Donal Vaughan: Mayo’s running man for all seasons
Misunderstood and almost unnoticed, the defender is whatever his county needs him to be
Donal Vaughan celebrates scoring his goal against Donegal in 2013. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
In the giddy aftermath of their team’s overwhelming win in the quarter-final replay against Roscommon, Mayo minds instantly travelled to one day of comparison. Everything about the revived flow and irresistible force of will evoked memories of the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final, when Mayo sacked the champions Donegal in sensational fashion.
It may have been significant that as well as starting that match, Donal Vaughan was also included in the starting line-up for the Roscommon game. He was detailed to shadow Enda Smith, Roscommon’s best fire-starter and ended up operating as full-back when Smith was moved into full-forward. In addition to blotting out that source of joy, Vaughan found time to venture forward to score a point.
The day was in keeping with an eventful championship which has provided him with a kaleidoscopic view of Mayo’s championship progression. He started at wing back, wearing number eighteen, against Galway. He started midfield against Derry, before Séamus O’Shea replaced him after 58 minutes. He was black carded after three minutes in the Clare game and came against Cork after 52 minutes. He replaced Colm Boyle after 51 minutes in the drawn Roscommon game before returning to the starting line-up. Now he's been named at full-back for Sunday's semi-final.
I’d say within in his own mind, Donie is a first choice player and he doesn’t allow, as far as I can see, occasions of demotion to in any way deflect from the idea that he is an important cog in this particular machine
He has been in and out and all over the shop to such an extent that it is clear that his original role as an enforcer in Mayo’s second defensive line, which was less a half-back line than a flying column, has changed. It is as if Mayo are not quite certain what they want and need Donal Vaughan to be and whether he is, after marking his 90th intercounty appearance against Cavan this March, even still a first choice player.
“I’d say within in his own mind, Donie is a first choice player and he doesn’t allow, as far as I can see, occasions of demotion to in any way deflect from the idea that he is an important cog in this particular machine,” believes Martin Carney, who was working with then manager John O’Mahony when Vaughan made his senior breakthrough.
“And he is a vital cog, without question. But if Lee Keegan comes back against Kerry people may say, well Donal Vaughan will probably lose out. Then you ask who is the player most likely to be asked to sweep in front of Kieran Donaghy and Vaughan comes to mind. It’s a contradiction. Because any time he plays he gives total value to the jersey.”
That’s the point about Vaughan. His contribution often goes unremarked and almost unnoticed. He broke through surrounded by a defensive group of extravagantly gifted stylists, from the play-anywhere-do-anything facility of Keegan to easeful speed merchants like Boyle and Keith Higgins and, more recently Brendan Harrison and Patrick Durcan.
Vaughan has an almost retro ram-rod gait in the way he runs and plays and while he is a powerful athlete, there is a pronounced methodology about his running. But he runs that way because he sought expert advice on the most efficient way to run and, also, he never stops running.
There he is advancing up the field in the 13th minute of that 2013 game against Donegal, closing in on a ball Donegal have spilled at midfield and tapping it to Higgins. Then he keeps going, not at lightning speed but eating up the yards at a pace that is deceptive. Higgins plays the ball to Alan Dillon who instantly gives a return hand-pass. By now, Vaughan has ghosted in behind the last line of Donegal cover and when Higgins plays a hand pass over the top, Vaughan accelerates, gobbles the ball up before Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan can get there and taps the ball home into an empty net.
That’s the moment the contest ended and the rout began. Early in the second half, Vaughan popped up behind the last line again, feeding Cillian O’Connor for an open goal. Ironically, the only other player with the same uncanny facility for moving almost invisibly through covering defences was Anthony Thompson, the Donegal defender. Vaughan’s score wasn’t extravagant and in the deluge which followed, it was lost. But it was hugely important.
“He brought another dimension to the team,” says James Horan, Mayo manager through the epic years of 2011-14.
“Opposition teams don’t like to see him. In some teams he got taken out of it quite a bit because they would see this relentless runner coming at them. Donie Vaughan goes ahead of the ball. He takes a chance – which is what we encouraged. When we have the ball, go. And even if he doesn’t get the ball, he is bringing the cover out of the way.”
Horan fully agrees that Vaughan is one of those ball players whose game is either misunderstood or un-noticed. Like Anthony Thompson in his prime years, Vaughan’s influence on the team only becomes apparent once he isn’t there.
“I think he is a completely under-rated player, yeah.” Horan says.
“Perception is key in Gaelic football. In Gaelic football, people remember the guy who makes the two big catches. What happens with Donie Vaughan is that because he has this unorthodox soloing style – a high style and he looks a bit robotic: guys like Maurice Fitzgerald and Odhran MacNiallis have a flow to them when they play – this easy, languid style. Well, Donie doesn’t have that. So he mustn’t be skilful is the extrapolation of that.
