SETTLING IN John O’Mahony and James Waldron, Mayo GAA Chairman, are pictured at Monday night’s press conference to announce O’Mahony as the new Mayo manager in The Welcome Inn Hotel, Castlebar.
Johnno returns to finish job
THE Mayo dream has been rekindled with the return of John O’Mahony. His reunion with Mayo football comes some fifteen years after his acrimonious departure from the county he had led to an All-Ireland final in 1989.
Less self-assured managers might not have survived a split of that nature. John O’Mahony harboured no such doubts. Determined to prove the County Board wrong he cultivated his coaching interest. But only when he guided Leitrim to the Connacht title in 1994, their first in sixty-seven years, did it begin to dawn on the football world that the Ballaghaderreen man had wrought a minor miracle.
The victory was accomplished at the expense of his native county, and regarded by some as retributive justice. The giant-killing achievement must have nipped sorely on the Mayo conscience, and while O’Mahony was too reserved to brag, he would be forgiven if he had uttered an exultant whoop of delight.
Further evidence of his leadership qualities would come with his appointment to the Galway management, but not before the accession of John Maughan to a similar post in Mayo. In a blaze of promise Maughan had taken the reins in his native county. He had been a member of the All-Ireland winning u21 team of 1983 coached by O’Mahony. Like O’Mahony, he, too, had shaped some sort of phenomenon in steering Clare to a Munster senior title.
His appointment to Mayo was greeted with genuine hope, and only the heartbreak hop of a ball in 1996 precluded the Crossmolina native from heroic status in Mayo football folklore. The disappointment of that defeat was nothing compared to their failure to Kerry the following year. But at least Mayo were stirring, the first county from the west to make a genuine bid for All-Ireland honours in decades.
The relative success of Maughan aroused an envious Galway. In scouring the country for someone to prod their football into life, they hit on John O’Mahony. Not overwhelmingly greeted at first by Galway devotees - mainly because he was a Mayo man - it did not take O’Mahony long to make his mark.
His reign was secured with an All-Ireland title in 1998, his first year in control. Three years later Galway were back on the winners’ podium, and their manager sowed the seeds of future success when he also guided their U21s to a national title.
In his seven years leading the Tribesmen, O’Mahony had demonstrated his ability to identify the cause of their thirty-two years stint of failure, to root it out of their system and re-establish the county to its former glory. In Galway his name is now enshrined in the pantheon of managerial icons . . . a Mayo man, dismissed by his own, lighting fires in the hearts of an old foe. For all that, the high esteem in which he was held in Mayo was reflected in the number of invitations he received to the annual functions of clubs.
He would later write that too often, Mayo followers saw the beating of Galway as an end in itself whereas Galway saw their wins over Mayo only as means to an end.
His departure from Galway, after seven years at the helm, was the cue for a sustained effort to secure his services in Mayo. But O’Mahony was wise enough to know that the fickle expectations of Mayo supporters would soar with his appointment, and wear thin if he had not fulfilled their hopes in the first year of his leadership.
Having declined the offer to take charge, O’Mahony wrote subsequently that there would be a national celebration if Mayo won an All-Ireland because when they played well theirs was a beautiful brand of flowing football that was enjoyed by Gaelic football followers everywhere.
Writing in a ‘Century of Service’ to mark the centenary of the founding of the Mayomen’s Association, O’Mahony said that supporters of the Green and Red were so passionate about their football there was either elation or despair. There needed to be a middle path.
He recalled how no more than forty or fifty people attended Galway’s final training session before the All-Ireland of 1998, and most of those came looking for tickets for the match. In 1989 when he was in charge in Mayo thousands attended the final training session. Similar hype accompanied Kildare’s training sessions in 1998, and that gave Galway an advantage going into the final.
At the other end of the scale was the depth of despair into which Mayo people sank after defeats. Despondency to the same degree affected no other county in which he was involved.
THESE are some of the issues with which John O’Mahony must have been wrestling over the past months before making up his mind about taking the post. He was never one to make an instant, hurried decision, and over this appointment he mulled long and hard.
He would have in mind the danger of being accused of taking the post more for political reasons than for his confidence in emulating his achievements in Galway. As a candidate in the General Election, O’Mahony will be well aware that some members of the opposition might seize the opportunity to belittle his motives.
But the Ballaghaderreen man will not be deflected from giving full commitment to both undertakings. That is part of his make-up. Meticulous to the tiniest detail, nothing is left to chance. Having carefully weighed up the situation, he must be confident that he will have the full support of everyone in Mayo in trying to break the county’s 56-years-old duck.
In that same article, O’Mahony stressed that the need for “total unity of purpose among players, management and county board was paramount. That did not mean that you had to be in full agreement with everybody all of the time. There would be differences of opinion and emphasis, but the bottom line had to be the success of the team on the field. Personal egos or other agendas had to be cast aside because if the team won everyone gained.
He stressed the importance of management having “total and absolute backing of your county board at all times. My experience is that success comes when that happens. On a personal level I got that backing totally in Galway during my years there, but it wasn’t always present during my time in Mayo.”
Is it any wonder he has taken so much time deciding whether to answer the collective wish of every footballer and supporter in the county to resume where he left off so many years ago. Managers have come in the meantime convinced they could succeed where others had failed, but left baffled and frustrated. What had been an irresistible challenge became an insurmountable obstacle.
“I firmly believe that with a structured and common sense approach, with a unity of purpose that is present in all the top teams in the country at the moment that Mayo don’t have a divine right to lose every All-Ireland that they play in. That unity of purpose would involve having the best players in the country available and committed to that cause.”
Now that he has made up his mind, the speculation that for months has gripped the football community of Mayo about his return will now be refocused on how soon the Ballaghaderreen man will lead a Mayo senior team to an All-Ireland title.
Not even the return of this master coach can guarantee Mayo All-Ireland success. But his advent is Mayo’s best chance for many a long year. He’ll be a freer man at the controls, free from interference and intervention by officials. He’ll call for patience, and there will be more of it for him than for other managers because of his proven ability.
He’ll bring a new interest to football in the county; build greater conviction among players . . . with a genuine hope of final fulfilment. Everyone, everywhere with Mayo blood, inside and outside the county, will greet his return. His first big test is next June against the county he led to two All-Irelands. He will not predict any stirring success next year because it will take time to build the team of Mayo dreams. But already that depressing day in Croke Park last September is becoming an opaque memory.