Saturday 21 October 2017

Can't live with him, can't live without him

Mayo's John Maughan has always divided opinion, but his enduring legacy means that a potential return to county action is never too far from the horizon

John Maughan looks as he has always looked: tanned and fit. He is 49 now but the fitness code which he always abided by is still hardwired into his system. He carries a gear bag around with him like most people carry a wallet. He trains or does some physical exercise almost every day of the week. Yet his appearance belies more than just his age; it seems like Maughan has been around for decades.

The reality is that he has. It's 20 years since Maughan took over the Clare footballers in 1991. When he guided the county to a first Munster title in 75 years in 1992, it was Gaelic football's most important result of the last 20 years. That Munster final win against Kerry showed the weaker counties what was possible with hard work and creating the right training environment. More importantly, it sent out a message to football people everywhere -- they could dream big.

Maughan certainly wasn't the best manager of the 1990s. But he was the most influential. His achievements even resonated with hurling people, especially those associated with triggering the revolution years of the 1990s. Ger Loughnane may be loathe to praise Maughan's influence, but he revealed his admiration for him in an interview in 1999, just days after Maughan had led Mayo to another Connacht title.

Loughnane was in the Gaelic Grounds that day in 1992, a result which confirmed for him what he would later term "the virtue of suffering". Loughnane and Mike McNamara may have been largely held accountable for the penal suffering and physical fitness obsession of the 1990s. But that legacy really belonged to Maughan.

Maughan only missed one session during his four years with Clare but he obviously brought more to the table than professionalism, organisation and a huge level of physical fitness. After that 1992 Munster final win, Seamus Clancy -- Clare's only football All Star -- said in a 'Sunday Game' interview that he was "absolutely convinced beforehand" that Clare were going to win. They all were.

"It was one of the few occasions in my lifetime I had that experience," says Maughan now. "I knew if the sky fell down that day that we were going to win that game. It was one of those unique feelings. I was just absolutely convinced we were going to do it."

Yet while Maughan will always be credited with that famous breakthrough, his fingerprints will always be smeared across Mayo's three All-Ireland final defeats between 1996 and 2004. His name will always be harshly associated with those failures. And yet it's easy to forget now where Mayo were mired before he arrived.

When he took over in 1996, he inherited a side that were in Division 3 and had been destroyed in the previous year's Connacht final by Galway. Maughan took them to successive All-Ireland finals, rampaging through historical barriers in the process. Before Maughan, a Connacht side hadn't beaten a Munster team in the championship for 30 years, or a Leinster side in 24 years. Then Mayo beat Kerry and Offaly in successive All-Ireland semi-finals.

The relationship between Mayo and Maughan though, was always an intriguing mix. After being carried off the field when guiding Mayo to their third Connacht title in four years in 1999, nearly every supporter in the county was glad to see the back of him after that year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork.

Then after Pat Holmes failed to deliver any championship success over the following three seasons, they were all shouting for Maughan to be brought back. He delivered another Connacht title in 2004 before dethroning the All-Ireland champions, Tyrone, and guiding Mayo back to another All-Ireland final. After the hammering by Kerry in the final, there were some calls for his head again.

The serial disappointment was inevitably deep-rooted. Maughan once recalled that there were times when he'd find himself "sitting bolt upright in the bed wondering, 'Jesus, did that really happen to us'". Those painful memories and defeats seemed to suggest that they would be Maughan's destiny. But he has no truck with fatalism anymore.

"To be quite honest, I think I'd rather be in the place I'm in right now," he says. "I'd rather have people saying 'he blew it', than have them saying 'his head is up his tail end'. There was a danger that Mayo might not have handled winning an All-Ireland too well, but it's still a shame that we didn't win one. It would have made all the sacrifices -- which people made long before me -- worthwhile. It was one that got away and there is regret there, no doubt about it. But from a purely personal point of view, I have no great issue now with not having won it."

Life should still have been a lot simpler for Maughan. He was never revered in his own county, or held in the same regard around the country as other managers who achieved much less than he did. Apart from his unheralded legacy though, history should be kind to Maughan. Especially in Mayo.

Maughan will always be associated with not being able to end the great famine. Yet nobody was even talking about a "famine" before he arrived. They did reach an All-Ireland final in 1989, but Mayo hadn't even beaten Galway in a Connacht final since 1969. Winning All-Irelands and ending famines wasn't even on the agenda until Maughan made it an aspiration again.

When Maughan finally departed the Mayo job in 2005, he walked away in inglorious circumstances. His term was up for review that September and it's possible that he wouldn't have got sufficient approval from a majority of clubs to continue. By that stage anyway, his relationship with the county board had become irreparable.

It was always going to be difficult for both parties to forge a strategic way forward for the team, but the criticism from inside the county eventually took its toll on Maughan. Mayo supporters always had a love-hate relationship with him, but the anti-camp had grown much larger in the months before he departed. His relationship with the clubs had also become damaged and arguments people had with his management were exacerbated when the team wasn't playing well.

The team managed only sporadic bursts of good football in that 2005 season and they didn't seem to be tactically evolving the way they should have been. For the players, there was always the worry, too, that Maughan was hauling too much psychological baggage around for him to deliver them an All-Ireland title. He had probably suffered just one beating too many and had been laid bare just once too often.

