Heavy on the Mayo


GAA/ Interview with John Maughan: Keith Duggan talks to John Maughan, who is hero and villain in Mayo, often in the same afternoon

The Mayo County Council office overlooks the Mall in Castlebar. The Mall is a beautifully kept green rectangle where Sheriff Brown used to hang those involved with the French invasion of 1798. The traitors to the crown dangled from trees in limp disgrace. Over 200 years later stands a man near the traffic lights at the town end of the Mall who Mayo folk have wanted to see hanged and sainted with equal passion, often in the same afternoon.

Maughan. His Christian name became superfluous many moons ago. He looks as he has always looked: tanned and devastatingly fit and serenely relaxed for a man who holds down a post that in the world of Gaelic football remains notoriously volatile.

Although he famously led Clare to the Munster championship of 1992 and briefly sparked optimism through the forested football communities of Fermanagh, John Maughan is indelibly the manager of Mayo. In a sense, he always will be.

Here is a question: If history's penny coin had spun a little differently in the mid-1990s and if Mayo had achieved one of the two All-Irelands they ought to have, would Maughan be on the sideline against Dublin tomorrow?

"Would I be? God. Yeah. Yeah, I'd say I probably would to be honest. Like I know those two years knocked the stuffing out of a lot of our supporters emotionally. The disappointment was incredibly deep rooted, it probably still is. And for a year or so, yeah, I'd find myself sitting bolt upright in the bed wondering, Jesus, did that really happen to us. Like, it is remembered and will be. But that squad is essentially gone now, this is a brand new bunch of new fellas. And you get excited by that."

The muted failure in the 1997 All-Ireland final against Kerry was abject but Mayo's loss in a replay in the 1996 showpiece against Meath was the most dramatic close to an All-Ireland season in recent years. It was gripping, shocking material and polarised opinions about both the gnarled Leinster county and Mayo, the penniless aristocrats from the west. All title but no silver. That final seemed to suggest this was to be their destiny. There were two ways of dealing with it. You let it fester or moved on.

That is why last summer John Maughan got involved in the "Bury The Hatchet Tour." Through Jim McGuinness, a Monaghan man living in Castlebar, it was arranged that referee Pat McAneaney would come down and walk the Bangor trail with Maughan and others for charity. It was McAneaney that famously sent off Liam McHale, man of the match in the drawn game, in the first minute of that charged replay.

"Fair play, he was a brave man to come down but I think he accepted the spirit of the thing. We presented him with a scroll, it was very funny actually. And we enjoyed the walk, raised I think €5,000 for charity and had a few pints. He is a nice guy. There were about 10 or 15 guys around him who let him know what Mayo thought about that replay so he got the message. But, I mean, we never blamed Pat McAneaney for us losing that game, it was down to ourselves. It got away."

Great escapes by All-Irelands bound for Mayo have become a theme in the county since 1951. If the theories and complaints bothered John Maughan, he would not be doing this job he loves. He has no truck with fatalism and believes there is no identifiable reason why the vastly talented Mayo teams of the mid 1980s, of 1989, of 1996 and 1997 somehow evaded All-Ireland titles that they were patently capable of winning.

"I wish there was. Really, I would love if someone could present one identifiable reason. But don't come to me with all the voodoo talk or curses. That is pie in the sky. I heard the same thing down in Clare with the hex of Biddy Earley. And I don't mind it. It is a fun thing. But equally, it's not about theories on guys getting injured or over training for a certain week in August or all those things that are analysed afterwards.

"And of course I have heard that we have lost games because Maughan didn't change X, Y and Z at a given time. But hey, you dance with the girls that are in the dance hall."

The truth is John Maughan does not know when Mayo will win an All-Ireland or even if they will do in the next 50 years. That, he smiles, is the whole attraction. There are no promises from the heavens, no guarantees.

With every new year though, the whispers across Mayo are palpable. This. This is our year. There is an absolutist streak running through the heart of Mayo football support that demands, sometimes implicitly and on other days with naked and colloquial aggression, that Mayo win.

Full-stop. That Mayo wins it all. Maughan understands that and does not mind it.

"See. I am a dreamer when it comes to this. Just as there is no guarantee that we will win, you flip that around and there is no guarantee we won't this very year. That is the way I have always felt about it."

That is why he retains a fresh excitement about Mayo's new generation. This is the era of Billy Joe Padden.

The attitude of the young twenty-something kids that Maughan and McHale brought into the panel sometimes takes Maughan aback. It is all in details. Kids bring their own water bottles to sessions. They arrive with little carbohydrate bars to eat immediately afterwards. They jump into the ice barrels afterwards as naturally as they would a hot shower. They are stoic and solemn about the game.

Sometimes Maughan, a celebrated perfectionist, wonders if the whole scene needs to lighten up. He worries about youngsters involved at the highest level. Fourteen of the current Mayo panel are students. This week, he had Dermot Geraghty and Conor Horan playing Sigerson with Maynooth. They left the field exhausted after last Sunday's league game in Enniskillen. Took a bus to Maynooth and were in Galway on Wednesday playing against UCG. Then back to Maynooth until Friday when they would embark on one of those insufferable night journeys across the country. Windows steamed and a fuzzy radio. They would get into Newport at 11 p.m. and were due to meet Maughan on the pitch at Castlebar at 9.30 this morning. For a get-together.

