He watched last September's All-Ireland final at a friend's wedding in Ballycotton. Suited up, enjoying the celebrations and standing with everyone else in front of a television watching this big autumnal football carnival whose previous two editions had starred Mayo.
When you are in it, you don’t really see it. He felt detached from it all . There were the Kerry boys, rivals just weeks earlier on a wild and dusty Saturday replay in Limerick, the All-Ireland semi-final which slowed down time.
And there too was Donegal, who had come marauding from the hills in the summer of 2012 to add to Mayo's list of harrowing All-Ireland final days. It didn't matter much to Donal Vaughan which county won. "My overriding feeling was envy that we weren't there," he says on a frigid day in Castlebar, with Mayo's latest tilt at an All-Ireland year just days away.
"We": it is an important distinction because when Vaughan came to prominence as an aggressive, attack-minded halfback in the James Horan era, he was asked a thousand times about growing up in Cork. Yes, his childhood years were spent in Kanturk and the family skipped across to Kerry for a short while before work brought them to Ballintubber. But Mayo is the place that shaped him. That is what Vaughan wants to say.
“I am Mayo now. I know it is easy to say that. But I love Mayo. I love the people here. They were very welcoming to us when we came here and it is a friendly county. We have no relations here apart from ourselves but we will never go back. This is our home now.”
tradition Last summer, James Horan took the team to Achill for a team meeting. It was a part of the county Vaughan had never properly seen before. The landscape took his breath away and got him thinking of how important
the football tradition is to Mayo, of how deeply the damn thing matters.
He absorbed that slowly growing up in Ballinrobe and fighting his corner: a featherweight scrumhalf on the local rugby team and skilled at Gaelic football but not really on the radar.
"Good enough to make a under-16 south west team but not an under-16 south," he says, emphasising the difference. Pearse Hanley and Tom Parsons were the names everyone spoke about in his minor years and although he was sent along for preliminary trials with about 60 other hopefuls, he was cut without ceremony.
“That was the best thing that happened to me because I met guys who were still involved in schools games. I was a little bit bitter and started playing really well. So I got a call back in for the minors on St Patrick’s week. They were playing Leitrim on a Saturday and I wasn’t involved in the squad. As it turned out, they lost against Leitrim and about half the panel got dropped. I didn’t make that minor team either.
“I was a substitute . . . should have started an All-Ireland quarter-final but didn’t. It was after that . . . the club won the county championship and I had a good game and got massive confidence. And I started to grow physically and in height at the same time.”
All the time, he was learning more and more about Mayo football. He didn’t know it then but the cause, the team, was gradually becoming central to who he is. Although Kieran McDonald had left the county dressing room just months before, Vaughan got to mark the Crossmolina man in club matches a few times.
The experience remains sharp. McDonald was at once sinewy and a wraith. Vaughan can remember diving for a ball McDonald was about to try and point in some league game or other. McDonald was already committed to the kick and Vaughan was certain he had him penned. And he was just inches away from the football when he saw, at extreme close range, the trademark dummy solo and he landed on his face just as McDonald sent his shot sailing over the bar. “I was there wondering if all county players were like this.”
They weren’t. McDonald and Vaughan belong to different Mayo football generations and yet their football lives overlapped. There is always continuity. Not long after John O’Mahony returned to Mayo as senior manager, he asked Paddy Prendergast and Padraig Carney along to dinner with the squad.
Vaughan was new and it was an evening he valued because it put faces, voices and stories to this fabled generation of Mayo footballers from 1950 and 1951. It made the 60-year gap without a senior All-Ireland seem less consequential. “They brought along jerseys and boots from that period. It was cool,” Vaughan says.
O’Mahony’s point was unspoken and all the more powerful for that. That team was not something to shirk from or to see as a hex. There is no voodoo about any of this. Vaughan can recite the years of Mayo’s lost All-Ireland finals as easily as anyone. He played in two of them and he is at peace with that.
Vaughan qualified as an accountant but worked in the family shoe retailers since graduating. The family has three stores – in Ballinrobe, Castlebar and Westport – and Vaughan divides his time between them. They have been in business since 2006, growing and expanding through the worst of the recession.
Since then, he has learned everything about shoes and is fascinated by orthopaedics. They imported scanners to custom-fit supports and in-soles for customers.
Quality of life
“Could be athletes. Or people with back problems, ankle problems. I have scanned thousands of people now. I love to see someone come with a bad pair of shoes because you can really help them. They can have back problems, ankle problems and they walk out of there a new person.
“At Mayo training I’m listening to the physios and I am fascinated by it all. I’d say 80 per cent of the lads wear orthotics on our team. How you walk is important and it is something you never think about . . . you take 7,000 steps every day.”
He meets people and often holds conversation about Mayo football. He thinks of that as a privilege. The alternative – “of working your balls off as an accountant for some firm in Dublin, sent to England to count chickens” – never appealed.
