MAN AT WORK Neil Douglas is pictured outside the Healthquarters gym in Castlebar last week. Pic: Conor McKeown
Neil Douglas believes he has something to offer Mayo
WE’VE been talking for nearly an hour and covered everything from his three years working in the Mayo GAA offices to the hamstring injury that stalled his inter-county career to his days on ‘The Bingo Bus’ with Mayo’s fringe players last summer.
Neil Douglas has been as candid and honest as he has been engaging, but it’s time for him to go back to work downstairs at the Healthquarters Gym in Castlebar, conveniently situated right across the road from MacHale Park.
These days the 26 year-old is juggling his gym instructor shifts with Castlebar Mitchels’ build-up to next Sunday’s All-Ireland club semi-final against Crossmaglen Rangers.
While all the time keeping one eye on Mayo’s progress under the new management regime.
Douglas is one of the 49 players currently in Stephen Rochford’s plans, and he makes no secret of the fact that he intends to try and make up for lost time in a Mayo jersey once his championship journey ends with Castlebar.
Believe it or not, the Mitchels forward has played under three different Mayo managements since 2010 and yet never started a National League match, or played one championship minute.
All he’s got to show for his efforts are five NFL appearances, all as a substitute. The last of those was three minutes at the tail-end of Mayo’s defeat to Donegal last April.
Injuries have played their part at times, he’s been deemed surplus to requirements on more than one occasion, and he just wasn’t able to convince James Horan, Pat Holmes or Noel Connelly that he merited a permanent place in their match-day plans.
But Douglas says he feels a little older and wiser now, and has never been fitter, more mobile and happier, on or off the field.
He believes he’s ready to make an impact.
“I’m definitely mentally tougher now,” he admits. “The older I’ve got, the mentally stronger I’ve got.
“When you look back, you want to be able to say you played in the championship games, the biggest games, for Mayo.
“I’m really content in my football, I’m enjoying playing for Mitchels, and I just hope I get the chance in a few league games to carry that on [with Mayo]. I feel I’m physically ready and mentally ready now.”
TO fully appreciate why Neil Douglas is so focussed on where he’s going, you may need to be reminded of where he’s come from.
Rewind back five years, to February of 2011.
James Horan has just taken over as Mayo manager and pitched Douglas in as a sub’ against both Down and Kerry in the first two National League games of the year.
He’s motoring well, and has already kicked a point against Kerry in Castlebar when his right hamstring gives way.
As Douglas leaves the field, Jason Doherty comes in to take his place and make his first appearance for the Mayo senior team.
The rest is history.
“I’ve told this story often,” laughs Douglas, shaking his head.
“I was actually ahead of Jason when I got hurt, I was the first sub for the forwards, he was behind me in the line.
“We had Galway next, I was injured, Jason got in, scored two goals, and he just sky-rocketed from there!
“I kept trying to get back but my right hamstring just kept going. I was missing training, I couldn’t get back in, it was stop-start for me, and I never got a run for the rest of the year.
“It was a tough time for me mentally,” he concedes.
“Jason is an established inter-county footballer now, and I found it tough at the start.
“I was let go that November, [James] Horan released me,” he recalls.
“I had a good FBD the following January with NUIG but the call [from Mayo] never came. I was obviously disappointed, because lads I’d come into the panel with like Lee [Keegan] and Jason had kicked on, but I was stuck in a rut.”
THINGS didn’t get any easier for the NUI, Galway graduate in 2012.
In his mind’s eye, Douglas can still see himself chasing after a Crossmolina player that summer during a club championship match for Castlebar Mitchels.
But his fragile hamstring was holding him back, and he was helpless to prevent his opponent pulling away. It was a reality check.
“I was as low as I’d ever been, I think everything just came home to me that day and, mentally, I was in a bad place. I was just fed up.”
Work as an administrator for the County Board at MacHale Park offered little respite that year either, as he found himself far too close to the Mayo set-up for comfort.
