next summer’s championship. He’ll expect nothing but mercilessness. As a frequent broadcast contributor and a new manager, Moran is just setting out on the second part of his GAA life. It’s obvious from the book that the absence of a Celtic Cross hasn’t ruined the enjoyment of those seventeen years. He has stacked notebooks of memories. And he can say without hesitation that the Mayo football team continues to enrich life within the county.

“ When we came through in ‘06 and ‘08 Mayo was a bleak place,” he remembers.

“ It was post recession. We played Cork in 2011 in the All-Ireland quarter final. They were All-Ireland champions. There were 20,000 people in Croke Park. It was empty. But there was an energy there that day, which we took and ran with. I admitted many times that I failed in the goal I wanted to achieve and that was to win the All-Ireland. But I did think there were things to be learned in all of that. A lot of me comes through in the book- my failings. But it is what I learned from all of these other people around me that matters.”

Andy: Lessons Learned In Pursuit of Glory by Andy Moran with Colin Sheridan is published by Mayo Books Press and is available now.

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