'I like the fear because it means you care'
Donal Vaughan's determination to keep on improving is typical of Mayo's positive attitude this year, writes Damian Lawlor
LAST SPRING, the Bank Holiday Monday morning after Mayo were beaten by Donegal in the Allianz League, Andy Moran heard a loud knock on his door.
The day before, Mayo had Donegal in their back pocket – and lost by seven points. Moran wasn't in the form to talk to anyone, but when he answered the door, there was Donie Vaughan, looking to do a training session. They smiled. There and then they knew they would kick on again.
Vaughan likes character tests. The previous season, with their league campaign approaching a critical juncture, he took pain-killing injections to play against Dublin and helped Mayo secure a badly needed win. There was no fuss. That's just him.
"This Mayo team is full of good lads and many don't take a drink," says Liam McHale, one of the fittest players they ever produced. "Donie is one of them. He believes in living life right. He's more likely to be out running or kicking the day after a game than out talking about a win. He looks up to James Nallen as a role model and that tells you everything you need to know."
Vaughan is deep too. Runs his own business, speaks his mind, doesn't read sports coverage in papers, but delves deep into sports psychology books. Last year, he was gripped by a memoir called Bounce, written by Matthew Syed, a table tennis champion and two-time Olympian, who wrote of his personal experience of practice overcoming talent. One of the anecdotes centred on an ice skater called Shizuka Arakana. Syed reckoned that she fell 20,000 times in training before winning gold at the 2006 Olympics. Vaughan liked what he read.
Each time Mayo have fallen, their supporters have fallen with them. The Mayo footballers have long since had a singular grip on their people and Vaughan, still only in his fifth season with the seniors, and God knows their heartbreak extends back much further, realises the massive commitment and sacrifices that the supporters have made.
In May, they went to a training camp in Belmullet and surrendered themselves to the hospitality of the locals. Fishermen who don't usually take their boats out at that time of year brought the players out to sea and local publican John Joe Gallagher invited the group back to his premises and asked James Horan to crack open a lobster, a ritual in that part of the world.
"Sometimes you get wrapped up in the whole training side of things, but the next time you go out playing for Mayo you're thinking of the people you're representing," Vaughan says. "The camp in Belmullet brought that home. These people are fantastic supporters and they make a real sacrifice to come and follow us. It's important we appreciate that."
He doesn't like letting them down, but that was exactly the sinking feeling he endured three years ago when Sligo beat them in the 2010 Connacht championship and Longford dumped them out of the qualifiers.
In a frantic last act against the midlanders, with the plot still undecided and a packed theatre watching, Vaughan surged up the pitch from centre-back on a trademark run. Seamus O'Shea saw him steaming through, played him in, and the Longford defence opened up like a snitch under a spotlight. With a clear shot on goal, Vaughan simply had to curl over a winner with his left boot, but he didn't feel comfortable enough to pull the trigger and shifted to his right. In that split-second he shanked it and Mayo's championship hopes went sailing in the breeze for another year. Down went Longford to kick the winner. Vaughan collapsed in a heap.
In the dressing room he was disconsolate, blaming himself for the loss. While the rest of the team went for food, he stayed on the bus. Couldn't face anyone. It was another in their endless stories of suffering. "If I had scored the point we wouldn't have lost the game," he recalls bluntly. "I don't think I spoke the whole way home. You were questioning yourself. 'Was it really worth it? All the sacrifices'."
When the inquests ended, however, and the dust settled, he saw things more clearly. He had done well to be even in that attacking position in the first place. And during the season he'd developed his physique to an immense level. Maybe now he just needed to switch the dial slightly and set upon a different course; to think more about what he was doing under a bench press and squatting machine. A former Connacht cross-country champion, he was built like a tank, blessed with rugged power and designed for end-to-end running, but what good was all this if he couldn't shoot with his left?
James Horan's arrival as manager helped Vaughan plot a new path forward. Horan and his backroom team challenged the raiding half-back to enhance his skill-set further. They asked him to identify his weakness and decided that he was slightly one-sided. So, he more or less became a southpaw, began working on life's daily tasks with a left-sided approach, tying his laces with the left, popping hand passes with the left, kicking passes with the left. Over a year later, Vaughan was a much more rounded player. Kerry beat them in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final but not only did he keep Declan O'Sullivan scoreless from play, he also hit three points himself.
He's been at the top of his game ever since. The rest of the defence has also lifted it since last September's final against Donegal, rowing in with a remarkable 2-17 this championship.
That might not seem anything major in a team that fired 9-48 in Connacht and a further 5-33 in the All-Ireland series, but it bodes well that their back seven contribute almost five points per game. What other team in Ireland, save for Dublin, can boast regular stats like that? Indeed, those figures demonstrate how Mayo, like the Dubs, have embraced a 'total football' style. They are not kamikaze going forward, but still the numbers on their shirts set no boundaries. Chris Barrett, Lee Keegan and Tom Cunniffe have all got in on the action but it's Vaughan who drives them on with his relentless, high-tempo game, based on picking up offloads at speed.
This year's rhythm has been so steady that he already has 2-2 in the bag, not that he makes a big deal of it.
"Our target was to improve on last year, so individually we looked to improve our skill-set, identify weaknesses, and also improve collectively," he says. "That hasn't changed. We're still looking to improve on last year."
They had a meat-grinding semi-final with Tyrone. They trailed by a point at half-time but the gap should have been a lot wider. Seán Cavanagh reckons he could see traces of fear in the Mayo players' eyes in the first 20 minutes. "That was an interesting comment," Vaughan says. "I don't read papers but I heard that or saw that. I can't remember fear being in my eyes at any stage during the game. I suppose you get these feelings in a game and I got the feeling leading up to half-time in that game that Tyrone were tiring. Given what happened in the second half maybe I was right. I don't know. Fear isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some people don't like it. I like the fear because it means you care. If you don't fear something you don't care about it or it is not that important that you achieve it."
