'I wanted to come back. I didn't want my career to end on last year's low note'
After a bitterly disappointing stint as captain, Trevor Mortimer is delighted to be back in the Mayo fold and he's also relishing his new posting in defence, as he tells Marie Crowe
When Trevor Mortimer left Pearse Park last year after losing to Longford by a point in a first-round qualifier game, the abuse came thick and fast. A fair share of the Mayo supporters told him he was finished and in many ways he felt he was.
Before the Longford defeat, Mayo had been beaten by Sligo in the Connacht quarter-final. Mortimer was captain of the side and described his performance as probably his worst ever in a Mayo jersey. He was dropped for the Longford game, and rightly so he admits, he was sick of inter-county football, the hunger was gone and he knew he needed a break.
"I got plenty of flak," said Mortimer.
"But any year that Mayo get beaten by Sligo and Longford you have to be prepared to take it on the chin, and we deserved it. We didn't perform well and there are lots of other people around the county who'd love to have a chance to wear the jersey.
"I've gone through five managers in Mayo and they weren't all wrong; sure they made mistakes but the players made as many, if not more."
So over a decade after Mortimer joined the Mayo panel, he was taking an indefinite break. He told James Horan, newly appointed to the Mayo hot seat, that he was going travelling for a while. Horan gave him a training plan for when he was away which he consciously left at home. Not because he was in revolt, he just wanted a clean break, a chance to clear his head and hopefully regain some of the hunger he'd lost.
The league was in full swing when he eventually returned in the middle of February and Mayo were tipping along nicely. But Mortimer didn't make himself available to Horan immediately. Instead he got straight back into training on his own, doing a month of hard slog before calling Horan to find out where he stood.
The manager told him he'd call him after Mayo's last league game but he didn't. So Mortimer let three more weeks slide by, kept training away and then called Horan again. This time the Mayo manager told him he'd watch him at upcoming club games and give him a call then. In the meantime, newspapers reported a cull of high-profile players from the Mayo panel and Mortimer was amongst those named.
"I didn't know where I stood for a few weeks alright but when the reports came out saying I was dropped, James texted me and explained that what was reported in the papers was picked up wrong and I was still in his plans."
Mayo finished fifth in Division One and Mortimer missed it all. He returned to the panel just a few weeks before the London game and felt that he was ready once more to do the Mayo jersey justice.
"I wanted to come back to Mayo, to gain back a bit of pride and respectability so that at the end of the year I can park 2010 and hopefully people will forget about it. I didn't want my career to end on last year's low note." Mortimer didn't get straight back into the team -- he was on the bench for most of the infamous London game in which Mayo came close to suffering a shock defeat -- and when he did come on it was as a wing-back.
He was disappointed not to start as the A versus B game the week before had gone well for him and he was convinced he'd done enough to get the nod.
However, in a way he was a little bit relieved. His quad was acting up, so an extended break before the Galway game suited him. He was called to warm up in the early stages of the second half against the exiles but it was close to the end of the game before he got on.
"While I was warming up the atmosphere was getting tense and I thought this is turning out bad, especially after last year.
"I'd say James Horan was sweating, London played well but Horan made a similar mistake to John O'Mahony when he started. He threw on an awful lot of young guys who didn't have the experience. London got the sniff of victory and drove on. We were lucky."
But if Horan was fazed, he didn't let it show; training resumed after their close encounter with London and they continued as normal.
"James Horan is a very relaxed man. I played with him for a number of years and he was the laziest footballer I ever played with, he wouldn't even stretch, but he could do the business when he had to.
"He is super talented at everything from football to golf. He rarely gets flustered but I reckon he did get a bit flustered against London; it could have been the shortest inter-county management career in history.
"In training, he never lets people rest on their laurels, he tells us if the mood is not 100 per cent or if he feels that people are getting ahead of themselves. He knows when to step in and bring people back down.
"In the past, people kind of lost the run of themselves after one or two good victories, thinking they were world-beaters, and then they were brought back down to earth pretty quickly. That hasn't happened this year, but we are only one loss away from a reality check."
Until this year, Mortimer was always a forward, now he is a half-back and it suits him. He likes having most of the pitch in front of him; it makes it easier to read the game and get on the attack. Horan has been working hard on their defence, so much so that after they beat Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Jack O'Connor said that they had they best defence in the country.
