Somewhere along the way last Christmas, Mickey Conroy got talking to Donie Vaughan. Of all the Mayo old boys who have gone about their lives on dry land while the good ship has kept sailing, Conroy is the one guaranteed to raise a smile if they run into him on shore leave.
As chief yarn-spinner and piss-taker of renown throughout James Horan’s first spell, he enjoys lifetime privileges not afforded to mere mortals. Basically, he can demand to know how things are going in camp without getting a dirty look and a pack of lies in return.
"I said to Donie, 'Who's doing the moving and the shaking in there these days?' And straight away, he said, 'Darren Coen. You want to see the ball he played in a training game there today. December, bad weather, didn't matter. He played this crossfield ball from the corner flag onto a plate for Conor Loftus running in. Conor couldn't miss, the ball was that good.'"
Darren has a lovely subtle sense of humour. And he doesn't get fazed by anything
Conroy could have punched the air when he heard that. Of all the 40-odd faces and names that were in and around the Mayo training squad at the time, there wasn't another that Vaughan could have mentioned that would have gladdened his heart as much. The end of Conroy's Mayo career overlapped with the start of Coen's, the stretch from early 2012 to early 2015 when they were both in and around the Mayo attack. Conroy more in and Coen more around, truth be told.
Though there was a decade between them in age, Conroy took to Coen. They're from a similar patch of south-east Mayo but it wasn't really anything to do with that either. It was more just that Conroy loved the kid's laconic manner and his no-big-deal way of going on. In an ultra-serious world, he saw a bit of the ciaróg eile in him.
“He’s such a lovely lad,” Conroy says. “He’s a very relaxed and chilled out character and I wouldn’t say that stood to him at various times over the years. I was a messer and I was always looking for fellas who’d be down the back the bus with me, you know lads who’d be a bit of craic and who’d have a bit of messing in them.
“Darren has that, he has a lovely subtle sense of humour. And he doesn’t get fazed by anything. But that might have come across the odd time as not caring enough.”
In a world of academies and development squads and player pathways, you don’t get a lot of Darren Coens anymore. Not among the top-rank counties at any rate, where the margins are so tight and the weeding-out process is usually so irreversible. Plenty give it a go and find themselves washed out to sea after a couple of years, just like he did. But almost nobody gets to swim all the way back upstream after four years away.
Coen’s early career went along perfectly familiar lines. He was a stand-out full-forward in a very good Mayo minor team in 2010. Playing in alongside Cillian O’Connor, he scored 3-8 from play in five games as Mayo went to the All-Ireland semi-final that year, only just falling short to eventual champions Tyrone.
From that minor side, O'Connor was the sure thing, obvious to all. Coen wasn't that but he definitely had something. Well able to kick of both feet, plenty of ball-winning nous at the point of the spear, anyone could see it. Within a couple of years, James Horan had him in the senior set-up and his first chance to shine came in an FBD league game in early January against Leitrim.
Conroy was alongside him in the corner that day, making his first appearance since coming back into the fold after five years away. Coen kicked two nice points from play, while Conroy pulled a handful of bad wides. By the end of the year, though, Conroy was coming off the bench in the All-Ireland final against Donegal while Coen was serving his time in the shadows.
“He was always knocking around,” says Conroy. “But Cillian and I were always in ahead of him, especially in 2012. And then Cillian and I had good leagues in 2013 and Andy [Moran] was coming back from his cruciate so it was hard for him to get a spot.
“I got injured then and did my rotator cuff and Cillian did his shoulder. So there was a potential place there for him when we were out rehabbing together. He played a good few games in Connacht that year. But when we came back, we kind of jumped the queue ahead of him. Cillian came on for him at half-time in the Connacht final against London and scored 3-3.”
That was the way of it throughout Coen’s first stint. Over the course of three years, he played in four league matches and five in the championship, including that start in the 2013 Connacht final. But in all nine games, he was either subbed off or subbed on. His goal against London in the final wasn’t enough to keep him on the pitch past the 36th minute – a combination of a couple of bad wides and the need to get minutes into O’Connor saw him hooked for the second half.
In fact, his first full 70 minutes in a senior Mayo jersey came in March of this year against Galway in the league, seven years after he initially joined the panel. He didn’t play his second full game until the Armagh qualifier three weeks ago.