And he feels guilty about that. Mayo is a big county and it can be bleak in winter and he worries about dragging guys for miles and miles twice and three times a week. But he does it.

"So where does time for a girlfriend or even just to study fit in for those lads? I don't know. The fun is gone out of it. That is for sure. And there is no time now. It is true of society. My mother often asks me, 'did ye have any visitors lately?' As Audrey, my wife knows, if someone came to visit us, I'd be out the back door. There is no time. Maybe at Christmas. But that's reality, we are all running. And it is not a good thing."

In his playing days with Mayo, Maughan would always be found at the business end of an excruciating round of laps. He was bursting with fitness but even he finds himself hankering after the era when some degree of mischief was permissible even at the highest level. Some league weekends meant training on a Saturday morning, the pub on a Saturday night and the game on a Sunday. Of course Maughan would not -could not -tolerate such hedonism today but he does try and make allowances. James Gill is currently lost in Eastern Europe somewhere, beatniking across the continent with the manager's blessing.

David Sweeney is just back from honeymoon. Others are resting injuries. Life needs to be lived and for football players, early spring is the time to do that.

There are nights in the Maughan household when they sit down for tea as a family and the phone will ring and John will indicate two minutes with his fingers and the kids will frown because they know the reality of that is two hours. When Lindsey and Treasan were small, they would drive with their father down to Clare for summer games and training and it was fun. It was an excursion, a day out. And when Sally-Rose and Johnny came along, they learned that football was just this presence in the household. Sometimes it got in the way but ultimately, it was like the family pet.

Maughan is not sure where he inherited "this gene" as he calls it. His uncle Frank kicked junior football for the county but the game was not big in his house. He was born with the bug though. A teacher in Crossmolina, John Cosgrove, definitely encouraged it. In national school, he used tie his boots on while class was still in progress to give him the added few minutes kicking a ball. That nascent gift of preparation stood him well in boarding school in Moate, in the Army and as a football manager.

He has this faded old diary he kept for a tour of Lebanon in 1988. He was 27 then and recovering from a serious knee injury that had jeopardised his future with Mayo. His records show that he missed one day of training during six and a half months. When he got back to Ireland, the knee felt rock strong on the soft grass. For nine days, he trained ferociously and word spread that Maughan was back. On the 10th day it blew out all over again. He tried operations, faith healers and prayers but nothing worked. It was seven and a half years before he could run properly.

Today, in his job as co-ordinator in the Civil Defence, he retains the old habits. If he is driving and has an hour to kill, he will find a gym and train. He carries a gym bag like most of us carry a wallet.

"Like, I don't think I am screwed up about it or anything. I just enjoy it. It's a way of burning off steam and I squeeze it in when I can. I have heard and read about John Maughan's military ways and I smile. I don't know if it's true. Maybe, but I don't know."

On Tuesday night this week, John Maughan trained Mayo. He worked Wednesday and drove to Achill that night. Achill has strong emigration links with Cleveland in Ohio and Maughan is supervising a visit by Achill kids to the Children's Olympics over in Cleveland. Thursday he drove to Dublin and back for training on Thursday night. Last night, he was due to do presentations. Many evenings, he is involved with Civil Defence work, attending meetings and trying to persuade people to volunteer their time.

Every county has an emergency plan but some never have to execute them. In Mayo, the plan has been put into operation four times in the last decade. There was a landslide, a factory fire; small disasters in a tough, rugged county. John Maughan travels around the county marshalling and cajoling people and those drives give him what Ernie O'Malley described as "a sense of the bare breath of Mayo, backed by rounded mountains and sea, frayed lake-edges and the straight reach of Nephin mountain."

In football grounds like Castlebar, that breath vanishes and the county is reduced to the green and red on the field. Mayo is best understood through match Sundays. Dublin visiting in early February is a treat.

"A lovely test. They are a better team than us right now, they have built a platform. But it gives us a chance to measure ourselves. Would I bet on Mayo to win at 6 to 4 tomorrow? Not right now. But the season is young."

All week, his mobile has been singing with calls from radio stations and newspapers from the East. All mad to talk Dublinia. He wonders what it is like for Tommy Lyons.

In Mayo, it is different; the intensity is less noisy. Just a few miles out the road from where Maughan works, Kieran McDonald, the most naturally gifted Mayo forward of his generation, is building with a sub-contractor.

Maughan believes his days as a Mayo player are over although he would love to see him back. McDonald walked and not for the first time. The easy reason is that he got tired of hearing voices in the crowd shout abuse at him. After that league game in Fermanagh last year, Maughan tried to tell him that abuse in Mayo was a form of recognition. It meant that they believed in him and needed him. But he walked.

"It's sad and I am not sure why. Kieran has his reasons. The door is never closed here but I honestly do not expect him to come back."

It is not something he has had much time to deliberate on. The game is all moving so fast now, even for a man who liked to stay ahead of the pack. The Mayo thing moves on relentlessly because some year must be the year and why not this? "If we knew that . . " John Maughan laughs and does not finish the sentence. Finish?

He is only just beginning, all over again.