Andy Moran on moving on from a Mayo career that glowed golden to the end
‘There was no regret. But still, you do have a massive void in your life’
Andy Moran and Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton after last year’s All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The wheel must turn forward but still, it doesn’t take the wildest imagination to return Andy Moran in the green and the red for one last rush in what promises to be an unforgettable winter All-Ireland football championship to close this occult year.
He moves with the familiar light energy along the hallway of his gym in Castlebar and greets you with the bright expression redolent of so many summer afternoons. The burst of late splendour in Moran’s football career, peaking in his Footballer of the Year accolade as he turned 34, cast him in the role of perpetual servant. So it’s hard to get your head around the fact that he won’t be playing for Mayo anymore. There’s no real doubt that physically he could still ring another season out of his body and his craft. But equally, there’s no doubt that he is gone. That ship has sailed.
“I think we all have this coping mechanism,” he says when we sit across from one another in a vast yoga studio on a morning of heavy July rain across the Mayo interior.
“Like, it definitely happened to me when Dad passed away in 2018. I invested all my time into work and family and football and went with it. And then I hit a slump at the end of the season. I felt I retired from the game in a way a lot of people can only dream. Of course I would have loved to have won an All-Ireland. But we didn’t. I won a national league that year, I got to play in my last ever game for Mayo in Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. And the previous game in Castlebar against Donegal . . . they were nearly like testimonials.
“And I couldn’t argue with it. There was no regret. But still, you do have a massive void in your life. Even since the pandemic started, I deliberately stopped ringing my boys on the team because their loyalty is now to the team, not to me. You cut that off because you have to. I didn’t realise that before Covid-19 hit – I was still kind of talking and wondering what was going on with the group. And you don’t even consciously know you are doing it. But then when you pause and take a step back, you see it.
“Even when I was in coaching the under-20s earlier this year, we would be on the bottom pitch coaching the boys and the seniors were on the top pitch. And you would always be looking up. Looking at Ciarán Mc kicking a few balls! So it was nice to step away from it and gather your thoughts. And I feel like a new man now to be honest.”
The last five years of Moran’s football life are a vivid example of how GAA players are walking a high wire with no safety net when it comes to the concept of amateurism. He was turning 31 when he decided to leave a secure job as a sales representative – “I still miss the road and the radio,” he laughs – to set up a fitness business along with his wife Jennifer. They started with small premises and staff. Now they operate three gyms and employ a staff of 24.
Their children, Charlotte and Ollie, came along and are five and two respectively. In 2018, Andy’s father Vincent died after a decade-long struggle with illness. Somehow, through it all Moran, not only continued to play for Mayo but his aptitude for the game developed so much that he deepened into the complete attacking player: an outrageously accomplished forward and a totemic figure for Mayo. “A nightmare to play against,” was the verdict of Kerry’s Marc Ó Sé recently. Somehow, the family found the physical and mental wherewithal to get through a succession of harrowing All-Ireland losses. The bare outline hints at an insanely busy period of life and football and the attendant emotions.
“There was a lot of naivety when we did it first,” he says now of their decision to go for it in business.
“We just had Charlotte and I was on a really decent salary and a company car. The football wasn’t going bad. I was captain in 2014 but I was now all of a sudden on the bench and was an impact sub. You could see the end line in sight. I always had this ambition to set up my own business. And obviously in Mayo, a footballer has a good profile and it was going to help me. I needed to do it before I finished. Did I know I’d get another five seasons? I didn’t. But the most daunting part was opening here in Lough Lannagh last year. We went from eight to over 20 staff overnight. And to this day, with everything that happened during Covid, it’s a huge learning curve for us.”
When he lingered on the pitch after that last game against Dublin in August of last year, he spent a fair time looking up at the stand for people he knew were not there.
“Dad and another Ballagh man, Frank Kelly, had always been in the wheelchair section with two different illnesses. So yeah. Just having a look up there and thinking about that. Vincent Moran was my dad’s name. He had Parkinson’s. What football gave us as a family through that was an outlet. On big occasions his memory started to come back a little. He wasn’t a massive football lover. But he did like those big days.”
And for Mayo, every game seemed like a black-tie event. There was no such thing as a mundane day out. So when Moran hung back in Croke Park that day, he probably experienced the sharp disappointment of knowing he would leave the game with Mayo’s status on the All-Ireland scroll unchanged. They came within a hare’s breath and thrilled the country. But he leaves with no medal.
Was that why he did it? Moran was solemn about his craft but it’s the fun and company he misses most. When he started with Mayo in 2004, John Maughan used to collect him in Ballaghaderreen because he was a student and hadn’t a bean, let alone a car. Maughan could move easily between drill commander on the pitch and raconteur behind the steering wheel.
