Ciarán McDonald may have parted ways with his intercounty playing days in 2007, but within Mayo's mind and soul he never really left. There was always hope of a comeback. It felt imminent at times. Whispers of his return became a perennial conversation every summer and even as he entered his late 30s, a good run of form with his club, Crossmolina Deel Rovers, would spark the debate. Could he still do the job?
Ageing may have diminished his powers but the county still longed to see those wavy blonde locks in a Mayo jersey once more, one final exhibition from the tip of that left predator boot. For all the whispers of imminent returns though, allied with reports of a club player in good nick, McDonald remained in the shadows.
The whispers eventually died down for a few years, only to resurface again in 2017. This time however, there was more substance to the chatter.
The word was that McDonald had joined up with Mayo’s rejuvenated academy system, and the early reports of the former player’s work had been immensely impressive. If anyone could cultivate the next McDonald, surely it would be the man himself.
His discreet return followed an informal meeting with Mike Connelly, Mayo GAA chairperson at the time, before an Under-21 Connacht championship clash between Mayo and Galway in 2017. Alongside his former team-mates David Heaney and Maurice Sheridan, the Crossmolina man agreed to come in from the cold. The night ultimately ended in defeat for Mayo, but had the county's fans known what was happening behind the scenes, they would have been quietly satisfied with their lot leaving Tuam Stadium.
“You get talking to Ciarán for 10 or 15 minutes and you know that you’re on the right track,” remembers Connelly. “I wouldn’t have known a whole pile about him, directly or personally, but of all the coaches we would’ve brought on board, and they were all good, Ciarán was hugely, hugely impressive in a lot of ways. He lives, sleeps and dreams about coaching and tactics and all that sort of stuff.
“And the other huge quality he has is that he’s brilliant with young fellas. He’s a great understanding of their current life situation and what they have to endure, whether it’s social media or school or college or whatever.”
His presence back in and around Mayo football caught most by surprise. He wasn’t a noted coach, although he did a little underage coaching in his local area.
The most noteworthy sample of work on his short coaching résumé was his time with the local national school which won a county Cumann na mBunscol title. But it wasn’t the title that left an impression on those with a keen eye on footballing matters within the county. The children had played with the swagger so often associated with their coach.
Parents, teachers and casual observers in the MacHale Park stand at the 2017 Cumann na mBunscol finals looked on in awe.
Clever angles. Deft flicks. Reading the game to a level far beyond their years. Most importantly though, the youngsters were clearly loving their football as their coach offered gentle encouragement from the sideline.
The performance had all the hallmarks of a coach who had spent his retirement years assiduously studying the game, popping up at countless seminars and workshops. But according to Connelly: “He never did a thing.”
And maybe that’s not such a surprise. McDonald’s greatest strength as a player was his way of seeing the game different to everybody else. Though that doesn’t necessarily translate to coaching excellence, judging by the early evidence of his work with underage players it did translate for McDonald. Immediately defying his reserved personality, just as he did during his playing career, he threw himself into the midst of the action with Mayo’s academies, predominantly with the Under-14 panel.
“Once he got in the door and out on the field, and once he got stuck in, you’d swear he was at it for months. You’d swear he was at it for years. It just came to him so naturally. He just needed to break through that little barrier to get out and get in there.
“We would have him coaching Under-14 games – A versus B – and Ciarán would be in the middle of the park playing with them. We had an Under-14, Under-15 and Under-16 academy and he was involved in coaching in all three of them. Ciarán McDonald would stay coaching 24/7,” says Connelly.
"What I've heard is if Ciarán could prolong a session, he would," adds Alan Dillon, his former team-mate. "That's how driven he is as a player and a coach. If it was a 90-minute session, Ciarán would always try to bring it to 120 minutes. He was brought up through the early years of John Maughan when there was a real focus on physical fitness and hard work. And nobody probably worked as hard as Ciarán McDonald when he was a player and he probably has that huge work ethic as a coach.
“There’s always a time limit with strength and conditioning coaches, who don’t want players to max out on a Tuesday night to give them time to recover for a Thursday session, but that’s not a bad trait to have.”
The work he was carrying out wasn't going to go unnoticed and somebody as astute as James Horan was unlikely to ignore the stream of glittering reports.
In 2019, the first season of Horan’s second stint in charge, Mayo crashed out of the championship following another semi-final defeat to Dublin. But the 10-point gap between the sides at the final whistle almost seemed generous to the Westerners. Although they had failed to get the better of their rivals since 2012, they always served up a tussle the record-setters could find nowhere else. It was a portentous day for Horan and his side, the inevitability of multiple retirements finally flickering on the horizon.
It left the Mayo manager with plenty to mull over during the winter period. And so his attention was eventually drawn to the man causing a stir for all the right reasons within the academy structures.
McDonald joined the Mayo management team that December and has since helped lead a relatively young squad to back-to-back All-Ireland finals, despite losing many ultra-dependables of recent years to retirement. It’s difficult to gauge his influence, though it’s widely felt that his contribution to the way Mayo have gone about business over the last two seasons has been significant.
“There’s a freedom there,” insists Dillon. “There’s an expression there. Everyone is probably enjoying their football.”
That begs the question: are Mayo’s academy structures losing out by McDonald’s involvement with the senior panel?
“If it was me, my next plan would be to recruit him as a full-time coach for all our development squads and he would also play a big role with minor and Under-20 squads,” says Connelly.
“What you would love to see is Ciarán spending four or five years with the squads – whether it was Under-14, Under-15, Under-16 or Under-17 – and as they come of age, you would see the fruits of his work at a later stage.”
Not everyone would agree with those sentiments, Dillon included.
“Ultimately, the success of the county is driven by the senior team and that’s no disrespect to the academies. Certainly, they are hugely important as a feeder system but we cannot have Ciarán’s focus being moved or diluted going back into academies.
“While you’d love to clone two or three Ciarán Macs, there’s an opportunity for other coaches now to step in and fill his shoes.
“And it’s a great time for him to be involved at senior level, to see where these players can get to, to see how they can develop.”
Ultimately, there is no right answer.
But after years without the services of their luminary in any guise, it’s a dilemma Mayo will be happy to endure.