Schooled with new attitude
One third of today's Mayo squad is linked to St Gerald's College, writes John O'Brien
WHEN Joe McCabe fetched up in St Gerald's College, Castlebar in the early 1990s, he brought no grand vision with him. No daring blueprint, no eye-poppingly lavish master-plan. He was a Longford man with Gaelic football in his marrow, washing up in a county where the locals knew what it was like to reach All-Ireland finals and what it was like to lose them. So he gently breezed in with an inquiring mind but no missionary zeal.
But something about Gerald's struck him as odd. A large school set in proud football territory with no discernible football tradition. How strange that seemed. The history books told him that Gerald's had won a Connacht title back in 1929 and then nothing afterwards. As if they'd simply fallen into a deep, black hole and disappeared. Even stranger, they didn't even have a pitch to play on.
There's a before and after to this story. The before is that which preceded what Joe likes to call the "big push". And the after? Well, that's the story of all his days now. Two years ago, Joe took the decision to step away from the running of the Gerald's senior team and
allow younger blood to take over. But the legacy of the 16-year shift he put in before that is stamped all over the Mayo team that will seek to erase decades of pain in Croke Park this afternoon.
All told, one third of the Mayo set-up are products of St Gerald's. If Cillian O'Connor's shoulder holds up, they will provide five of the starting 15 and five more of the extended panel. James Horan, too, is a past pupil, as is his selector Tom Prendergast, and Horan's brother, John, a maor uisce. A measure of the distance they've travelled is the fact that in 1996, when they lost to Meath, Horan was the only Gerald's presence on the county team.
Back then, though, Joe never thought much about the journey. He was too busy in the here and now, scraping teams together, scattering seeds. He knew there was work to be done. The lack of a pitch was only the half of it. In his first five years in Gerald's, the senior team never once advanced beyond the first round of the 'B' championship. In the prevailing hierarchy, football came a distance behind basketball and vied with other sports for second. They had good footballers, just not the impetus to give them a cause.
"The potential was there," McCabe says. "It just had never been harnessed the right way. Like, I looked at teams when I went there first. Fellas would have played county minor, then February came and they didn't bother togging out. That told a story. Every year they came back and were beaten in the first round of the 'B' championship. Next thing you'd hear the two best players didn't travel."
Such apathy ran counter to the grain of Joe's life. He'd spent his own school days at St Mel's in Longford where football was a precious and solemn activity. A decade of modest achievement with the county footballers followed: a couple of Leinster semi-finals, a spell in Division 2 of the league, the odd scalp of a Kildare or a Galway along the way. Always of a mind, though, to push as far ahead as he could go.
As a coach, he brought ideas that weren't revolutionary but, for kids of an impressionable age, were eye-opening and radical. If you don't train, McCabe told them starkly, you don't play. "There's a famous hill beside the school," remembers former player Niall Dunne. "We didn't know it was there until Joe introduced us to it. It was absolute torture. We became acquainted with every nettle and bramble on it."
But there was method too. McCabe had studied for his PE degree in the famed surroundings of Strawberry Hill in London and pinched ideas from the Kiwi coaches and players who had infiltrated the country in large numbers around the time of the 1991 rugby World Cup. The Gerald's players learned circuit training and how to lift weights. "He was ahead of his time," says Dunne. "And he had a presence too, a certain way with players."
McCabe first took charge of the senior team in September 1995. Within a year a group of players he'd initially coached as first years had won a Connacht title, creating history in the process. That year they had entered the 'B' championship and, through a quirk in the system, qualified for the latter stages of the 'A' championship. Nobody expected 'B' teams to be competitive but St Gerald's bucked the trend. Joe remembers the team being scheduled to play the 'B' semi-final three days after they toppled Tuam CBS in the 'A' final. The game never took place.
The following year they took the notable scalp of St Jarlath's in the Connacht final and proved the previous year was no fluke. Jarlath's with their history and tradition, their huge pick of players and the customary smattering of Mayo talent in their line-up. "To beat Jarlath's in Tuam by a point, that was massive," Dunne says. "Maybe other teams had perceptions of how they felt about Jarlath's. We always felt we could compete with them and beat them."
