Thursday 29 September 2016

Gaelic football is an addiction in Mayo - and one man has been battling with it all his life

Published 08/07/2016 | 19:30

John Maughan calls it an 'insatiable appetite' but it could easily be described as an addiction.

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That feeling that you have to be involved. That no matter how busy your life is - with work, relationships or friendships - or how badly you want to go on a J1 in the summer, you are compelled to stick around.

Why? Because it is the GAA and it hits those involved like an addiction every bit as consuming as society's most frowned upon vices.

Maughan is a good person to ask about why players and managers go back, year after year and season after season, often toiling for months on end without any prospect of a tangible reward.

He is an illustrative example of the GAA-obsessed people among us - no matter how his time ended in one county, he was determined to move on, to move forward and of course, to keep involved in Gaelic football.

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Maughan was carried off the field by Mayo fans after winning the Connacht final in 1999 - times weren't always that happy.

The former Mayo, Clare, Fermanagh and Roscommon manager hasn't been on an inter-county sideline since 2008 after spending over 15 years whipping teams into shape with his trademark regimented style - honed during his time in the Irish army - that focused heavily on fitness.

But the man who earned a reputation as a forward thinking coach after leading Clare to a shock Munster football title in 1992 when barely 30, looks at the increasing commitment level required for inter-county football and the pressure on managers with a degree of trepidation.

"It is a lifestyle choice," he tells Independent.ie.

"It is a choice of hobbies. If you want to play inter-county football there is no doubt that the cost benefit is there. You now become a professional athlete for the next six or seven years. My son is a Mayo minor and he spends time doing core work and using a foam roller, and his lifestyle would be considerably different to his colleagues who aren't inter-county footballers.

"You are missing stags and birthday parties, every decision you make is a considered decision."

You get the feeling that Maughan wouldn't have enjoyed managing in the social media age. Recently the Offaly hurling manager Eamonn Kelly revealed the vile abuse he received after a loss to Kerry, while Cork goalkeeper Anthony Casey was subjected to similarly venomous comments after a mistake in the U21 football final.

Had Maughan been in charge of Mayo in an era where every supporter had a Twitter account, a search of his name would have returned words of effusive praise or damning criticism depending on the year.

Often lauded when things went right - Mayo won four Connacht titles during his reign - he was equally vilified when they didn't - the county were defeated in All-Ireland finals in 1996, 1997 and 2004 under Maughan.

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Maughan led Mayo out of the doldrums and to two All-Ireland finals in the nineties.

Maughan says that inter-county football has become an increasingly 'ugly' place for managers, one of the reasons that he hasn't returned.

"Managing an inter-county team today, the pressure is intense," he says.

"There were occasions when I was sitting on the bus to Croke Park and I looked with envy at the supporters. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to be out there’. Sitting on the bus with all the butterflies and all the stress and worry, it can be quite uncomfortable.

"Maybe it was during the Celtic Tiger era. Every county had expectations and delusions of grandeur and they didn’t want to be second best in anything. It can be an ugly place for managers now, good people doing an often thankless job.

"When we made an All-Ireland final in 1996 people were talking about the ‘iconic John Maughan’ doing this, that and the other. We lost in 1996 and we lost in 1997 and 2004 and I lost a club final with Crossmolina in between and I became a target for a certain element of fans.

"If you are losing games and you are getting grief, it isn't a comfortable place to be in."

The reason that Maughan threw himself into management in the first place is predictable and perhaps explains why he was so consumed by coaching. An injury robbed him of his playing prime just as he was maturing into a classy footballer.

Soon after reaching an All-Ireland semi-final with Mayo in 1985, Maughan was forced to stop - a playing career unfulfilled lead to his relentless managerial dedication.

"I got injured so young," Maughan says.

"I felt I was right on the cusp of having a wonderful career. I had won an All-Ireland at U21, I won a Hogan Cup medal with my school, two Sigerson Cups win NUIG Galway. I was beginning to play football with confidence.

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Maughan played for Mayo in the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin

"I was really ready to have a great career and then I went to have a routine cartilage operation and ended up having five more after that. It broke my heart. I was very focused and intense when it came to training.

"I was a guy who used to train twice a day. The whole thing came to a shuddering halt. I was absolutely desperate and I had to throw my energy into something else. I had an insatiable appetite to be involved with inter-county football back then. I loved it and I just couldn't say no. Whether it was Roscommon, Fermanagh or my home club, I had a lot of hunger and desire, which has abated in recent years."

One anecdote from Maughan's time on the sidelines perfectly captures the absurdness of the manager's role - or certainly its limitations.

In 1996, Mayo threw away a late lead to draw with Meath in the All-Ireland final. Maughan planned meticulously for the replay. It was widely thought that the westerners had the edge in a number of key areas and could finally bring the Sam Maguire home.

The Mayo boss had prepared for every eventuality - except a mass 25-man melee that saw star midfielder Liam McHale sent off in the opening minutes.

Weeks of plotting undone by a completely unforeseeable act.

"You sit down and you prepare for the various scenarios and what ifs - what if this guy gets injured and who is the first forward or the first defender on and you certainly go down through a myriad of issues that can manifest themselves in a game," Maughan says.

"But certainly what happened on that occasion was never, ever part of a discussion. In hindsight it was a disaster, an absolute disaster. I could never rationalise how the most effective player, the Man of the Match and an All-Star footballer [Liam McHale was sent off] - we have absolved Pat McEneaney - but I didn't think there was equal treatment in that particular brawl."

Maughan is synonymous with Mayo's agonising near misses with glory, with those two games in 1996 as close as the county have come to ending their 65-year drought.

Few teams are as intensely scrutinised for consistently falling short - the English football team and the Boston Red Sox before their 2004 World Series win are similarly analysed - but Maughan rubbishes any talk of mental fragility among the players in his county.

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Maughan celebrates after Clare's shock win over Kerry in the 1992 Munster final

Somewhat surprisingly, he completely disagrees with the widely held opinion that the weight of failure is an immense burden for the Mayo team that manifests itself at the worst possible time - when a key game is in the balance.

"I think that would be a very lazy excuse and I think that has nothing to do with it," Maughan says of the suggestion that Mayo's current team are negatively impacted by past near misses.

"The modern inter-county footballer is a smart, intelligent individual - they aren't thinking back to 1996 or to the 70s when we didn't win a provincial final. They live in the here and now. I don't think in any way that the failure to get over the line or the weight of expectation has anything to do with an inter-county footballer playing for Mayo. There is no way a modern footballer begins to worry or stress [about that] when they are going down the stretch to win an All-Ireland.

"You won't ever hear me saying it because I can't rationalise it. It's not true. That fear of winning doesn't manifest itself in big games at all. If you ask any footballer who has played for Mayo in the last ten years I guarantee you that you won't find one who will agree with that. I say that with huge confidence.

"I don't think it has anything to do with voodoo, witchcraft or a famous curse."

Maughan was actually in the frame to manage the Mayo U21 team this year, but withdrew his name due to the uncertainty in the county following the senior team's managerial heave.

He is content coaching the minor team at Castlebar Mitchels for the moment, and the notoriously fit ex-military man - now in his 50s - is still prepared to go to great lengths to get a workout in.

"If you open the boot of my car right now, I could get about ten sessions done with the amount of gear there," Maughan says.

"It becomes a way of life. It becomes a routine. I enjoy training. I like the feelgood factor I get from keeping fit.

"There are lot of hotels around the country where I've walked straight into the gym and said I'm staying here for the night, Room 222. I've done that, I have of course."

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