That day against Cork, Mortimer picked up Paddy Kelly, the playmaker for the All-Ireland champions, and held him scoreless. Being a man-marker is also a new role for the Mayo man, but one he relishes. It gives him something to focus on early in the week, for every game this year he's known in advance who he will be marking and the bigger the player the better it is for him. And although his mind is almost constantly on the game ahead, he knows not to overdo it.
"I don't watch the DVDs and I've been pulled on it a few times this year because we are given a copy of all the matches. But I don't really enjoy watching GAA. I'd much prefer to watch a soccer match.
"I'm just so focused on it all the time, at training or games or what I'm eating that I don't want to spend my spare time watching these matches. At the team meetings they show clips of the matches and that's enough for me. Because I've a good few years done I don't get fazed, maybe a few years back when I was more nervous I'd have done it."
Mortimer found out the hard way about letting the hype get to him. In 2004, they reached the All-Ireland final with Kerry providing the opposition. They lost by eight points and he felt the hurt.
"I remember looking back at the 2004 final a few years after it and all that went wrong fell into place. I'd been really looking forward to that match and I was so built up for it that by the time it came around I was wrecked.
"I was marking Mike McCarthy, I knew that I had the legs on him but the first ball that came into me just sailed right by and I knew that I was in trouble. I'd been so worked up it sapped all the energy out of me."
They were defeated by Kerry again two years later in the All-Ireland final but this time Mortimer was injured so the loss didn't cut as deep. However, by this stage they'd lost four All-Ireland finals in 10 years and the general opinion across the country was that Mayo footballers were flaky.
"The fact that we never finished out these finals is part of the reason people think we're soft-centred. But some people over-celebrating scores and being flamboyant when they shouldn't be, instead of getting on with it, doesn't help either.
"But in saying that I have nothing against people expressing themselves or doing whatever they want to do, each to his own. But I think it's part of our psyche that if we see people doing things differently, wearing different coloured boots, or having dyed hair, it's like let's throw a dart at them when things go wrong.
"And rightly or wrongly that's what happens. It's easy do all that if you have All-Ireland medals behind you and until we get some, we have to put up with it.
"I think that's the main reason, people perceive Mayo footballers as being over-cocky and I don't know why because a lot of the lads I know are anything but cocky. If anything, they should be more confident.
"People in Mayo have a tendency to over-celebrate victories too and I think that adds to it all. We are great when they think we are going to win Sam Maguire and when we don't then we're told to cop on to ourselves."
His brother Conor often hits the headlines for his quirky antics and appearance, but that's his own business. The brothers are total opposites and the wing-back concedes he went through his own phase of making mistakes. But he went away to England for a few years and while there learned a lot.
"It's been hard for Conor, because he was stuck in Mayo all the time and everyone knew him there and told him he was God's gift. He may have believed half of it and that's his problem. I've had to have a chat with him a few times but it hasn't happened too often."
Two years ago, Conor hit the headlines after he celebrated a goal by flashing a T-shirt with a tribute to Michael Jackson written on it. Mayo won the game but he came in for a lot of criticism. However, none of it came from his brother.
"I didn't say a word to him after it, things like that don't really bother me. The thing I would have questioned was where his head was at the week of the game. All that week he was training like mad and no one would have noticed his head was on other things.
"He dyes his hair blond, wears white boots and says some crazy things but that's the way he is. I don't care what he says as long as it doesn't affect the team, me or my family. He's got opinions and that's fine, he is big enough and bold enough to stand by them, but sometimes he needs a clip around the year."
Conor has been out injured for the whole season and is only just back playing club football. His big brother would like to see him back on the panel but concedes that it's probably too late at this stage.
"He's done very well to put himself in a position where there is even talk about him coming back. He is mad keen to get back and when you are out for a while you will always be mad to try and get back.
"It's probably hard for him now that he isn't involved in it, he has been involved for a number of years and he lives for it. Despite all the trouble he gets in, he lives for for football and it's a tough on him."
Today, Trevor Mortimer lines out for Mayo against Kerry and unless they secure a spot in the All-Ireland final, they will find themselves right back where they started.
Sunday Indo Sport