Ballaghaderreen man keeping The Faith

As the years slip by, it is easy to forget just how successful and innovative John O’Mahony was as a GAA team manager. I think it would be fair to say that he broke new ground with regard to diet, strength and conditioning, team preparation and tactics. His record is almost unmatched by any team manager in the country at every level. He has tasted success at club level, minor U-21 and senior, colleges level, also with his own St Nathy’s College, and of course at inter-county senior level with Mayo, Leitrim and Galway, with whom he won two All-Ireland senior titles.

The Ballaghaderreen man has written a book which was launched recently called Keeping The Faith in which he details his extraordinary career as a GAA team manager.

It details his limited success as a player, the rivalry between Mayo and Roscommon in the town of Ballaghaderreen, his entry into team management and the ups and downs of team management over 25 years at all levels.

John’s career coincided with the arrival of local radio, and I got to know him really well along the way as he managed Mayo, Leitrim and Galway at senior level and I was there for the drama and excitement from almost all those big games.

Having had a chance to read the book, I went to Ballaghaderreen to talk to John, to relive old times and to chat about his lengthy career as a team manager. Football management is now on hold at least for a while as John pursues a political career and as he is preparing to fight the General Election in a new constituency (Galway West), which takes in a large part of Co Galway.

I spoke to John at his home in Ballaghaderreen about his book, his life in team management and what the future might hold……….

I suppose we will start back in the early days in Ballaghaderreen. You were always a Mayo man and football was always there from the earliest days. Tell me about that.

I was born and reared in Magheraboy, KIlmovee, and we were the last house in Co Mayo before the Roscommon border. The position on the border of any county is always very interesting in the GAA.

It’s like Carrick-on-Shannon between Roscommon and Leitrim or Shrule between Mayo and Galway and I see that as a huge strength in the GAA. Living on the border gives you an extra edge and motivation I think.

But some of my best friends in the GAA are Roscommon people. But from the early days there was a part of you that respected Roscommon but also a part of you that hated them as well.

But football was always there from my youngest memory. My father was a huge GAA man and it was the only pastime and hobby we had as young lads and we played from the earliest time we could.

Tell me about going to St Nathy’s College.

I went in as a boarder, which was very unusual because we were only living a few miles out the road, but there were a lot of boarding schools in Ireland at the time.

My parents wanted to make sure that we got a good education and that’s why they wanted us to stay.

But to have organised football was brilliant for someone like me who loved playing and it was almost like a professional set up there as you were living with the lads that you played with, which was great.

I have good memories of my time at St Nathy’s, but it was tough. It knocked the corners off me for sure and you learned to fend for yourself. I had an older brother (Dan) who was ahead of me and that was a big advantage in a boarding school, as you might understand.

But overall I would say they were hard times but great times too.

What about your football career? Were you a good footballer?

I wasn’t a great footballer to be honest. I was a corner back.

Tomás Meehan said to me one time ‘corner backs are rarely in the headlines but they are still needed on the team’, which about sums it up. I was always part of the team and always wanted to get better, but I never had the pace required to be a top-class player.

I always tried to be the best I could. I got on the Mayo minor team in 1970. That was a huge thing for me and my parents were proud too, privately of course because they wouldn’t say much. But it was a great honour for me.

You decided that you would give the priesthood a try and you went to Maynooth for two years. How did that come about?

There were five lads in my class in Nathy’s that went on for the priesthood. But only one of the five (Joe Caulfield) was actually ordained but it is something I do not regret doing. It didn’t work out but it was something I wanted to try.

When you were in Maynooth you played Sigerson Football and it is a competition that you talk about very fondly in the book. When I was in Maynooth we were admitted to the competition for the first time because before that there were only four or five universities in it.

Malachy O’Rourke was our coach at that stage and he was a man way ahead of his time in terms of coaching and I had great time for him.

