KING OF THE ROAD Former Mayo midfielder Seamus O’Shea is pictured arriving at Croke Park before the 2016 All-Ireland SFC Final replay against Dublin. O’Shea lived and worked in the capital for most of his inter-county career. Pic: Sportsfile
After years of having most of their squad based in Dublin, the tide has turned for Mayo
AFTER Mayo’s All-Ireland Final replay defeat back in 2016, former Mayo coach Ed Coughlan put the difference between winning and losing in stark terms – geography.
“Until Mayo’s students settle for courses in NUIG and GMIT, and their bankers, accountants, teachers and engineers move home to make a crust, I can’t see them ever winning the All-Ireland title,” he wrote in the Irish Examiner five years ago this October .
It was a stretch to ask ambitious young men to ‘settle’ for courses and jobs west of the Shannon for an amateur sport, especially when socio-economic factors militate against many young graduates from Mayo getting work here or having enough suitable college courses in Connacht.
But Coughlan’s overarching point was valid – looked at purely from a football perspective, Mayo players were being asked to do an awful lot by virtue of their location, especially those based in the capital.
It has taken the Covid-19 pandemic, more than any limited professional ambition, to see the circle turn.
Right now, The Mayo News understands there’s only two members of the current Mayo squad facing that grind of travelling from Dublin to Mayo regularly – Breaffy duo Rob Hennelly and Conor O’Shea.
Cillian O’Connor splits his working time between Mayo and Dublin.
That’s in marked contrast to how things were for much of the previous decade.
Tom Parsons, Chris Barrett, Séamie O’Shea and Jason Doherty made those trips for the guts of ten years. More players like Paddy Durcan, Diarmuid O’Connor, Stephen Coen, Matthew Ruane and Conor Loftus know the road from Lucan to Castlebar well from their student days.
The issue — as Coughlan and many rightly saw it — was that having so many of Mayo’s squad studying and working in Dublin meant they were preparing for a crack at winning an All-Ireland with one arm tied behind their backs.
In the first half of the year, they would only gather collectively for training once a week – on Friday evenings, with the Dublin-based cohort rushing west to make it on time, while they would gather in the capital for training midweek.
Come summer, and with the students back at home, all the squad would train midweek in Mayo, with the Dublin-based crew completing an exhausting ‘up and down’ journey in the one evening, often getting into their beds well into the early hours.
As far as Coughlan was concerned, and he wasn’t alone, this was curtailing Mayo’s efforts to land Sam Maguire more than any other single factor. Especially when no such challenges faced their greatest rivals, Dublin.
“There was a time when there was maybe ten of us up in Dublin but it wasn’t just any ten, it was ten of the starting team. It was very difficult,” recalls Séamie O’Shea, who was one of those soldiers for nine years prior to his retirement back in January.
INDEED, in the course of the last year, Seamie O’Shea has spent more time in Mayo than at any other time in the past decade, ironically as his Mayo career was coming to an end.
He can’t help but wonder how a different outlook on working from home might have helped him and his colleagues at the peak of their careers.
“When you look back on some of the travel we did, you wonder why didn’t we travel home on a Thursday night and work from home on a Friday? We could easily have done that but it wasn’t the culture at the time so you just had to do it.
“Maybe one of the good things that might come out of Covid is it could potentially change that a little bit … I could easily spend all summer in Mayo now because I am going to be working from home so if I was five years younger, it would be mighty, I’d be happy out training and playing with Mayo,” added the Breaffy man.
As much as Mayo managers would have preferred to have full squads training midweek and at the weekend from the start of the season, it just wasn’t a workable option, says O’Shea.
“To be fair, any of the managers we had were fairly good about it,” he explained.
“We used to have the split seasons earlier in the year and I’d be perfectly honest and say ‘listen, it is a long season, we fully expect to get to September here. If you are asking us to travel on a Tuesday night in January, by the time we get to May, we’re just going to be absolutely exhausted’. There’s just no way of doing it.”
“It’s not conducive to peak performance but I suppose the management have no solution to it, to be honest. People have careers and lives to live,” remarked the former Mayo forward Enda Varley back in 2018, who also made the cross-country commute for many years.
Ironically, he recently transferred back to his home club, Garrymore, and will be making the trip from Dublin to play with them this season.
Since Varley spoke three years ago, remote working and studying has made many people’s location for work much more flexible.
Mayo have been reaping the reward on the training ground in recent months, but whether it has come a few years too late remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, the change certainly came too late for the the cross-country travellers like Messrs Parsons, O’Shea and Barrett.