Taking the next step was a trickier business. In '96 they shipped a painful lesson from a Killorglin side blessed with the dazzling skills of Mike Frank Russell. A year later, they edged past a Colm O'Rourke-trained St Pat's, Navan, in the semi-final before succumbing to St Pat's, Dungannon – "with half the 2002 Tyrone team," McCabe helpfully points out – in the final. No shame at all in it. The point was, though, that Gerald's had arrived as a football power, a presence on the map that has been sustained and embellished. In the past 10 years, for instance, Gerald's have reached six
Connacht finals, winning two. Joe wonders what school in Ireland could have achieved so much without the cursory facility of a full-sized pitch to train on and, clearly, it remains a minor irritant.
"The tradition we built is psychological," he says. "Physically, we still don't have any structure. No football pitch. We're itinerants basically. We have to tramp around for a pitch to train on. There is a small piece of ground, around 18 by 30, beside the school, but it wouldn't be adequate for all our needs."
In a way, such adversity might have been the making of them. McCabe remembers days he'd take the team out to Ballintubber, the late Christy Feeney feeding coins from his own pocket into the meter so the kids would have hot water after training. A thousand such little acts of kindness became a groundswell of generosity. He thinks of the men like Ned Murren who soldiered tirelessly alongside him. A community that rallied around and took pride in their achievements.
Because Joe never saw it that he was working miracles or guiding Gerald's to some promised land. He always said that if a school like Gerald's with 500 or so pupils couldn't produce footballers, then no school in Ireland could produce footballers. Mayo had always produced decent underage teams. The clubs were full of good people doing good work. Davitt College were a force in the Vocational competitions. The raw material was there.
One small link in the chain needed mending, though. Before Gerald's history-making title in 1996, it had been 15 years since a Mayo team had last ascended the colleges' summit in Connacht.
No school from the province had ever recorded back-to-back titles. The reality was that good Mayo players were as likely to filter through the Jarlath's nursery as through schools in their own county. Something didn't sit right about that.
McCabe likes it now that he can cast his eye over the list of Gerald's players on the county panel and see the fruits of several years' labour, not just the lucky product of one freakishly talented golden generation. He sees players developing a winning habit from their earliest days in school. Regularly putting it up to the likes of Jarlath's and, more often than not, beating them. Players lugging no obvious psychological hang-ups, in no way inclined to buy into the deadening narrative of past Mayo heartbreak.
The memories flood back now. Rob Hennelly and Aidan O'Shea driving a junior team to a Connacht title a few years back. An All-Ireland 'B' title slipping from their grasp in 2003 until Barry Moran and Seamus O'Shea, both just 16 at the time, came on to stem the tide at midfield and turn the game against a strong St Michael's from Lurgan. An All-Ireland semi-final three years ago when Cillian O'Connor battled heroically against the might of eventual champions St Colman's, Newry.
In a way O'Connor is the prototype footballer McCabe dreamed of breeding in Gerald's. Not in his abundant natural ability, but in the confidence he exuded, a sense of belief that never strayed towards arrogance. "He had what I call 'soft feet'," McCabe says. "The way he could wrap his feet around a ball and move it. He never had to kick the leather off it. When he put the ball from his hand to his foot, it was sublime. But it was something he worked on. It didn't just come natural."
He worries about O'Connor's dodgy shoulder, of course. They all do. But that's in the lap of the gods now. All the things they can control fill him with hope. Horan's steady, no-frills leadership. The growing sense among the players that this is their time. He's not fooled into thinking that Dublin can't beat them, but senses Jim Gavin's side will have to play the game of their lives to do so. And that's possible too.
Still, his mind can't help drifting ahead to what might be. Three years ago they welcomed O'Connor back to the school with the young player of the year award in his grasp and this time they fancy they can complete the set if Mayo sneak over the line and Aidan O'Shea delivers what amounts, by his own exalted standards, to a half-decent performance. Heady times.
And so the seconds tick down. Joe might be a Longford man but he knows what it's like to go close too. He was there in 1994 when his adopted club, Castlebar Mitchels, were slain by Nemo Rangers in the club final. Five years later, he walked the line as the Mayo minors fell to Down in the minor final. That last little step, he knows, can be the hardest one to take.
But he thinks of the journey he has undergone with Gerald's and its meaning in a broader Mayo context. The innate belief they carry, the refusal to be weighed down by abject historical baggage. Just one more small push, he thinks. That's all they need now.