“I’d meet the lads coming into training. . and that was so strange, very strange actually,” he says.
“You’d meet James Horan down the tunnel, the man who cut me. Look, I had no issue with him but it was just weird. Deep down, you just wanted to be in there with Mayo.
“I took that hard. I’d be involved for the previous two years and then I was just cut loose. I didn’t know what to do.”
Everything changed soon after when Douglas booked a consultation with ‘a hamstring specialist’ in the University of Limerick called Ciaran O’Sullivan, allied to a course of laser treatment by Mayo physio Martin McIntyre.
It meant that he began 2013 with a clean slate.
“The goal was always to get back into the Mayo team, that’s what was driving me on,” he explains.
“Everybody rowed in with the club, I was fit, the hamstring wasn’t bothering me, and I got on a good run.
“We won the county title, and I was playing well, but the call never came. I was playing the best I’d ever played up to then, but I didn’t get a call. At that stage I more or less accepted it.”
Mitchels’ run to the 2014 All-Ireland club final put Douglas back in the shop window again. His form during the Connacht club series and in the All-Ireland semi-final was eye-catching.
But he’s the first to admit that March 17 against St Vincent’s at Croke Park wasn’t his finest hour.
“The All-Ireland final didn’t go particularly well for me. Looking back, I was nervous. The game just passed me by and, before I knew it, I was sitting back in the dressing-room again.
“I definitely overthought that game. I was mishandling ball, kicking passes away, things I don’t normally do. My strengths would be kickpassing, holding on to the ball, making the right decision.
“It was disappointing. There was such a massive build-up to it, and then it was done and dusted. We learnt a lesson that day.”
FOR one reason or another, the fleet-footed forward from the Pontoon Road has never been able to break back on to the Mayo team since 2011.
He honestly feels he gave it his best shot last year.
After phoning Pat Holmes and asking him for ‘a chance’, Douglas managed to nail down a place in the squad for the entire 2015 season.
But for the most part, he felt like he was on the outside looking in.
He did hit the ground running with a man of the match display and four points from play against NUI, Galway in the FBD League.
Unfortunately, that was as good as it got.
Some days Douglas made the match-day panel of 26 players and wasn’t asked to warm up, other days he was sitting in the stand in his runners. His brief cameo against Donegal was the only consolation.
Mayo’s training camp to Portugal offered him another chance to impress and, along with Mikie Sweeney, Douglas was named as ‘Trainer of the Week’ by their fellow players after sparing no effort in everything and anything that was done.
But, despite that confidence-booster, Douglas still couldn’t force his way into the match-day squad for the start of the Connacht championship.
“My form had picked up again, I was playing well in training, and I thought I was in with a chance of making the 26 for the Galway game,” he explains.
“So not getting in was a real kick in the gut for me. I took that pretty hard, I was trying to figure it out.
“It got worse actually during the rest of the championship.. I ended up playing wing-back and corner-back in the A v B games.
“There were nights when I was ready to walk out and not come back. I don’t know what stopped me. A lot of other lads would have walked.
“But I just felt I’d done so much work to get where I was, I didn’t want to walk away.
“And the training and the strength and conditioning work was so beneficial. I developed so much. Chasing Lee Keegan around the place, you either learn or you’re in trouble,” he smiles.
“I’ve never been fitter, stronger and more mobile than I am now so, from that point of view, I’m glad I stayed on.”
His bottom line? He feels that he could have contributed something different to the Mayo cause over the last few years, and believes the window of opportunity remains open.
“I saw Corofin last year win the All-Ireland last year and the football they played under Stephen Rochford was lovely to watch. I’d see myself as that sort of kick passer.
“My strength is with ball in hand. I’m not going to beat three or four lads by powering past them. I’d always kick it around them.
“I’m looking forward to a fresh start.”
Name: Neil Douglas
Club: Castlebar Mitchels
Job: Gym instructor
Did you know? ‘Dougie’ says he’s fascinated by calligraphy, and prides himself on his own neat handwriting.