He is still at the very top as a coach and he came from Brussels for the book launch. It was Malachy O’Rourke who gave me a new idea on the role of the corner back.

My education as a corner back was that you were a hatchet man and a stopper and when you got the ball you kicked it as far up the field as you could. But Malachy was of the opinion that you could run up the field and overlap and score too if possible.

They would get other players to slot in to your position. He was a real innovator and I loved that. He was a huge help to me in my managerial career all along the way.

I was always someone who thought a lot about the game and I expressed my views too and while some people thought I was an upstart, I loved new ideas.

Despite you saying that you were a limited player you had great success at underage level.

I won two-All Irelands. I won a minor in 1971 and an U-21 in 1974 and in fact we were beaten in the U-21 final in 1973 too. In that game in 1973 I marked Mikey Sheehy and Martin Ferris, the current Sinn Féin TD, who was a really good player.

But he didn’t make the Kerry senior team because he was on the run at the time and he was able to play U-21 because it was a short competition played off quickly!

Those All-Ireland wins were brilliant, I have to say, and Mayo was always a great county and we had great underage success but there was very little success in terms of the senior team at that stage. Mayo won no senior Connacht title in the Seventies.

The early part of the decade was dominated by Galway and the latter part of the decade was dominated by Roscommon. Being beaten by Sligo in the Connacht final in 1975 was a huge disappointment in Mayo.

I didn’t really make it as a senior player. I thought there were better players than me who won All-Irelands at underage level who never made it. I always considered myself as a kind of a fringe player and that helped me enormously when I became a manager later on because it showed that every player on the panel was important.

But the commitment that time for players was totally different. We trained one night a week for the league and we started training four or five weeks before the championship and that was it. It was so far away from what it is like now. It’s like two different worlds.

Tell me about the start of your managerial career.

I started with the Ballaghaderreen U-21s and I did well with them and Liam O’Neill was with the Mayo U-21s and he was earmarked for the senior job and he wanted me to take the U-21 job on in 1983.

I got the job and we won the All-Ireland in the very first year and that drove me on. I often wonder what would have happened in my managerial career if that hadn’t happened but it was a huge boost.

I found that the key to management was communication, with the players, with the county board and everyone involved. I wanted to get into the players’ heads what was required in terms of fitness, tactics and everything else.

I always tried to have an edge on everyone else. I bought my own video equipment to do my own analysis. No one else was doing that at the time. I always tried to have attention to detail to give our teams any kind of an edge that I could.

Your first term with Mayo seniors was momentous and the All-Ireland final defeat in 1989 is a time that you devote a lot of pages to. It was obviously a huge disappointment in the end that you did not win that All-Ireland.

Looking back, it is still something that hurts. We had the Sixties with Galway and then you had Roscommon in 1980 and I know that they have regrets about that title slipping away.

In the 1980s it was felt that if you won a Connacht title, that was sufficient, but I wanted to push out the parameters and we went hard for that All-Ireland title in 1989, but we came up short and that was a real regret.

There were a lot of lads on that ’89 team who had been with me when we won the U-21 title in 1983 and a lot of people were on a high even after we lost that final. The feeling was that ‘you have to lose one to win one’ but I knew that it would be very difficult for that team to get back there again and so it proved.

After that, Roscommon came with a very strong team and I finished as manager after the Connacht final in 1991. I was trying to introduce a few new young players but Roscommon beat us in a replay and that was the end of that stint.

Let’s move on to Leitrim – how did that come about?

Tony McGowan was the chairman in Leitrim at the time and he was the supreme optimist. If Leitrim were beaten by ten points, he couldn’t see why they didn’t win the game by 10 points.

Now they had a good team but they were operating at a much different level than anyone else. They had such a small pick but they had fierce passion.

Anyone who knew Connacht football knew that they had pushed a good Roscommon team hard several times and they probably saw me as someone who might give them the edge to get over the line.

