John O’Mahony: ‘I’ve no doubt that if they break the barrier, anything is possible’

Former Mayo player and manager, who faced cancer last year, has high hopes for native county

John O’Mahony: “This is a very young team and James Horan has done a fantastic job in transitioning so quickly.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

John O’Mahony: “This is a very young team and James Horan has done a fantastic job in transitioning so quickly.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

By the spring of 2020, John O’Mahony was in the best of spirits and liberated from a working life of two careers, teacher and politician. That year’s general election brought the curtain down on the 32nd Dáil and Seanad and he retired.

There was by now a pandemic and lockdown but restricting his movements wasn’t going to be a problem.

“The life of a politician can be exacting in that you’re 24 hours a day on duty so after retiring I was feeling great. I had lost weight and the weather was amazing.”

But. One of those stories that always seem to start with a random pain was about to unfold. Persistent back ache became a problem and daughter Cliodhna advised that he get it looked at and, as his GP wasn’t contactable, O’Mahony went straight to the Galway Clinic and they kept him in.

“They had detected something and that set off alarm bells and then I had a biopsy the following day.”

Five long days dragged by, as the biopsy was sent to England for determination.

“All of a sudden, I’m diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer and that hit me like a train. My generation when they hear the word, ‘cancer’ your life flashes in front of you.”

The Tuesday night before the results came back he was sleepless and rerunning the film of his life, which for all he knew was now on the final reel. The stillness of the night was almost photographic, as pandemic restrictions froze all comings and goings.

“I remember looking out during the height of the lockdown in 2020. All things started flashing in front of me, like the grandchildren I wouldn’t see grow up. Randomly, the football thoughts were triggered by the traffic lights’ red and green. Green and red.

“There wasn’t a sinner out there. Then I was looking out on the Dublin Road, thinking of the cavalcade in 1998 and 20,000 people waiting in Galway and another 5,000 behind us – and all of that.”

A hard – but critically – passable road beckoned.

“The diagnosis wasn’t at the worst end of the spectrum and I had a brilliant medical team under Dr Krawczyk in the Galway Clinic and UCHG. The big intervention was stem cell transplant just three days after last Christmas. They said it would be hard going and it was.

“My wife Ger dropped me at the door and I went in on my own but I suppose I knew it had to be done. The discipline of contests in a sporting life helped me in that this was just another one to be won. You get on with it and I knew it was key to my recovery.”

So the film of his life has a fair few ad breaks left but what a life it’s been.

Fifty years ago

It’s almost as if the length of time back to 1971 has come as revelation to O’Mahony when he ponders his first All-Ireland success, a minor victory over Cork in that year’s final.

“Someone reminded me about the 50th thing in the minor and it made me feel old.”

He wasn’t a stranger to Croke Park but neither was he a regular.

“I would have been there when Mayo won Connacht in 1967 and ’69, the year they lost only narrowly to Kerry who won the All-Ireland. Only recently I came across the ticket, 12/6 (roughly 80 cent) to get in. Otherwise no.

“It was a new experience to run out onto the pitch in Croke Park and in those days you had a good crowd in for the minor match because those paying at the gate had to be there early.

“In the final against Cork I wasn’t hugely involved because in those days as a corner back you stayed in your position and if the ball came into your area you contested it but there was no such thing as scoring winning points. But it was fantastic and planted the seed of wanting to play for Mayo.”

It also planted a seed for Connacht football whose various causes O’Mahony has pioneered over nearly 40 years of preparing and managing teams: Mayo’s 1983 All-Ireland under-21 champions, Mayo’s first All-Ireland final in 38 years, Leitrim’s only Connacht since 1927, Galway’s return to the top for the first time since the 1960s.

He has a phrase, a mantra, that crops up when talking about the teams he takes over, “raising the bar”: or making them better, asking that they reassess their standards and ambitions. Heralding the new dawn.

What are the odds?

In the economic wasteland of post-war Ireland, Stephen O’Mahony might have been expected to emigrate as vast numbers did at the time. Instead he went the road less travelled, from Drinagh in West Cork to the Mayo-Roscommon border with staging posts in Tralee and Tuam.

It was in Doherty’s – one of those department stores that flourished in small rural settings at the time – in Lisacul, just inside the Roscommon border, that he applied for a job as a truck driver in the late 1940s and was interviewed by Bridie Gallagher from Bangor Erris. She married him and what happened next dictated the future of Connacht football.

“They eventually settled down,” he recalls, “and bought the last house in Mayo, which dictated my intercounty involvement. Throw a stone and you’re in Roscommon – a different parish, county and dioceses.

“In that era of mass emigration, for him to come from West Cork and end up in the west rather than England or America with my mother was amazing. He was a delivery driver and worked his way through Tralee and Tuam and ended up here. They settled in Kilmovee but there was no club there at that time and at school we were asked to play for Ballaghaderreen. It was a rich period for the club so we were lucky to win county titles and play for the county.”

Why always Tyrone?

John O’Mahony’s career has been punctuated by championship encounters with Tyrone. This weekend they meet Mayo for the first time in an All-Ireland final but 50 years ago, his minor team had to get past the Ulster champions in the semi-final before surprising a fancied Cork in the final.