“People are waiting for it to go wrong and if they see him get turned over in a tackle, it confirms the bias they have. But the stats will show that Donie Vaughan loses the ball far less than the majority of defenders in the game. He suffers from that a little bit. But any day Donie was fit he was on my team because he frightened the opposition by being such a relentless runner.”
Off the top of his head, Horan can easily summon Vaughan’s habit of popping-up at crucial moments. Centre-back is a lynchpin position but the Ballinrobe man still had the energy and composure to present himself to hit the point that beat Cork in the quarter-final of 2014 and the levelling score in the famous All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry to take the game and the nation to extra time.
But it is the thousand small, vital contributions for which Horan most values Vaughan. There is his physical presence, for a start. Vaughan had not been courted by the Mayo academy as a youngster – “Good enough to make an U-16 southwest team but not good enough to make an U-16 south team,” was Vaughan’s droll summary of how he was quickly dismissed in a minor era when Pearce Hanley and Tom Parsons were the big names. He wasn’t deterred.
There is an inner circle there that have set the template for others to buy into and he has been particularly influential in that
Martin Carney was struck by Vaughan’s raw athleticism when he first came into the senior panel. And he noticed that whatever limitations lay in his game, Vaughan was uncommonly serious in his desire to improve and to learn.
“He magnetizes your attention in that way. He was very serious about the whole thing. There is an inner circle there that have set the template for others to buy into and he has been particularly influential in that. He is a terrific lad and was always extremely serious and dedicated about what he was doing and was prepared to take any advice or to go any lengths.”
Carney recalls him getting stuck into a marquee forward at a pitch-opening one sleepy day and getting a box in the mouth for his impudence. He needed ten stitches in the tongue, had them sewn in and then resumed the contest.
When Mayo underwent a kind of phoenix-act under Horan, Vaughan came to embody both the physical and mental toughness of the new order. It came with a reputation. He spoke out about the perception that he was a dirty player after the 2012 campaign.
“They did highlight us and said we fouled collectively this many times in one game. But they didn’t take the year in a full context or the teams we were playing. When you are criticising something you’ve got to be balanced. It is true, though, that once people start talking about you as a dirty player, then people automatically presume it.
Vaughan became probably the least-spoken about in the the senior group of players who comprise both engine room and soul
“The perfect example is Paul Galvin. There was a picture in the paper a few months ago – someone had a hand in his mouth and an elbow in his face. I was talking to someone and they said: did you see that picture of Galvin? And I was like, in fairness there’s a fella with a hand in his mouth and he is about to be elbowed in the face, he’s doing no wrong. If you look at the championship last year, I only got booked in one game.”
The observation reflected the emergent Mayo attitude under Horan: independent-minded, unblinking, driven and impervious to criticism. As Mayo’s renaissance grew into a seemingly dauntless push for the All-Ireland, Vaughan became probably the least-spoken about in the the senior group of players who comprise both engine room and soul.
Just one moment from last year’s All-Ireland final: 53 minutes in and Dublin 2-6 to 0-10 ahead and moving downfield, with Diarmuid Connolly in possession. It’s a hugely threatening moment because you fall three behind to Dublin with fifteen on the clock and that they can quickly move out of sight.
Vaughan comes from nowhere and unbalances Connolly with a clean shoulder and without breaking stride collects the ball when it spills loose and turns to set up a counter attack. Blink-of-an-eye, unfashionable stuff in what was a helter-skelter final. But you can bet that Connolly, one of the best to play the game, remembers it. Not many players have dispossessed him like that.
But the case for Vaughan may even be more tangential than that big tackles. Perhaps the best reason for including him on any team is that he makes those around him better in ways that elude the statisticians.
“He is up and down the field, linking, tackling, niggling if necessary, linking up the lines,” says Carney. “Bombing forward. Whenever Mayo need a job done- sweeper, an athletic midfielder, they go to Donal Vaughan.”
And there is the other more instinctive consideration now that Mayo’s enthralling pursuit of this thing has reached critical mass. They have made it to the last four despite sustained criticism and scepticism that their day was done. Stephen Rochford told Mike Finnerty in the Mayo News this week that the squad has not laboured on the quarter-final performance, “But we’ll be looking to replicate it, with a bit more, because we know that’s what’s going to be needed.”
The sight of Mayo in rampaging mode against Roscommon seemed to capture them in their most natural state of play and being. It made a lie out of the belief that the wild stallion had left this particular team and they were winning games on muscle memory.
There is a hugely persuasive argument to be made now that Mayo’s best last hope is to go back to what they do better than any elite team out there: thunder through teams with that powerful running game.
It is not a sight that Kerry would welcome. Nobody gallops better than Donal Vaughan. And as Mayo tease out the combinations and possibilities of what they need to go that extra step, his role becomes an essential part of the conversation.
All summer, the question seems to have been whether or not they can afford go with Vaughan in a house crowded with potential starters. Maybe the plain answer is that they can’t afford not to.