I never thought of going outside my own county, but I wasn’t wanted in Mayo at the time, so I said ‘why not’? I wanted to be in team management. I met the Leitrim players and they were so passionate it prompted me to take the job.

I said to them that if we wanted to win a Connacht title, we will have to do things better than anyone else and that’s what we did.

I tried to get into their heads to tell them that they were as good as, if not better, than any other county. The county board bought into it and it was a great journey.

We won the Connacht title in 1994 by beating Roscommon, Galway and Mayo and it was certainly not a handy Connacht title. The celebrations were extraordinary. You were there yourself.

Sunday night was unbelievable but Monday was even better. Bringing the Nestor Cup around the county and ending up in Ballinamore at three o’ clock in the morning is something I will never forget. It was special for sure.

My one regret was that Leitrim didn’t win another Connacht title in 1995. We were leading Galway with two minutes to go, but we lost that game and we had a few vital injuries that cost us. But it was a magical time for sure.

Then you went to Galway and the details of how you were asked to go there are in the book, but you stayed seven years there and you had extraordinary success winning two senior All-Irelands. You had a marvellous bunch of players. But are you sorry that you didn’t win more All Irelands with Galway?

The answer to that question is ‘yes’. We could have won more and to lose after a replay to Kerry in 2000 was obviously a major regret, but then the question is ‘would we have won in 2001 if we had won in 2000’?

You never know. When I knew that I was in the running for the Galway job I said to Geraldine here that if I got that job, we would win the All-Ireland because I knew that there were some brilliant young players coming on to the Galway scene at that time.

But you have to have luck along the way and we can all remember that Roscommon almost put us out in 1998 in the Connacht final drawn game in Tuam.

I often thanked Niall Finnegan since for scoring the equalising free that day!

Even though you fell out with Padraic Jovce and Michael Donnellan at various times you say that the fact that they were strong characters was a huge boost to that Galway team.

I was a strong character too and the fact that they were also very strong-willed and outspoken helped them to be really good players and we had many a heated debate and argument behind closed doors during that time, but no one took insult and it made us even stronger.

But they were a marvellous bunch of footballers. In 2001 we were well beaten by Roscommon in Connacht but we really came on strong after that and it was a great All-Ireland win.

Looking back, did you stay on too long in Galway?

Well not really. In 2002 we were beaten by Kerry in an All-Ireland quarter-final, but we won the All-Ireland U-21 title and we had more good players on the way up.

Then, in 2003, we drew with Donegal in Croke Park in the quarter-final and they beat us in the replay in Castlebar.

I probably stayed a year or two too long, but there were so many good players there it was always a temptation to stay on.

Then in 2004 we got to the league final and only lost by a point. The two best league games I was ever involved in were the two league semi-finals against Tyrone that year.

We drew the first game in Omagh and we beat them in Galway in the replay before a crowd of about 15,000 people. We were still looking forward to the championship.

But that year we got a lot of injuries and we bowed out in the qualifiers after Mayo beat us in Connacht and I knew it was all over after that. But it was a magical time.

You went back to Mayo for a second time and it was not a success. Did you regret that?

Well, the job that I had in Mayo was to supervise the break-up of a great team that had played in four All Ireland finals, and to bring on the young lads that are there today as established players and I knew it would be a tough assignment.

When I was appointed in 2006-07, I thought that I would not be involved at that stage because I was exhausted after the stint in Galway, but I was persuaded to take the job. I knew that it would be an uphill task.

 A lot of the older players stayed on when I was re-appointed but we were hammered by Galway and the break-up started and we brought in new players. It didn’t work out. We won the Connacht final once all right but that was it.

But all of the players that have gone so close since got a chance from me in the team. I gave debuts to Donal Vaughan, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan, Jason Doherty and Ger Cafferky too.

But it just didn’t work out and after being beaten by Sligo and Longford in the championship I knew it was time to go.

It is a question that I have to ask. Why is it that Mayo just cannot get over the line and win an All-Ireland senior title?

