John O’Mahony firmly back in Leitrim’s camp again
Celebrated manager is a selector and helping current boss Brendan Guckian
Leitrim selector John O’Mahony with manager Brendan Guckian. “Losing is not inevitable. They’re entitled to win the odd time as well.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Twenty-three years ago this month John O’Mahony made the same trip to Dr Hyde Park that he will be travelling on Sunday. Back then he was managing a Leitrim team that a few weeks later would bridge 67 years of history by winning the Connacht title for only a second time.
The challenge of guiding Leitrim is as demanding as ever, as O’Mahony illustrates.
“You’re picking a team from, I suppose, 300 adult footballers – not senior footballers but junior and intermediate too. The irony of course is that when London beat Leitrim in the 2013 replay, none of the team that started that day started in Ruislip a couple of weeks ago.
“I know Colin Regan [the GAA’s Community and Health manager and a former Leitrim player] compiled stats on turnover of players that show weaker teams have a bigger turnover than stronger ones. In other words those that could deal with a bigger turnover, like Dublin and Kerry, never have to whereas Leitrim do.”
O’Mahony might balk at being described as the Godfather of Connacht football but he has certainly been a path finder during the past 30 years. Even previously he was an All-Ireland under-21 winner as both player and manager with Mayo and then won two senior provincial titles in 1988 and ’89 – in the latter year taking the county to a first All-Ireland final since 1951.
Leitrim’s 1994 success was next and in the years that followed, the pinnacle of his managerial career was reached with Galway’s All-Irelands in 1998 and 2001.
When he was invited to Leitrim in 1992, he accepts the county was in a stronger position.
“The last time I was there they were in Division Two, had won an All-Ireland ‘B’ championship (1990) and a Connacht under-21 title (1991). They were at a developed stage. In the intervening period that has changed. They’re in Division Four for a long time and aren’t ranked as highly as back then.
“I was asked at a time when I’d won two Connacht titles with Mayo and they said that they wanted to go to the next level, to win a Connacht. I said if everyone’s on board I’d be interested and I asked to see a number of the players before I committed. They said in various ways that they’d do anything I asked them to do to get over the line.”
Times are different now. Aside from the startling statistic about player turnover in the past four years, which is slightly affected by injury, there still has to be a lack of confidence after so many years in Division Four, to which the county was relegated back in 2008.
There have been stirrings this year. The Connacht junior title was won after deposing champions Mayo in the final. Leitrim is one of the counties allowed to enter its second-best team – as opposed to those players graded junior – and according to O’Mahony, given the number of players who had left the panel a really strong selection was available.
“As it happened this year there was so much of a turnover they could nearly have played three quarters of the [senior] team in the junior but they didn’t with the London fixture coming up. Still a few played and they won it – and you could see the spring in their step coming back to senior training.”
The under-21s, also under Guckian’s management, had generated great optimism this year but had a nightmarish first half in the semi-final against Galway. O’Mahony says that there were reasons for this with four players, including three named to play on Sunday, affected by injuries.
“There were four crucial injuries, which again a county like Leitrim can’t really bear: you had Ryan O’Rourke [an impressive performer for Maynooth in this year’s Sigerson Cup], who had to go off after five minutes, Pearse Dolan was injured and couldn’t even come on for a few minutes and Dean McGovern played although not fully recovered. Darragh Rooney broke his shoulder in the Hastings Cup and wasn’t back at that stage.
“That affected the team because they needed everyone and I don’t think they’d have gone 18 points down at half-time and had to try and come back.”
Come back they did against a team that would reach the All-Ireland final and in the end they lost by just four points.
Taking that young talent and helping to shape it into a collective that can deliver consistently and most importantly that can stick together as they mature is the challenge facing O’Mahony.
“Part of the attraction of going back for me,” he says, “was because I knew the people involved but also because I know the issues involved in a weaker county and felt I could advise on how best to keep players on board because losing is not inevitable. They’re entitled to win the odd time as well.”