So what happened? Nothing happened, which is sort of the point. Coen was always a bit too raw to make an impact in 2012 but Horan could really have done with him exploding into the summer of 2013. That was the year Mayo tried Keith Higgins at centre-forward to inject a bit of vim into the attack.
But with Moran, O'Connor and Conroy all struggling with injury and Alan Dillon's light fading, it was still the likes of Alana Freeman and Enda Varley and Richie Feeney that Horan kept turning to. Coen scored 1-3 from limited minutes that summer but didn't do enough to convince management to give him a spin when it really mattered.
Nobody mustered up too much outrage on his behalf either. In the eternally baleful search for a crackerjack Mayo forward, it wasn’t like anyone was taking to the streets to make his case. Coen was seen as a decent footballer who could score all day in a game that was going his way. A good man to kick five points in a 10-point win.
“He is an out-and-out shooter,” Conroy says. “He shoots and he scores or he shoots and he misses – it doesn’t affect him one way or the other. Missing is water off a duck’s back to him, it wouldn’t bother him in the slightest. If he finds himself in exactly the same spot again five minutes later, he will shoot again. That’s the kind of player he is.”
The problem was that when it came to the law of the jungle in Croke Park, he could be easily enough dismissed. Maybe just a bit too laid-back. A bit too come-day-go-day. Just as he wouldn’t be too annoyed by a missed shot, he wasn’t the type to kick up a row about not getting more gametime.
And if he wasn’t the kind to do that, it’s fair to say he wouldn’t have lost a lot of sleep over a missed gym session either. He wasn’t obsessed – not with football, not really with anything. He was 21, but not in the way O’Connor was 21. Then again, few people are.
So despite making four appearances in the 2013 championship, he found himself the odd man out when it came to the matchday 26 for the final against Dublin. He started the first league game the following spring and scored a goal, but still only lasted 50 minutes. He got a run off the bench against Cork and came on early in a dead rubber against Derry, but he was running in treacle and Mayo didn’t have time for that.
Horan plainly saw something in him but after bringing him to New York that May, he never played him again. And when Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly came in the following winter, Coen only lasted as far as the first FBD game against Roscommon before being cut from the panel.
There was some mild surprise around the place that Connelly, a fellow Hollymount clubman, would give him the bum’s rush without taking a longer look. But at the same time, it was probably quite telling. Connelly had known him since he was a young boy – he likely felt he knew all he needed to know about him.
Whatever plan Kerry have for Mayo today, how to handle Coen is at or near the top of it
So that was that, essentially. Coen was 23 and in anyone’s book, he was an ex-Mayo footballer. There was no big mystery to it, either. He didn’t leave because of a bust-up, he didn’t pack his bags and go travelling, he wasn’t nixed by any major injuries. He went in, he had a go, he wasn’t what they were looking for. Have a nice life.
That was January 2015. In the interim, a few things happened. He was made Hollymount-Carramore captain a week after getting cut and coincidentally or not, it led onto one of the greatest seasons in a generation at the club. They won the intermediate title in Mayo and parlayed that into a run to the All-Ireland final in February 2016.
A couple of months later, he was the best forward on the Mayo junior team that won a Connacht title and just came up short to Kerry in the All-Ireland final. He scored five points in the final and was marked by Jason Foley, who he is likely to face again tomorrow in Killarney.
Meanwhile, Hollymount-Carramore have held their own since being promoted to senior football, with Coen almost always their main scorer. Also meanwhile, James Horan got back into club football and took over Westport for a couple of seasons. Last August, the two sides met in a round-robin championship game in Westport and Coen was close to unplayable. He kicked 0-10, five of them from play. Horan had to eventually send Lee Keegan back to quell him for the closing minutes to get Westport over the line.
When the time came at the end of the year for Horan to start panning for new players, he didn’t hesitate in going looking about an old one. Coen was brought in and Mayo’s strength and conditioning panel-beaters went to work on him. He was starting from a distance back and so he didn’t see gametime until halfway through the league. And even then, nobody was pronouncing him any great shakes for the summer.
And yet here he is. Mayo’s best player against Roscommon and Armagh and worth a shout against Galway too. Scoring off both feet, shooting at will just like Conroy always said he could and would. Whatever plan Kerry have for Mayo today, how to handle Coen is at or near the top of it. Nobody saw that coming, presumably least of all him.
In the search for a Mayo forward, it would be something if he turned out to be hiding in plain sight all the time.