Andy Moran’s steady hand on the Mayo tiller

Inspirational captain is fully fit again and eager to lead his side into another All-Ireland final


MINUTES after Mayo had beaten Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2006, an elated Mickey Moran recalled a conversation that he had with Andy Moran just before he sent him into the match with 46 minutes gone.

“Andy Moran is a substitute. Usually a half forward. And we were putting him in for James Nallen. He turns to me and says: ‘I will get you a goal’. That’s what he said. ‘I will get you a goal’.”

If the Derry man was speaking aloud to somehow make sense of his thoughts and the extraordinary emotional surge through which Mayo somehow recovered from a seven -point deficit to beat Dublin through Ciarán McDonald’s late score – half left foot point, half epiphany – then it was understandable.

Everything about Mayo was predicated on ungovernable emotion in those years and that day of days surpassed all others.

It wasn’t just that the Mayo players had provoked the strange stand-off in front of Hill 16 by deciding to warm up at the Dublin end of the ground or that the team was a patchwork of promising young players, veterans from the nearly championship years of 1996/97 and, most evocatively, the returning brilliance of Kevin O’Neill, who had been largely ignored by Mayo selectors since 1993.

It was that everything about the day deepened the conviction that with Mayo, anything could happen. So if Moran was attributing a little bit of prophesy to his player’s promise, it didn’t seem out of place.

Andy Moran had gone on as a wing back and he had duly concocted a goal that gave Mayo’s stunning surge an unstoppable momentum. On that evening, anything seemed possible for Mayo football.

But instead of leading to the long coveted All-Ireland title, it brought only another September defeat, the second in three years at the hands of Kerry.

Seven seasons
Now, that victory over Dublin is remembered as a moment of isolated splendour rather than the defining moment which set the Westerners on their way.

But seven seasons on, Andy Moran has moved from the versatile cameo player to the embodiment of the new mood and attitude within Mayo football.

By the end of 2006, Moran was at once a young player and a veteran of Mayo’s unhappy relationship with All-Ireland finals. In 2004, he was a substitute in the senior final defeat against Kerry and a week later played in the All-Ireland U-21 defeat against Armagh.

“I reckon we need to break our duck,” John Maughan, who managed both sides, said after that U-21 match. “A victory like that would have lifted our spirits. We need lifting down here, to be honest.”

But nothing, not even the return of John O’Mahony, could nudge the county senior team any closer to All-Ireland victory until the appointment of James Horan – a dark horse choice to succeed O’Mahony – introduced a new directness to the Mayo game. Andy Moran has been central to that.

Last September, he watched as non-playing captain of the team as Mayo lost the third All-Ireland final of his senior career.

In the months afterwards, though, he expressed none of the haunted equivocation which had characterised sentiments in the wake of previous All-Ireland defeats.

“I believe we’re going to win more than one, to be honest,” he said a week after Mayo had lost to Donegal. “If we win, we’ll keep going. This is a great group of lads and I wouldn’t be surprised in two weeks time if these lads are back training.”

James Horan since confirmed that he had to dissuade his players from returning to McHale Park such was their anxiety to atone for the loss. And Moran’s role in the weeks revolving around that defeat was central. An All-Star in 2011, he had retained that form throughout last summer until his season summarily ended with a cruciate ligament injury in the quarter-final victory over Down.

Horan set the tone by refusing to linger on Moran’s injury, stating that the captain would be the first to acknowledge that the injury was an opening for some other player to stake a claim. “It is disappointing. Andy is the heartbeat of the team – he’d be the first to say that it’s an opportunity for someone else.”

A tone
The refusal to entertain sentiment or to allow the loss to become a reason why Mayo couldn’t go on to win set a tone. Moran’s luck had been wretched but Mayo went on to decimate Dublin, the All-Ireland champions, in the semi-final. Suddenly, they were back in a final against Donegal, who had come from nowhere under Jim McGuinness. It was the most novel All-Ireland final in decades and Moran, the captain in crutches, became a cause for the team.

It didn’t happen, of course, and so Moran found himself in a Mayo dressing room after an All-Ireland defeat for the third time in his career. And yet just a week after that defeat, he gave a calm and logical appraisal of what he had witnessed from the stands.

“Did we lose to a better team over 70 minutes? We probably did. For the last 60 minutes, how good were we? I’d say we were as good a team as they were.”

The ethos and attitude was plain to see. In those few sentences, Moran did much to dispel the vague notion that there is some hidden force field preventing Mayo from winning an All-Ireland final. It wasn’t about the past or curses or collective anxiety or some fatalism within the county: they simply lost because they didn’t win.

They just needed to identify their strong points and work on their weaknesses. The lingering concern about Mayo teams has always revolved around the ‘baggage’ of previous defeats. Yet here was the team captain and a veteran of three huge September losses evincing nothing but can-do positivity and a calm certainty that it wasn’t a question of if his Mayo team would win an All-Ireland title, it was a question of how many.

And in the weeks and months after that All-Ireland defeat, it became clear just how immense a figure Andy Moran has become for Mayo. In the space of those seven seasons, he has moved from being Mickey Moran’s lucky charm substitute to the Mayo’s on- and off-field general. Andy. That’s what they call him.

Despite being absent throughout the league as he went through his slow recuperation from injury, Moran’s return was to be the signal that all was well within the county. The timing could not have been more perfect, entering late in the day of Mayo’s frightening demolition of Galway and scoring a goal.

Giddy dance
The giddy dance of delight afterwards told everything of how long he had been waiting for that moment. Since then, Moran has, according to himself, tried to reacquaint himself with the pace of championship football. The point he scored in the relentless combination of high-octane quality scores with which Mayo pounded the All-Ireland champions into submission was another private triumph on the long road back.

Now, he is back to where he would have been 12 months ago had injury not ruined his season. At Mayo’s press evening last week, Moran sat down to reflect on the season and once again sang of the team ethos, returning to last year’s final and the traumatic early minutes when Donegal were 2-1 up and pushing hard for a third goal.

David Clarke’s save when Colm McFadden was poised to strike again was of inestimable importance, he argued. Even sitting in the stands, his crutches by his side, he could see that.

“He nearly broke his own leg, he would have broke Colm’s leg. But he was going to save that ball. It drove us on.”

And Mayo didn’t fall apart. They kept hunting and chasing and were still in the game when the 70 minutes was up.

Despite the disappointment, it gave them more than enough sustenance for the long-term project.

It taught them what the needed to do to win an All-Ireland. So they worked on their tackling, their foot passing, their shooting accuracy and their conditioning. They disguised it well in the league but from the first day out against Galway, their intentions have been clear.

For Moran, much of this year has been about playing catch-up and even as he considered tomorrow’s semi-final, he still feels as if he is striving just to return to a place he took for granted for much of his career.

“I don’t think I missed a game for six years but the last 24 months have been a bit of a nightmare in terms of injuries. But I don’t worry about the knee. If it is going to go, it is going to go.”

Greatest innovator
And now Mayo and Andy Moran are in a strange position.

Mayo are outright favourites to win this year’s All-Ireland. The smart lads expect Andy Moran to become the first Mayo man to lift the Sam Maguire since another Ballaghaderreen man, Sean Flanagan, did so, in the touchstone September of 1951.

Tomorrow they play Tyrone, the most audacious football county of the modern era managed by the greatest innovator in Mickey Harte. Tyrone didn’t so much win three All-Irelands as claim them through Comanche raids. Nobody could live with them.

And yet Mayo are clear favourites to win tomorrow. These are delightful and perilous days for the Westerners. How many boats have gone down with the shore line in sight? In Andy Moran, they have the steadiest captain possible.