OUTSTANDING IN HIS OWN FIELD Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke is pictured during an FBD League match at James Stephens Park in Ballina back in 2017.
Some Mayo footballers should resist the temptation to change their ways during this hiatus
“I’m just as God made me, Sir”
Offended concierge, This is Spinal Tap
WE are living in extraordinary times. Times — to paraphrase Kavanagh — when great events are being decided. “That was the year of the Munich bother” he wryly quipped in Epic (to my ignorant mind, the most perennially apposite poem by an Irish poet, ever).
The ‘bother’ he spoke of was that of the Munich Treaty in 1938 — when Hitler appeased those who should have known better, an affair which served as a foreboding prelude to World War II. It was the equivalent of Cheltenham festival to our Covid crisis.
Kavanagh wrote Epic just months before the war began. Little did he know the ‘events’ of which he spoke of would become even greater.
In times of profound tumult, comes the dreaded opportunity for perspective. We shake our heads and curse the universal realisation of our daily folly. Too much time spent consuming vacuous garbage on our phones to notice that - if you open your upstairs window in Lahardane, crane your neck and look east, you can see the Himalayas. Who knew!!
Yeah, imprisoned now, we audit our lives, and resolve that - when all this passes - we must do better. And this, my dear friends, is where the trouble starts.
Not in our noble resolutions that we should pay more attention to the welfare of our parents, or care for our planet more, but rather, that we ourselves must endeavour to become something we just may not ever be. This is not to suggest we shouldn’t strive to be better.
No, that pursuit must never relent. That is our life’s work. Rather, what should be avoided is over-committing to become something utterly unattainable. Prudent to remember that - like the offended concierge in Spinal Tap said - we are just as God made us.
Which got me thinking about our inter-county footballers. How will they emerge from all of this? Hopefully, slightly better versions of their former selves, and not overly affected by all the introspection, which is proving far more contagious than the actual virus.
Take David Clarke. He has been keeping goals for Mayo for nearly two decades. He is still exceptional at it. So, let’s cut him some slack and quit asking to kick out the bloody ball. He’s not suddenly going to become Rory Beggan. It is time for him to Dino Zoff it.
Zoff had his full-backs kick out the ball for him for years. Wasn’t a bit embarrassed about it either. Not part of his job description. He was there to keep clean sheets, not implement a kick-out strategy that required pie charts and polling data. When Mayo do come back, I want David Clarke in goals and Brendan Harrison kicking the ball out, bull-toe if necessary, up the middle with smoke. No messing.
Not done there; Donie Vaughan.
Donie the Pony is an absolute specimen of a man. If you have ever witnessed Donie wearing a crisp white shirt at a wedding, you’ve seen greatness. God points at Donie while looking at the rest of us, wearily saying “See him? This is how I meant you to be!” He is less flesh and bone, more malleable rock, hewn from a South Mayo quarry.
Often, calling a Gaelic footballer an ‘athlete’ can come off a tad pejorative. But in the Pony’s case, it’s the only label suitable. He’s an athlete alright, and quite a phenomenal one.
What he is not, however, is Maurice Fitz. How often have we seen Donie pull off some majestic feat of macho mastery, striding up the field soloing like Hercules, only to attempt a foot-pass or shot and suddenly we notice that he is not, in fact, wearing football boots, but a pair of black slip-ons from his shoe-shop floor? No, for all Donie’s prowess, dexterous feet are not in his canon. I dearly hope he is not spending this time in retreat trying to learn to kick the football. It’s too late for that.
Donie is as God made him. I want him doing tricep dips like he's Mark Wahlberg in a prison montage. I want him picturing Galway forwards and pulling tractors around Ballinrobe. And when he finally gets back playing, I want him to burst through 20 lads and run 80 yards up field before handing the ball to Cillian to kick the bloody thing. Attach an electric shock pad to his black slip-ons if you must, but no more kicking for Donie.
Speaking of kicking, when I see Darren Coen play, I think of the mother who went to Padraig Pearce about her young son, who, she said, wanted to do nothing else in school but play the tin whistle. What am I to do? She asked. “Get him a tin whistle,” Pearce replied.
If Donie the Pony should never kick it, it’s pretty much all Darren Coen should do. No sprints. No plyometrics. No tracking back.
I don’t care if he's slower than Leonard Cohen, Darren can do the one thing we have been praying for a Mayo forward to do for decades, kick gorgeous, poetic scores off either foot. He may need a little time to kick them, but that is an acceptable risk. Let us embrace what’s good about him. Exempt him from all running drills. Let him go full Jimmy Keaveney and go stand over at the wire, shooting the breeze with locals as Donie is clocking 11.0 seconds for a length of the pitch. Darren is another who should be left just as God made him.
Never start him. Keep him chewing grass on the bench, dreaming of splitting posts, and the next time you find yourself all square in an All-Ireland final with ten minutes to go and nobody to kick a score, wheel him out like an old relief pitcher, and let him do his thing.
Leave Paddy Durcan alone, too. Last August, when Mayo fell to Dublin, Durcan gave a display for the ages on Jack McCaffrey. He kicked two points from play, but what his stat-line didn’t show is that he should've kicked six. This is not high-stool talk, either. The chances Durcan missed were easier than those he scored. His all-round play was phenomenal. But, another day, if his kicking were better, he could have hit six points in an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, while marking their most dangerous player. That’s how good Paddy Durcan can be. Let’s not start getting too cute now that we have all this time on our hands. Lets not start thinking Paddy would make a solid full-back, or a playmaking 11.
He is who he is. Give him a bag of balls, and a wing backs jersey. Leave him to go kick.
As for the youngsters in the squad? My only hope for them is that they’re not watching the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Because, if they are, the penny might just suddenly drop on how every 17 - 25 year old who is not an inter-county footballer is spending their free time, and let’s just say, it may seem more appealing than hours of video analysis sessions in the Sportlann.
Over a decade ago, John O’Mahony went all ‘Dylan goes electric’ when he tried to convert fellow Mayo News stablemate Billy Joe Padden into a full-back in the 2008 Spring campaign.
I was tempted to reach out to Padden for his own perspective on the experiment, but refrained, primarily because I didn’t want to give him an idea for his own column, but I’m also aware of the industry rumours there’s a ten-part documentary in the works around that fateful spring when he wore the number 3, the working title of which is apparently ‘Don’t Look Back in Bangor’.
My own recollections of Johnno’s gamble are that it came at a strange time for Mayo football. A time, when one thing Padden was much better at than many of his peers - kicking the ball - was prohibited in the county. If a man was ballsy enough to kick the ball, the only certainty was the hook of the shepherd that followed.
So, operating under those conditions, why not try Padden out at full-back? It might have worked. But Mayo football was reaching the dip in the graph you sometimes must hit before you start all over again, so the reinvention never got past the elevator pitch.
Right now, Mayo is the golfer with a swing that has made them millions, but no majors.
Too many before them have changed that swing - dramatically - in a final act of protest at being oh-so-close. But all that new swing brings is an accelerated descent to the bottom. There is plenty for Mayo to work on – their short game, bunker play, big game temperament. But their swing? Leave it alone.
In this time of mortal peril, best for Mayo to buy a tin whistle, cut out the noise, and just play.