In that first half, Kevin McLoughlin somehow missed a 13-metre free, they saw their top scorer replaced through injury and blazed a goal chance wide. Yet, when they put the foot to the throttle in the second half, the clogged-up traffic channels in front of them eased, and the road just opened up. They cruised home to win by six. Vaughan reckons experience saw them past the finishing line.
"Over the last two or three years we've been in tight games," he says. We're used to winning tight games and we're used to winning by big margins. So we just keep playing.
"Against Tyrone, a lot of the things that could go wrong went wrong but we are a process-orientated team. It has been drilled into us over the last number of years that the next ball, the next play. Even if you make a mistake yourself – once upon a time that would bother me personally – but now even if I kick the ball out over the line or screw it off to the left or whatever you do, it's all about the next ball. Kevin got plenty of slagging over that miss but it was still about the next ball.
"Before Alan Freeman took the penalty, Aidan O'Shea said to me, 'Look no matter what happens, Donie, just keep playing the way we are playing'. It didn't matter whether he scored or not, we were going to be as enthusiastic for the next ball. We have trained ourselves to do this because human nature is that if you go 10 points up or five points down you want to ease off a little."
Liam McHale would like to see another grind-out today, similar to the Tyrone game, rather than a free-flowing, all-out assault on the Dublin goal that might leave Mayo vulnerable at the back. "In the 2012 and 2006 finals, we have been beaten almost at the start," McHale says, "so this time I'd like to see us hold our ground until we have a foothold in the game. That might involve Donie staying put for 20 minutes or so until we are settled into the match.
"There is talk around the county of a sweeper being used and while that goes against the grain for this team, maybe it's not a bad idea. Some of our players have looked a bit tired lately, they have been quiet, and Dublin have played better teams than we have. We need to get to that half-time mark still in the game and be there heading into the last 10 minutes. So, the likes of Donie may have to adopt a different approach this time around."
That's a view shared by another former Mayo footballer and Gaelic football analyst, David Brady, who reckons that in the space of just three months Vaughan, born in Cork and raised in Kerry until he was five, has developed to such an extent that he has become the best attacking defender in the land.
"Donie has become so important," Brady says. "That's because of his attacking flair and the fact that he has the engine to get forward at every opportunity. When he does push up, the rest of the boys see the impact and he also creates space by attracting opposing defenders. That gives space to the other Mayo forwards that they wouldn't otherwise have had. Still, for a game like this it's up to the boys to cover him."
Their calling card is fluidity, and Vaughan's forays up the field have worked a treat against weak Galway, Roscommon and London teams. Still, he has received slagging because his two goals in this year's championship both came with no 'keeper at home between the posts. "Yeah, I haven't been getting much credit for them as I have yet to score on a goalie," he laughs.
Yet, there is no denying his development under the tutelage of Donie Buckley who has taken him aside for personal video analysis, put him through soloing drills with tennis balls and demonstrated how to improve his tackling. Buckley visits the US most years and comes back with new ideas and has Mayo humming, having improved their handling by working with rugby balls and also putting huge focus on stance and footwork in the tackling process. "When we don't have the ball, everyone is a defender," Vaughan explains. "When we have the ball, everyone is an attacker. Donie Buckley has helped me big time in that."
Today, more than ever, they need to get the balance right and ensure that Kevin McLoughlin or Lee Keegan slots in at number six if Vaughan strides into battle at the other end. They need to provide a buffer for their full-back line, particularly with Bernard Brogan firing again. Not that their formula needs too much tweaking, mind.
Off the field, it also looks like Vaughan has the balance about right. Traditionally, he has always been ahead of the posse, sitting his Leaving Certificate at just 16 and completing an accountancy degree at GMIT before he turned 20. He runs the family shoe business in Ballinrobe and took to public forums earlier in the year when Gaelicboots.com, a joint GAA-GPA commercial venture with profits generated going towards player welfare, was launched. Vaughan felt the website could cause difficulties for his business in the future, reckoning that the low prices on boots offered would impact on his business. As a supplier of boots to the Mayo team, among others, he felt strongly about it and made many friends for his decision to speak out.
"The whole GAA ethos is based on local communities supporting local clubs, and local clubs supporting local communities and businesses. I just feel that this Gaelic boots initiative has taken that out of it. Basically, the GPA are getting a percentage out of every boot sold. Something like five or 10 per cent. So if you sell a pair of boots and make €20 profit, five per cent of that – €4 – goes to the GPA. If they sell 5,000 pairs of boots, that is €20,000.
"Over the last few years, my shop would have given roughly half of that to local clubs around the area in sponsorship. The point I would make is that the money they are getting (GPA), they are taking far more out of the local economy. If you multiply that scenario, in hundreds of towns around the country.
"Another thing is the GPA are being supported by the Irish government. Gaelic boots, which is basically Sports Direct – Mike Ashley's company in England – are paying VAT to the British Government. Yet the GPA are getting a grant from the Irish government. There are a load of sports shops around the country that have been badly affected by this and are nearly getting out of selling football boots because they can't compete with a company selling boots below cost price."
Back on the field, though, he stands on the verge of history again, playing in a team that has the experience and hurt of last year to call upon. Over the years, most everything written about Mayo has been coated with a crust of disappointment. It's a tired old theme.
Thankfully, the likes of Vaughan have forced us to find a new narrative.