Moran learned about Mayo as they travelled and will always recall an afternoon heading to Kildare – “It was for some pitch opening, Charlie McCreevy was coming in on the helicopter and cutting a ribbon” – and sensing Maughan’s giddiness. “He kept saying he had a treat for us.” Outside Tulsk, he could contain himself no longer. “Ciarán Mc is back.” The golden words. The Crossmolina shape-shifter had left the panel and his unexpected return sent a voltage through the county and was memorably framed by the remark of one county board official: “He’s back – in all his glory.”
So in his debut season, Moran witnessed Ciarán McDonald perform what he still believes was an act of magic. “I never saw anyone put a team on his back like he did that year. That was not a great Mayo team but he just carried us to an All-Ireland final.” That adventure and the subsequent high-low championship of 2006; the return of John O’Mahony and Mayo’s incendiary, gun-slinging guise of the last decade has all given Moran plenty of time to think about what it is that ‘Mayo’ is all about.
“Mayo people – we are different. I can say that now. There is a cultish element to it. But we love football and if the team is getting attention I think that is a good thing for us as a county. Yeah, the personal stuff sometimes got too much. I could handle it for myself. But it was my friends – Aidan, Robbie Hennelly, Ger Caff . . . these guys getting real grief. And by people who describe themselves as true Gaels now getting paid and slating players – I don’t understand that concept and hope it is a route I never go down. But I have to say, there was a lot of praise there too. For a county like Mayo it is good to have a profile. And it is maybe something we demand as a people. I think we like attention and it is one of our personality traits. There was an excitement to it,” he laughs.
Moran grew up in Ballaghaderreen and the social and familial complexities of that parish would require several volumes to dissect. He was delighted to see his former team-mate Alan Dillon earn election through to the Dáil in his first election. Moran’s name was on the Roscommon registrar for that February election – it already feels a distant memory – but like all Mayo people he felt slighted when the new coalition Cabinet was announced.
“We have a tremendous Sinn Féin TD here in Rose Conway-Walsh who did really well in the polls. And we all saw how Sinn Féin have swept the country in the support they have garnered. You can take Mayo as a small segment from Donegal down to Clare, it is one of the most competitive constituencies in the whole country. You have the second highest poller for Fine Gael in terms of first preference votes in Michael Ring. And you have Dara Calleary, a chief negotiator for Fianna Fáil.
“So to very be honest, it is very ignorant in terms of forming a Government. People say party before politics: well to me the most important thing to do is to get elected. To overlook both . . . and when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael trying to withstand this run from Sinn Féin, it is very, very short-sighted. If you think about it, we are talking about decentralisation and house prices in Dublin and getting rural Ireland going and broadband. And yet no representation in the Cabinet for a huge part of the country? I would have liked to have seen one or two of the TDs just step away and say I am not standing for this representation in Ireland.”
The slight just confirms Mayo’s sense of separateness. He was working in the new gym, at Lough Lannagh, on the morning in June when word came through of the death, while serving on Garda duty, of Colm Horkan. The Charlestown man had been stationed in Ballaghaderreen for 10 years. The clubs are arch rivals and so have fierce friendships. Like everyone, Moran was stunned and disbelieving. Like so many, he had known Horkan for years and because he was one of the many who energised the GAA, his mourning and funeral extended to the county.
“You move five miles to the right of Ballaghaderreen and you are in Charlestown. We have a community with families who have played for both clubs. I remember people like Ginger Tiernan at training looking after me so well. Colm was like the intersection between the two places. The day it happened I remember telling the staff here about Colm and saying that everything that was going to be said about Colm over the next few days was true. He was that kind of person.”
If he is good enough, Moran hopes to some day return to the Mayo dressingroom in some form of coaching capacity. When he thinks about his life over the past few years, he is doubtful about the reality of sustaining amateurism. The scale of the intercounty scene – the demands and money involved just seems too big.
Whatever happens in the future, it seems obvious that the era of gargantuan football lives like that of Andy Moran is in its twilight. The game is sharp and demanding and all consuming. The optimist in him is looking forward to the championship, even if it is frost bitten and floodlit. And for the record, he doesn’t believe that Mayo’s best chance has passed. “I think we are into a new team,” he argues before debating aloud the potential of combining young bucks like Mattie Ruane and Fionn McDonagh with the storied crew – you know the names – with which he ran. “The young guys will give James Horan serious speed and allow him to play the game he wants to play,” he says.
“If we can develop that, then . . . why not?”
The old question. He breaks into a grin. He knows he sounds like a fan. And that is okay. On his day, Andy Moran tussled brilliantly with the fates in pursuit of that answer. No regrets. The wheel turns.