Monday 23 October 2017

Return of the smiling assassin

Moran's positive energy set to illuminate Mayo forward line

Mayo star Andy Moran returned to action against Galway
Mayo star Andy Moran returned to action against Galway
The Mayo captain Andy Moran being removed from the pitch after injury versus Down in August, 2012
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Gaelic footballers by the nature don't allow their game-face masks to slip too often. The standard response to scoring a goal is to turn grim-faced to your colleagues, urgently pointing at the direction of the space you want them to fill and exhorting them to be alert to those around them.

Unless you are extrovert enough to blow kisses to the crowd, a la Joe Brolly, thoughtful enough to reveal a tee shirt bearing the inscription 'RIP Micheal (sic) Jackson' logo beneath the jersey, a la Conor Mortimer, or brave enough to coolly strut and deliver a fist to a Hill 16 terrace packed with Dublin supporters, like Owen Mulligan and Ollie Murphy have done in the past, then goal celebrations don't tend to be in any way risque.

Andy Moran's most memorable goals, his first and last in a senior inter-county career now in its 10th year, have triggered a different response, a light bulb smile creasing his face that says everything about his energy for the game.

Two months ago in Castlebar he brought a nine-and-a-half-month absence from competitive action with Mayo to an end with an appearance for the last 10 minutes of the rout of Galway.

To cap it all, he scored a goal with the last play of the game, drilling home from close range after good approach work from Keith Higgins, Cillian O'Connor and Donal Vaughan.

Looking back at the footage of the goal now, it's interesting to see the reaction of his colleagues as Moran did his little vertical leap that he subsequently admitted embarrassed him. The delight for their team-mate on the faces of O'Connor and Vaughan was obvious and genuine.

Even after the final whistle was blown there was further acknowledgment, from players and some supporters, of Moran's impact.

"Unfortunately, we'll have to listen to him after scoring the goal," admitted manager James Horan with a smile.

The goal, Mayo's fourth, meant little to the game itself. But in the overall context it meant a great deal. Mayo had one of their true leaders back and they knew the road he had travelled.

You put the question to Kevin McStay, former Mayo player and All-Ireland winning club manager with St Brigid's, that maybe, just maybe, Mayo didn't miss him as much as they might have expected at the tail end of last summer – that they coped well.

"Ultimately, they didn't (cope)," conceded McStay, illustrating that Moran, together with Alan Dillon and Keith Higgins, have been Mayo's most important players in recent years.

Others are filling up those leadership roles now, Aidan O'Shea at midfield for one, but Moran's seniority hasn't diminished with the injury that knocked him out of county, provincial club and All-Ireland finals in a three-month spell last year.

For the first time since tearing his cruciate ligament in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final against Down Moran will start a game for Mayo.

Still without Cillian O'Connor and Michael Conroy, Mayo have decided to use the opportunity of a Connacht final with London to road test Moran's staying power.

He crashed out of the game at the peak of his powers, a real creative force, setting up a goal for Jason Doherty, as Down were hammered in that All-Ireland quarter-final on the back of his first All Star in 2011.

Leadership

McStay has only a sense, not an experience, of the leadership he brings to the Mayo dressing-room.

"He's a very confident guy. He was a players' representative on Eugene McGee's Football Review Committee so he's quite a thoughtful guy too, he's up front and he comes across as one who must be very strong in a dressing- room," he said.

"He plays with a great smile which is nice to see. He's very popular among the crowd, a very popular figure around Mayo.

"From a Mayo person's perspective, he represents the county well. He's a good guy to have out front leading your team. He has a perfect game to come back into here."

The confidence is best illustrated by the conversation he had with joint Mayo managers in 2006, Mickey Moran and John Morrison, on the sideline in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin that year.

As they prepared to introduce him, not long after Dublin had taken a seven-point lead, Mickey Moran implored upon him to get them a goal.

"Mickey said to him: 'We've only one thing to say to you, get a goal. Do that and we'll win'," recalled Morrison of the substitute's instruction.

"His last comment to me looking back that day was: 'I'll get you a goal'"

He duly did some minutes later bringing the deficit down to just two points. They eventually won by one.

"When Andy got the goal Mickey turned around and said to me: 'What do you think now.' I replied: 'You know what I'm thinking, we're going to win this game.' That's the impact it had. He turned the game."

The smile on his face as he retreated back to his position was illuminating.

"His enthusiasm is second to none. His ability to learn is phenomenal. I call him the consummate thirster. He has a great mentality and a great engine, plus he's not afraid to voice an opinion," added Morrison, who sees a future for him in the game beyond his playing days.

"He started his own coaching company (TotalGAACoach.com) a year or two after we left. He will become one of the great thinkers of the game."

Moran could still only be considered a peripheral figure in 2006, two years after featuring in an All-Ireland U-21 final defeat to Armagh and six days after the seniors had lost heavily to Kerry to end a campaign that had begun with his debut in New York.

That summer he was largely deployed as a wing-back by Mickey Moran and Morrison, but on Sunday he's back in the full-forward line.

McStay feels a slightly deeper position may get the best out of him.

"Playing off the full-forward, at the top of the 'D' where it meets the 20-metre line, feeding off Freeman perhaps. He's not big enough to be a 14, but he's powerful enough. He breaks the first tackle with his power and that's how he gets away from his defender. He has outrageous power.

"I wouldn't say he's a flyer over any distance, but in a short burst he's hard to beat. He has two very good feet, he holds the ball up well. The ball sticks. You put it in Andy Moran's corner and it generally sticks."

Sigerson Cup success, first with Sligo IT and then with the University of Ulster in Jordanstown further embellished his development but he made most progress under John O'Mahony from 2007 to 2010.

"There was a team that had been essentially breaking up after the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland finals and Andy was one of those young players who put his name down for a regular role," recalled O'Mahony.

O'Mahony coached him at school and he enjoyed All-Ireland 'B' success in 2000 when they beat St Augustine's from Waterford.

He was talented enough to be on the books of Longford Town soccer club and was also a renowned handballer, but Gaelic football has never been less that an absolute priority in his life.

Now a medical rep after a spell working for the Mayo/Roscommon Hospice, his work to rehabilitate from the cruciate ligament tear came after recovery from a broken leg sustained training with the International Rules squad in 2011.

O'Mahony senses that his desire to succeed and improve is sharper now than it ever was.

"What Mayo missed big time in the All-Ireland final was his ball-winning," he said. "The other forwards would have benefitted from that aspect of his game. But they'll also have welcomed his attitude. He's one of the most positive people you will ever meet."

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