Mickey Conway tells a story about the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal, and the tactical curve ball thrown by Mayo’s managerial double-act of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly.
Conway was back in Mayo’s match-day panel after an injury-blighted year but didn’t feature. Barry Moran was also listed in the subs but was sprung to start. Not, mind you, in his orthodox midfield role.
Rather, the 6ft 5in giant was utilised primarily as a defensive sweeper, covering airspace in front of his full-back line. “Sure it was all Donie Buckley’s idea to put Barry Moran in on top of Michael Murphy, just to get the breaking ball or knock it off him,” Conway recalls.
“It was more a visual cue. You put in the ball – who’s in there? Barry Moran. ‘Sure, I can’t put in something high with him in there!’ The only problem was, we were two or three years too late – we didn’t do it in 2012.”
Donie Buckley wasn’t the coach for that year’s final, when a soaring Murphy swooped for that early goal to set Donegal on the path to glory and launch a decade of All-Ireland torture for Mayo.
But he was there for the 2013 decider against Dublin, the first of six consecutive seasons as the coach of Mayo teams led by three different management teams – James Horan for the first two years, Holmes and Connelly for the third, and finally Stephen Rochford from 2016 to ’18.
Buckley has jointly managed Clare, where he has long resided; he has coached Limerick, and twice coached his native Kerry … yet his name is most indelibly linked with Mayo.
So, today’s SFC qualifier in Castlebar will be a homecoming of sorts. Not that he’ll expect any red carpets, as Séamus McEnaney’s coach will be plotting Mayo’s downfall.
Hard to believe, Mayo have never faced Monaghan in championship combat, even if they know each other only too well from numerous league encounters. But if James Horan is privately worried about his team’s flatlining form graph or their hideous run of injury misfortune, he is probably just as mindful of the potential impact of his former coach.
True, Monaghan were not just beaten on the scoreboard, but rather obliterated on the tactical front by Derry in their Ulster semi-final last month.
Yet as one acquaintance points out, whenever a big performance in a do-or-die contest is required, Buckley possesses an “innate ability” to have players right. “If I needed to win and had four weeks, nothing else, I would be getting him,” he adds.
Mickey Ned O’Sullivan would agree, not just as a fellow Kerryman but as the Limerick boss who brought Buckley on board in 2008 (when they blitzed Meath in the qualifiers) as the prelude to narrowly losing back-to-back Munster finals against Cork and Kerry.
O’Sullivan’s then-coach, Michael McGeehin, was struggling to find the time because of work so the two sat down to discuss who might fill the breach.
McGeehin was “under no illusions whatsoever – he said Donie Buckley is the best in the business.”
“I actually stood back and empowered him – and he was exceptionally good,” O’Sullivan continues.
“My job was managing, and he was a coach, so I didn’t interrupt … we’d always discuss what was needed, and he’d come up with the session.”
Others have suggested that giving Buckley this freedom is the best route to optimum performance, and that his impact was arguably most pronounced during the Rochford years.
They will cite the 2017 final when Mayo boldly attacked Stephen Cluxton’s kick-out during the first half, winning six long restarts and directly scoring 0-3 off them … but they were unable to get any similar traction after Donie Vaughan’s dismissal.
The technique and not just ferocity of Mayo’s tackling, epitomised by that same first half, is seen as another Buckley trademark.
“He was a divil for tackling,” confirms Conroy, who trained under Buckley from 2013 until the spring of 2016. “It takes two to tango … he had great guys to work with and they were all buying in. But absolutely he homed in on that.”
The coach’s relationship with Horan made headlines in 2014 when the Mayo boss reacted furiously to one local newspaper report alleging a rift, which he slated as “mind-boggling”, “disgraceful” and “complete lies”.
Conway reckons the pair got on “well at the time”, while describing the dynamic between any manager and coach as a tricky one to get right.
For whatever reason, that dynamic didn’t flourish long-term during either of his spells with Kerry. He was there for the 2011 All-Ireland final under Jack O’Connor, but, having returned from knee surgery, stepped away before the 2012 championship.
History repeated itself when he departed Peter Keane’s set-up, in March 2020, without making it to a second championship. The reason behind that schism, and whether it was linked to the fallout over Kerry’s All-Ireland replay defeat to Dublin in 2019, was never publicly explained.
Yet anyone seeking to appreciate Buckley’s impact across the last decade need only consider this: in nine seasons, from 2011 to ’19, he coached teams that reached seven All-Ireland semi-finals (plus two replays) and five finals (plus another two replays).
This enigmatic character shuns publicity but is loved by players.
When watching over match video, he will invariably seek out the “root cause” of every score.
“His attention to detail was unbelievable,” says Conroy. “He trained the b*****ks out of us, but it was very enjoyable.”
Whether he has enjoyed the round-trip from Ennis to Monaghan’s Centre of Excellence in Cloghan (some 500km and close to seven hours) is open to question, no more than speculation about how he feels about taking on Mayo in a must-win battle.
“He has such respect for those guys that he’d feel guilty going against them now,” reckons O’Sullivan. “But he still has his job to do.”