When you hear Donal Vaughan’s name, it immediately conjures up an image of one of Mayo’s seemingly limitless supply of attacking defenders, bombing through open plains to finish up a sweeping team move.
In the past decade, Mayo have produced attacking half-backs in the same way Maranello produces Ferraris. But much like Keith Higgins, the Ballinrobe man has a versatility about him that has seen him travel throughout the lines in recent seasons. This year's championship has seen him relocate to midfield alongside Séamus O'Shea and it suits him just fine.
“I’d say I’ve played in every line for Mayo, to be fair,” Vaughan allowed at Mayo’s last public engagement prior to the All-Ireland final. It was an overcast September evening in Breaffy and the mood was spectacularly subdued: it’s fair to say that the 2016 final will not eclipse the 1989 appearance for pre-match hype.
“I played full forward this year in the FBD, I was delighted with that one. Goalie now is the next one! Yeah, midfield, half back certainly. But I think that the way the game is gone, that middle eight, half backs, midfield, half forward: it’s a very, very similar type of player that plays in those positions.
“And even sometimes the role you’re playing isn’t dissimilar because if you’re playing against a team that has four forwards, what are the other two players then? Are they midfielders or are they forwards? You even have corner forwards playing as sweepers and stuff, so it’s the way the game is gone.”
Nod to tradition
It’s a fair point. The old 1-15 format may be little more than a nod to tradition.
Vaughan’s day-career, which involves running three shoe stores – in Ballinrobe, Claremorris and Castlebar – has made him practiced in answering every question under the sun about football.
It comes with the territory and now that Mayo are back in the September spotlight, he is accustomed to non-stop football chat. He is easy going about it.
“I suppose I get to gauge the mood as I’m meeting people all the time. I do think people are still quite positive. They’re very excited. Maybe pundits and everyone else are writing us right off. We’ve a great chance and there’s positive vibes, definitely, with the county.”
Vaughan has mixed memories of Mayo’s last championship encounter with Dublin, the thrilling replay semi-final series a year ago. He was injured during the first encounter and had to leave after just 10 minutes. He went through extensive rehab and lasted until half-time in the replay.
“I’ve no regrets about playing the second game. What I had can be a six-week injury in normal circumstances. Its four to six weeks to get back playing pain-free. I went to Santry on the Monday or Tuesday, came down and then I think I went up to Dublin on the Wednesday or the Thursday of the game and stayed up there.
“So I was in Santry two or three times a day then so I was literally doing nothing else but rehab and getting treatment. There were actually two physios working on me at some stages. But do I regret it?
“I felt I was doing quite well in the game. I may have conceded two points or something like that but I actually felt I was well in the game. I had an awful lot of possessions in fairness. I was taken off before half time but I felt I made a positive contribution to the game. I think we were 10-all at half-time so I certainly had no regrets about that.”
The regret was more a collective thing. Mayo had fallen short again. The turbulent winter heave against management led to a so-so league and then the minor shock of their championship defeat to Galway in Castlebar. For the first time, Mayo's seemingly dauntless push towards a Sam Maguire looked a little jaded. In retrospect, losing that game might have been a blessing. Alan Dillon spoke recently about the rawness of the Mayo training matches in the weeks after that loss as a kind of a purging. Vaughan agrees that in the loss and their reaction to it, Mayo "did probably become a more united group".
Of course, it is easy to say these things. Mayo have cleared the decks, firmly ejecting the fancied Tyrone in the quarter-final and then beating national darlings Tipperary without any real sentimentality. They haven’t caught the imagination this year. They’ve just kept on winning.
“At the start of the year, if you’d asked us, we would have liked to have taken the direct route and not lose a game,” Vaughan says.
“That’s not the way it transpired. I suppose the one thing that would be a positive from our own point of view is that normally when we learn our lesson it’s August or September and you’ve to wait six or seven months to try to right the wrongs or even just to start again. Whereas this time it was three weeks. We lost to Galway. We were facing an uphill battle, we didn’t know who we were going to get and it made us look at ourselves, management, players, what were we doing, were we working hard enough? I suppose we focused on little things, getting to training that little bit earlier, working on our skills, simple things.”
Will it be enough? Mayo are cold outsiders on Sunday. The general perception is that their form has been patchy at best.
“We’re going in and out of games, we are producing very good spells in fairness. What I always say is when we play like we can we can beat any team and we’ve shown that,” Vaughan points out.
He is polite and measured because the world’s view doesn’t matter.
“When we play like we can we are building up big scores and I suppose, for us, it is a matter of extending that period of dominance. But no matter what sport or team you’re playing, you probably won’t dominate the game for 70 minutes. They will have their five or six chances.
“For us it is about when we have our period of dominance, extending it, making sure we can convert our chances when we get it and when the opposition have theirs, making sure you can limit their chances as much as possible. We have been in and out of games. It’s not upsetting.”
In and out . . . and still here.