John Maughan: This year's All-Ireland will be tainted, whoever wins it
Offaly boss 'This is a little bit like the foot-and-mouth league - the Covid All-Ireland'
John Maughan is preparing for Offaly’s return to action. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho
That he hasn’t seen the like of this is hardly surprising but does tell its own story. John Maughan is the doyen of inter-county managers: no-one’s career goes back as far and no-one else has managed teams in all four provinces.
Now in charge of Offaly, his fifth county spread over 29 years, he has been living in the same world as other managers, relying on technology that would have sounded like science fiction when he first walked into the Clare footballers’ dressingroom, half a lifetime ago.
“Young, inter-county footballers’ lives are so structured for them and they needed a little direction and guidance,” he says “- a few templates to keep the thing going. I’d say 85 per cent of them did it. Of course there were 15 per cent, who didn’t!”
The road as outlined by the GAA is mapped in detail if the fates allow it to stretch that far. Maughan is closely focused on the opening two weekends of league fixtures with their ability to predestine 2021 for a county like Offaly, who are perched mid-table in Division Three and theoretically capable of leaving in either direction; nearly out of reach of relegation and somewhat farther distant from promotion.
He’s long enough in the game to get to the point quickly and also to have opinions that have been tempered by a range of experiences, drawn largely it would have to be said from the striving classes: counties trying to get to the next level rather than the summit.
The road to the top
Just once the road to the very top beckoned. Arguably, even across the oceans of tears that have flowed in the interim, no Mayo team came closer than Maughan’s in 1996, as Meath clawed back a big, second-half deficit and drew the All-Ireland final with a late point that bounced over the bar from a kick as random as a ball dropped from a satellite.
“Six points up,” he says, “we played better football for 80 per cent of the game and got caught by a couple of sucker punches and the bounce of a ball. Had you won it, you’re history makers and all that goes with that but in the end it’s a nothing - a losers’ medal, which is a nothing. It was heart breaking and I often think about but you’ve got to let it go.
“Had we won it, Mayo wouldn’t be loved the way they are by everybody!”
It’s clear that he doesn’t see this as a good deal.
He has absorbed the lessons. Teams need realistic targets and their progress builds exponentially on reaching them - hence the conviction-based advocacy of the at times unloved Tier 2 or Tailteann Cup, one of the many human endeavours laid low this year by coronavirus.
Maughan’s team twice won the old and diffidently named All-Ireland B title, which back in the 1990s was probably the most successful iteration of the graded championship idea.
“Having reached and won the final of two All-Ireland B championships with Clare and Fermanagh and know how beneficial it is for teams to have something beneficial to go after. It would have been interesting and I think we would have struggled to get out of Division Three as we were placed.
“So it was likely we’d have been playing in the Tailteann Cup but we’d have been ready and taken it seriously.
“In ‘91 we won in Clare and it was the first football title the county had won in years and we danced on the streets of Ennis with excitement after winning it. We got a great bounce out of it.”
Clare was the first job and remains probably the happiest, the one where he felt he took a team to the limits of its potential, made history and became an accidental hero, as a young army officer whose own career had been abruptly halted by a knee injury.
The All-Ireland B win against Longford on a bleak November afternoon in Ballinasloe might have occasioned rejoicing but eight months later in the Munster final of 1992, the county entered dreamland, beating champions Kerry to win a first provincial title in 75 years and follow it up with a proud, cussed display in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
“The following morning I was up by 7am and I didn’t get off the bottom step of the stairs until about one o’clock - there were no mobile phones in those days! Then someone came knocking on the door and said, ‘Clare is looking for you all morning. The party bus is leaving the West County.’
“Inter-county was different back then. You could party back in those days!”
Maybe that shaped Maughan’s view of the qualifiers, which he has never warmed to, seeing them as a facility for strong counties, because his achievements - either side of the great qualifier divide in 2001 - had always come through the front door.
Maybe it was Fermanagh, the county he took to the last ever All-Ireland B in 2000 and the following summer chiselled out a memorable replay win against Donegal in the Ulster championship - only to draw them again in the first summer of the qualifiers and end up losing the only match out of three with permanent side-effects.
The resurrection of knockout hasn’t warmed his heart this year. He knows that it’s simply a symptom of dysfunction.
“This is a little bit like the foot-and-mouth league - the Covid All-Ireland! No matter who wins it, it will be tainted because it’s different.”
His building Offaly team need to make sure of their league status and be ready for Carlow with a quarter-final against Kildare the target in a province where Dublin have long blotted out the sun.
“In Leinster it might be decades, if ever, by the time Offaly can compete with Dublin. They’ve now 13 of the last 14 Leinster titles so it’s not just Offaly.
“Westmeath play Dublin in the first round of the championship and what chance have they? That’s their season over. The uncertainty of outcome is what makes sport exciting - the unknown; that sense of anticipation, how are you going and who’ll pick up who.
“We focus on getting into the second round of the championship and having a crack at Kildare. Winners probably play Meath and you know what? On a good day? But as regards winning the title you have to be realistic and honest.”
He denies that this is a counsel of despair.
“In Offaly, I’m grateful that everything is done exceptionally well and the level of preparation is good. I think Offaly will really improve. Tier 2 would help, absolutely, but we have to wait another year for that and we’ll be better prepared.”