Apart from his Clare experience, wherever else Maughan has managed -- Mayo, Fermanagh and Roscommon -- he has polarised opinion. The Clare players still worship him, while one former Fermanagh player says that his old team-mates would be "split 50-50 in their opinion" on Maughan. Yet the same player says that Maughan "brought a new approach to training in Fermanagh football and not everyone took to that culture change".

A significant number of his former players, especially in Mayo, would still have high regard for Maughan. Equally though, a sizeable number wouldn't. Given Maughan's military background and style of management, there was always going to be collateral damage around his perception.

"Some guys would take to me, others wouldn't," he says now. "I would have always done what I felt was right for the county and the team and I never had an agenda against anyone. People said there were issues with me in Mayo because I didn't play such a guy, but I would always pick what I perceived to be the best players. One thing I have is no regrets with any decision I ever made. People are entitled to their own opinions, but I have my own circle of friends and none of that stuff bothers me."

NUCLEAR

His last inter-county job ended in flames. When Maughan first took over Roscommon in 2006, he felt the problems in the team ran so deep that he had to dig them out by the roots. A host of experienced and quality players were all let go, which led to a lot of hurt and a lot of risks. Roscommon had poor championships in 2006 and 2007 and they resumed in 2008 under a heavy cloud. As the results deteriorated, the criticism turned nuclear. Maughan shipped the worst of the radiation and his position eventually became untenable. He walked away that March.

One of the internal criticisms at the time was that his methods were outdated and that his style of management hadn't sufficiently evolved. "I don't agree with that," he says now. "Any manager involved will always keep abreast of what's happening. There is no template there and it's not an exact science.

"I have no regrets at all about my time in Roscommon. I have always tried to do a job for the county or team that is right and if it happens that people don't like it, no problem. One thing, I'll never have to be is pushed out of a job. If people are alluding to the fact that it's a wonderful job managing football teams, I would probably have stayed longer with the likes of Fermanagh and Roscommon."

Fifteen years on from the golden era of Connacht football -- instigated by Maughan's Mayo -- when Connacht teams reached five All-Ireland finals in six years, the evidence now points to a province drifting away from influencing the serious end of the season.

"The standard in the province has dropped big-time," says Maughan. "From a Mayo perspective, there was a certain amount of hope in the 1990s, the belief that we could beat anybody. Unfortunately, I don't see that right now.

"I have one son, Johnny, and I almost end up apologising to him now. I say to him, 'This is not the way it's meant to be.' My little fella loves his football but he was too young to remember the days when we were successful. And we haven't seen anything like that in recent times."

Within Mayo, Maughan remains frustrated with more than just the senior team's form. After five months' work, involving almost 300 people and resulting in 28 pages filled with 76 recommendations on the future of Mayo GAA, the county board's acceptance of that strategic action plan last month has caused division in the county.

The steering committee of the original action plan were left feeling that over 1,000 man-hours were wasted because the board accepted a revised plan that's nowhere near as radical as the initial document. The original committee was brought together as a reaction to Mayo's exit from the Connacht and All-Ireland championships last June.

Their brief was a root-and-branch inspection of Mayo GAA at all levels and they came up with some radical proposals. A full financial review was proposed, as was the establishment of two positions with executive powers, a director of football and a commercial director. Yet those proposals were among many that didn't make the final cut agreed by delegates.

"That document was a blueprint," says Maughan. "I wouldn't agree with every aspect, but 95pc of it was pretty solid. It's a document worth nothing unless there is soul and heart and commitment from leadership, and the county board more or less disassociated themselves from it.

"It's almost as if we've forgotten about the defeats last year. We need a bit of inspiration now and that's why we have to have the right people involved at every level. It's no good unless you have everyone on the same wavelength and an aspiration to build further. Right now, I just don't think we're hitting that sweet spot.

"I think we're appointing a lot of people in administrative roles in a lot of counties and you'd just wonder are these people fit for purpose or have they just come up through the system? What is their strategy? Have they a five-year plan or what? I think a lot of people have their fingers crossed and are hoping that things might get better, without a vision or a policy for making things happen."

Maughan clearly still has issues with the board. When Mayo were looking for a new manager last autumn, Maughan's name was mentioned. "I was asked to let my name go forward," he says. "Momentarily, I was interested, but I changed my mind fairly rapidly. I just felt it wasn't for me at this time. If I had gone, I don't think I would have had a chance. I would never say never. But if I was asked to go again, I would be surprised at myself if I said 'Yes'."

Over the years, the politics bothered him and the sniping wore him down, but it never diluted his enthusiasm. Maughan coached NUIG in last year's Sigerson Cup, while he's also with Crossmolina. For the last while, he's been working with the first years in St Gerald's College in Castlebar. "To be honest, I get as much pleasure helping out the young lads in St Gerald's than I do at any level of football," he says. "I still love coaching."

The quest for an All-Ireland still goes on in Mayo but no manager got closer to it than Maughan. Every episode during his career was always painted in vivid colour, providing every storyteller with a different strain of yarn to tell. Some said he was an ego-maniac. Others said he was lucky. But because he never won an All-Ireland, it was easy to define Maughan's legacy.

Yet his input should always be measured against much more than just the big prize. Because Maughan's real legacy is immense.

Irish Independent

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