When I managed Mayo to a final in 1989, it was 38 years since they won. But now it’s 64 years and every year it goes on, the weight gets heavier on the shoulders of everyone.

In Leitrim it was 67 years since they won the Connacht title but they did it in 1994. But it seems to be weighing down on Mayo for sure.

I know from being involved that there are so many great managers who have come from the county and went on to other counties.

No team apart from Kerry or Dublin have been in as many All-Ireland finals as Mayo, so that’s why it is so frustrating.

I know all the parties involved in Mayo football at the moment. All the players are massively dedicated and the management are the same way.

It’s not in a great place at the moment after the controversy and I hope they can sort it out. When I look at what has happened with regard to the Galway hurlers as well, I wonder is the fun gone out of the whole thing a little bit.

You are five years gone from the managerial scene. Has it changed much even since then?

Oh definitely it has. In Galway we won two All-Irelands and we ran the scene very efficiently and left no stone unturned.

I can tell you though that in 2001 when we won the All-Ireland, the Galway panel operated out of two 40-foot containers in Lough George, where we trained.

One was for togging out and the other was for the food for the players! It was very basic.

We had a number of social weekends away too, which was great fun. We usually left the players to discipline themselves and when we explained what was required, they knew what they had to do with regard to going out drinking etc.

The team manager now is manager of the panel and he is also a facilitator for the backroom team. Dublin have 22 or 23 in their back room team, but other counties have big teams too.

When I was team manager, my wife, Ger, did the diets for the players and never got a shilling for it over the years, nor did she want anything either.

Tommie Gorman did my video analysis. Eddie O’Sullivan did our strength and conditioning for 1998.

We had some great people involved in every county that I was involved with willing to help out on a voluntary basis and that is changing fast.

So you decided to go into politics. Was it possible to do the two jobs at the same time?

When I came back in to the Mayo job a lot of people thought we were going to win the All-Ireland.

I was elected to the Dáil and at that time the sittings in the Dáil were Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so it wasn’t too bad but now there are sittings on Fridays so it wouldn’t be possible to do it now.

But at the time I was able to do the two jobs. The politics came to me rather than me going to politics. We were always a Fine Gael house and I was asked to run and I was elected and that was great.

But I got a lot of criticism, which was unfortunate, but I suppose that’s the nature of the two jobs. I was elected twice which was fantastic and I am now going for a third time in a new constituency, which will not be easy.

But I’ll give it a hard rattle and see what happens.

Finally, who were the best players that you coached in your time?

That’s a very tough question to answer because there were so many. Liam McHale, Ciarán McDonald, Padraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, Ja Fallon, Mickey Quinn, Seán Óg de Paor, Seamus Quinn.

There were so many. I had great time for players who really improved through coaching like Fergal Reynolds and lads who gave me everything but I couldn’t pick out any special player.

And, finally, finally, what was your greatest managerial achievement?

Again, so many to remember really. Getting to the All-Ireland final in 1989 with your native county was a special memory.

The Leitrim win was very, very special. You were there yourself and you saw what it meant to the people and it is something that I shall never forget.

Then to win two All-Ireland senior titles with Galway was an amazing experience. Then I won an All-Ireland Colleges title with St Nathy’s and that was very special too and I got a great kick out of that too.

I have been very lucky I’ve had such a great innings.

Would you ever go back to it?

You never say never. But I had 27 years in team management and I would have to be happy with that. Even in 1997 when I wasn’t with a county team I was with St Brigid’s and I also did a bit with Ballina in 2005.

I still love the whole scene and I go to matches every weekend and I still have a huge interest in it.

John O’Mahony is married to Geraldine (née Towey) and they have five daughters – Grainne, Niamh, Rhona, Deirdre and Cliodhna. They live in Ballaghaderreen.

Keeping The Faith is out now, priced €17.99, and is available on Hero Books.