When Bernard Brogan spoke recently about career versus football, it struck a chord. "I've heard stories of lads who have nailed job interviews only to be told afterwards: look, you did a great interview but you are playing county ball . . . there is no way you will have time for this."
He feels blessed. He shuts the shop at six, scoots down to training at MacHale Park and is home by 11 o’clock. It suits him. It keeps him in Mayo and he is open enough to admit that football – and the grand ambition of winning an All-Ireland and of ending this glorious, infuriating pursuit – is what his life revolves around.
“What’s my take on it all? Look, you have to embrace this. It is part of the Mayo history. My view is that it gives us a fantastic opportunity. All we are trying to do is win an All-Ireland. One team in Ireland does it every year. You win five games in a row: even a club championship involves more. The other thing about 1951 is: a typical answer is that it doesn’t matter, ancient history and all that. But you look at the All Blacks who imploded in the 2007 World Cup . . . they had this thing about the privilege of being under pressure. Because if you are not under pressure, it means that there is no expectation.”
The team went on a trip to Chicago last autumn. They met Ger Geraghty, an uncle of Danny Geraghty and a kind of lost star on O'Mahony's team of the late 1980s: a scintillating talent who had decided to emigrate. Vaughan explains the Geraghty lineage – part of the so-called "Golden Mile" of families on a road near Ballintubber – the Prendergasts and the O'Connors and the Geraghtys all grew up along this stretch, a laneway teeming with footballers.
The Horan years
He heard stories about Ger Geraghty’s exploits from Chicagoans, stories of how he habitually ran riddles against the best of inter-county defenders out on weekend expeditions. Sometimes he would be sceptical about stories like this. “But they were so specific and there was just so many that it seemed to be different. None of this is a bad tradition to have. It is part of our history.”
The four years under James Horan went by in a blur of relentless ambition and self-improvement. When Vaughan thinks of earlier Mayo teams, they always seemed to have a totemic figure such as Liam McHale or a supreme talent like McDonald. “I don’t think our team is like that,” he says. “It is sort of down to all of us.”
From day one, Horan would tell them that they were special, that they had more talent than any of the sides he played on.
“And in the beginning, we might have been asking: well, is there? James would say that there were teams he played on that should have won the All-Ireland that didn’t have the talent that was in our squad. And then we got familiar with opposition. And we got results and began to believe him. He was very fair to me. I think I started every game except the Connacht final against London.
“James had this thing about being respectful. He told us this story about the All Blacks sweeping up the dressingroom in Murrayfield after a game. They didn’t need to do that. Weren’t expected to. But it teaches respect and it keeps you humble. He was big into that.”
Of the four major championship defeats – the semi-final of 2011, the finals of 2012 and 2013 and that raw August semi-final replay in Limerick – it was the last one that hurt the most. Not just because the encounter had been so viciously honest and draining but because it turned out to be the end of something. None of them had any intimation in the build-up and Vaughan shakes his head at the idea Mayo paid for not finishing Kerry when they were five points up in the drawn match in Dublin. He never sensed that aura that is often spoken about by opponents of Kerry: that sense of invincibility.
"I don't have that. Maybe Kerry have it themselves, in that that they believe they can raise it to another level. But was that what beat us in Limerick or in Dublin? I don't think so. People talk about the Donaghy goal in Croke Park . . . a good ball in by David Moran. But it was a nothing ball, really. People gave out about Ger Caff but Ger Caff had cramp and should have been off 10 minutes beforehand. That was a mistake. He had cramp. He should have been gone. And it was a goal. But we actually responded."
Mayo went from five points down to five points up with 14 men in that drawn game. There is no getting away from the fact they were good enough to have been All-Ireland champions. But there is no avoiding the fact that they haven’t done it either.
The evening in Limerick cut them so deeply because they all believed it was going to happen under Horan. He waited until they arrived in a hotel for a meal to tell them that he was bowing out. “Once he said he wanted to chat . . . well, you’re not stupid. You know what’s coming. It is important to acknowledge Pat and Noel are going to bring us to a new level and we need to keep improving. If we win the All-Ireland this year, James will get credit for that. It will give him some reward.”
This weekend, the wheel cranks up on the football season. On Sunday Mayo head straight into the den of the beast, with a visit to Kerry. “I have never played at Fitzgerald stadium,” Vaughan says. “I have heard so much about it. That is something I am looking forward to.”
This will be his seventh season. He is only 26 and is acquiring veteran status but the faith is undiminished. There is no point in pretending what Mayo want.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe it,” Vaughan says. “I have a lot going on. I am not doing it for the whole prestige thing of playing ball in Mayo. I do love playing with a great group of lads but there has to be something more to justify the time. My attitude is that if I give it everything now, I know I will win a few All-Irelands. I know I will. Everyone builds it up as a big thing for Mayo but it is the same for every team.”
You walk 7,000 steps every day and they all count.