League final place a big achievement for Leahy and Mayo

Manager says players deserve the plaudits for stepping up in the absence of big names

Dublin’s Deirdre Murphy and Martha Byrne tussle with Mayo’s Cora Staunton  during the TG4 All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dublin’s Deirdre Murphy and Martha Byrne tussle with Mayo’s Cora Staunton during the TG4 All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

In his first season as manager of Mayo, having stepped up last November from a coaching role with the team to replace Frank Browne in the job, Peter Leahy has led the county to Sunday’s National League Division One final against Dublin.

But all anyone has really asked him along the way is about you-know-who.

“She’s got a great tan, thanks for asking,” he says, before laughing loudly. And then he insists: “There is no story here.” It was, he says, just “a spat on Twitter”.

The “spat” involved a largely indignant response to remarks Leahy made to the Western People when he said he hadn’t spoken to Cora Staunton since her return from her spell playing Australian Rules with Greater Western Sydney.

He insists now that “some people have misquoted me”, but whatever he intended, it didn’t exactly sound like he was holding the door open for Staunton’s return to the Mayo panel:

“The reality is that the panel is open to anyone who wants to play for Mayo and she’s one of the best players in the country. We have an emphasis in place: it’s about the team. It’s not about the individual. Cora is a big name, but if she comes in, she’ll be coming in as a team player. In order to get into this team, you have to do your job. Our forwards, at the moment, are shooting the lights out. If that continues we’re quite happy with the forward line we have.”

His comments, though, are rooted in a frustration with the focus remaining firmly on Staunton’s plans rather than on the players who, in her absence, have taken Mayo to Sunday’s decider against the team that beat them in last year’s All-Ireland final.

“They’re the ones who have got us to a league final, so they’re the ones who need to be honoured and patted on the back. Hopefully come Sunday they’ll be saying, ‘great, you’re league champions’”.

And he salutes them for stepping up in the league campaign in the absence of not just Staunton, but two other Mayo stalwarts, Martha Carter and Yvonne Byrne.

“It was nearly a shock factor not having them around. Cora, Martha and Yvonne have led the Mayo set-up for a number of years and it was time for other people to step up. In ways it was very difficult, in ways it was a big help because these girls had to find themselves – and they have found themselves.”

Outstanding football

“But the first few games it was, ‘oh God, if only we had Cora for this’. That’s natural, you’re talking about the best player who ever played the game, people are always going to talk about her. But the more we won and the more our forwards started to score, the less of that talk we heard.

“And two of them scored 0-16 between them, not a wide between either of them, in the semi-final against Cork. It’s just that Cora is back in the country now, so there’s obviously talk.”

“But look, again, there is no story here. Me and Cora do contact each other and we know where we stand. Her angle and my angle is leave it be, get the league final over and we’ll sit down and talk. And everyone will know then where we stand.

“She’s honouring the girls who are there, who are playing outstanding football right now, who have done the job and got us to the final. She doesn’t want it to be about Cora Staunton, I don’t want it to be about Cora Staunton, and I don’t want it to be about Peter Leahy either.”

Apart from incessant questions about you-know-who, Leahy, a sports scientist with a background in rugby, is enjoying his first season as Mayo manager having led the women of Westmeath to All-Ireland Intermediate success in 2011 and also having managed the Westmeath men’s minor footballers and being a member of the coaching staff for the county’s senior hurlers.

“Like any job when you go in first there were hairy moments, a lot of people don’t want to accept you, especially when you’re stepping up from a part-time role, as I was. It can be difficult, you have to create that bond.

“It’s bad enough with men, but with women change doesn’t go down that well, so it was hard at the start. But when you’re winning games it helps. We’re on the one boat now, moving in the same direction.”

You haven’t the heart to ask him, yet again, if you-know-who will be aboard that boat for the championship.

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