 “Frank McGuigan was playing for Tyrone and Jimmy Barry-Murphy for Cork,” he remembers. “But we also beat Tyrone in the 1973 under-21 semi-final – Mickey Harte played that day – before losing to a Kerry team full of names that would go on to be famous.”

A year later he added an under-21 medal to his minor. It was hard going. In Connacht they had to get past a Galway team that featured five forwards who would play in a senior final that year and in the All-Ireland semi-final, a Dublin team including Brian Mullins and John McCarthy.

In the year O’Mahony got Mayo into the All-Ireland final, 1989, they had to beat Tyrone in the semi-final. The Ulster champions had famously pushed Kerry in the 1986 final and three years later were intent on getting back to close the deal.

“Yeah, I was kind of surprised,” he remembers. “They were talking about ‘unfinished business’ and even had T-shirts with that printed on them.”

Mayo finished business for them that year but it was a defeat by Tyrone in 2004 that brought down the curtain on O’Mahony’s Galway career, which he left with two All-Irelands on the mantelpiece.

 This weekend Tyrone stand between Mayo and the most ardently desired All-Ireland in history.

The Maloney brothers

O’Mahony attended Maynooth as a clerical student. His bothers Dan and Stephen did likewise and are now priests – “I didn’t last the pace and nearly didn’t get to play in the 1971 minor final. I remember going up to Monsignor Newman, the college president, at the time and there was no guarantee that I’d be allowed play. A good friend of mine, Fr Seán Freyne [the late theologian] who was there at the time had been captain of the 1953 Mayo minors and wasn’t allowed play in the final that they won. That would have tested my vocation!”

Other events occurred, like Ballaghaderreen reaching a county final.

“There was a retreat on the day and Dan and I had to break the rules to escape because you weren’t meant to leave.”

In the 1970s there must have been traffic jams around Maynooth with the number of cars arriving to ship clerical students off to forbidden matches. With typical O’Mahony thoroughness, there was a further detail to be squared off.

“We had got the press onside by asking them not to print our names in the report. We appeared in the papers as J and D Maloney!”

Managing to stay involved

His intercounty career ended abruptly at the age of 22 when he didn’t survive the loss of face then involved in Mayo losing to Sligo in a Connacht final

“I started working with teams in St Nathy’s College and my club in Ballaghaderreen. Eventually I took on the under-21s and we won the All-Ireland in 1983. The seniors eventually came calling.

“I wanted to raise the bar. It frustrated me that we never seemed to think in terms of getting to All-Ireland finals. From a Mayo perspective we needed to get away from the idea that a Connacht title was enough.”

Working from the base of winning Connacht in 1988, his first year, when they lost to Meath, O’Mahony worked to intensify preparations.

“In ’89 I progressed that with Bill Cogan [a sports psychologist]. In those days Ulster and Connacht counties were the poor relations but as well as the psychology, I looked at nutrition and had my own camera unit to film games.”

Mayo arrived that year, back in an All-Ireland for the first time since 1951, a year that would eventually be etched into the national consciousness of the game – a date since Mayo have now contested 10 unyielding finals. All of that suffering was in the future, 32 years ago.

 “The county went wild at the time and there was no question of the county being unhappy because we lost by three points in the final. Players and management were devastated but the county was delighted. I suppose it pointed the way for the future. At present that’s no longer acceptable. It’s about getting over the line, now.”

2021

This weekend Mayo are for the first time actually favourites to win the All-Ireland. If they do, Sam Maguire will never have been more yearned for on arrival in a county.

“This is a very young team and James Horan has done a fantastic job in transitioning so quickly,” says O’Mahony. “I’ve no doubt that if they break the barrier, anything is possible. I learned in Galway that the bonus of winning one is that you will exist in an All-Ireland zone where you believe anything is possible.

 “I remember sitting in the Hogan Stand in 1996 when John Maughan’s team moved six points ahead with about 15 minutes to go and thinking ‘this is it’.

“I’ve no doubt that if that had worked out or any of the others along the way, there’d be more than one in the bag at this stage. No-one could have imagined either how hard and heart breaking it would be or how resilient Mayo would prove.

“During the weeks I was in hospital there were daily announcements of retirement from a string of great Mayo players. Eight months later we’re back in an All-Ireland. There is experience definitely with Lee Keegan and Aidan O’Shea and Paddy Durcan but also an ambitious, energetic set of players.

“I felt it would take a few years to rebuild. I remember speaking to James Horan a couple of years ago and basically saying that his job was to rebuild over the next couple of years and stay competitive. That has been done with interest, which is a great credit to everyone involved.

“I think the longer break, four weeks, is an advantage to Mayo because they have had time to get the emotion of beating Dublin through the system as well as helping with the injuries. It also gives time to shift the tactical focus to Tyrone rather than Kerry who they were probably expecting.

“It’s all about the attitude within the group. That was epitomised by the way they seized the game against Dublin with their work and running and were able to take risks because they were so confident of winning. If they can replicate that attitude they have a fantastic chance.”

He was let out of hospital last January, a few days ahead of schedule.

“I remember getting home on Wednesday evening to the great news that I had another grandchild, born the same day I was discharged. An extra member of the family – I was thrilled.”

Some year.

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