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'I had no intention of getting back involved' - 30 years on, John Maughan just can't quit inter-county football

The young Turk of management is now a grandad, but his passion for football still burns

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John Maughan addresses his players after the League match away to Cork. Photo: David Fitzgerald

John Maughan addresses his players after the League match away to Cork. Photo: David Fitzgerald

SPORTSFILE

John Maughan addresses his players after the League match away to Cork. Photo: David Fitzgerald

Time is a jet plane, Bob Dylan wrote, it moves too fast. The John Maughan who took over Clare at 28 has more than doubled in age, reared a family, had back surgery, and now drives three times a week from Castlebar to Kilcormac to manage Offaly.

He's never stopped managing teams, club and county, since it all began 30 years ago. He's never failed to leave a deep impression. Clare. Mayo. Fermanagh. Mayo again. Roscommon. And now Offaly. A residency in every province.

In the Clare years, he lived in Galway, and was an army officer in Athlone, which meant having to shoot back to the west for training when roads were notably slower. But he never felt it. He was young and immune, a force of energy. When you've driven as much as he has, and seen as much, the wonder can drain from life. The drive to Offaly is often tedious, but after ten years out of county management, the job has triggered the same impulses that lured him to this kind of challenge in the first place.

With Clare he won a Munster title that few considered possible, the only previous triumph in 1917. He took Mayo to successive All-Ireland finals in the '90s before returning for a third final on his second stint in '04.

But Offaly are a Division 3 side, escaping relegation by a hair last year in Collooney where they needed to defeat Sligo in the final round. As well travelled as Maughan has been he had never set foot in Collooney before. In injury time they got the winning point and survived ahead of Carlow only because they'd beaten them in the head-to-head.

"The sense of relief was just enormous," he says now. "I will never forget Collooney. I remember driving down a week in advance to look at the pitch. I was taking photographs of it to show the boys. Again it is a game we should have won, not being disrespectful to Sligo, we had chances galore. Nail-biting, nerve-racking, it absolutely exhausted me on the sideline as most games do. I was driving home last weekend with my daughter after the Longford game and there wasn't a word out of me, it is mental torture in a way. And if you get the result there is that sense of relief."

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John Maughan. Photo: Sportsfile

John Maughan. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

He had disappeared into the relative anonymity of club football, taking juvenile teams, enjoying life, when Offaly came calling. "I had no intention of getting back involved in inter-county football," he states.

From Crossmolina, Maughan went to school in the Carmelite College in Moate which brought him into contact with people from Offaly. He couldn't say they were an alien race but when he was invited to do an interview to manage the county he said no. "I had zero interest."

But any county chairman or committee man worth his salt usually has a tougher line of resistance than that. "I got a second phone call and I decided to go for the interview. Again, I had no intention and for some reason I heard the words coming out of my mouth, 'ah sure, look it, if I am successful I will give it a go for a year'. And when you get in for a year you feel you can't walk out. You develop a relationship and rapport with the lads."

By coincidence one of the people he went to school with is the father of Niall McNamee, Offaly's best-known footballer. Eddie Fleming, who was on the group whose task it was to find a manager, is also an old school acquaintance. His current team selector, Gerry O'Malley, who lives outside Ferbane, is married to Sean Lowry's daughter. "I played with Sean for Mayo and Crossmolina," states Maughan. Before then Lowry won an All-Ireland with Offaly in 1982. "Gerry won an All-Ireland club with Crossmolina," adds Maughan. "So you are buying into all these connections."

Vinny Claffey was also on the committee soliciting Maughan, a player he was well acquainted with in the '90s when Mayo and Offaly were riding high. But the start was tough and he was soon questioning his judgement.

"For the first two months I probably did regret it. Numbers were very small, we got a lot of rejections, guys didn't want to commit. There had been issues in Offaly prior to me becoming involved. I thought I had made a huge mistake."

Even the drive, which is around two hours and 15 minutes each way, was something he hadn't fully taken stock of. He leaves work at 4.30, gets home around midnight. For the first round of the National League this year in Cork he had work in the city on Monday which meant he dovetailed the two tasks, staying down there on Saturday and Sunday night.

"I had driven up to Tullamore for the interview but until you are doing this drive in the winter months on a regular basis you tend to underestimate what's involved. And I am of a certain age, I had back surgery, pretty serious surgery, last July. I was crippled last year with a bad back. And driving is not the best thing to be doing when you needed surgery. But thankfully I am much better this year and the surgery has worked to a large extent. I feel a lot better driving. But nonetheless, it is a hard chore."

But the reservations fade when he arrives in Kilcormac's "state-of-the-art" training centre where all county teams congregate. Words like "infectious" and "contagious" ginger the conversation. They are working "extremely hard" and he says that he is "blown away" by the players' dedication and discipline.

"They are absolutely terrific. I have nothing but admiration for inter-county footballers, and I can only benchmark my own lads that I am involved with and I have to say that I was particularly amazed on the Sunday that we played Cork in the National League, we took a seven-point defeat, and the following morning by 11 o'clock all bar none had the recovery session done, and those who hadn't played had additional work done. I mean, that's remarkable for inter-county footballers at this level."

Where is this enthusiasm coming from? "Well, you know, this is the thing. Because as I said to a friend of mine down here yesterday, I was chatting about Offaly, I cannot sit in front of them and tell them, 'Look it lads we are going to win a Leinster Championship'. That's not possible. I suppose this is just a lifestyle choice that they've made, it's a hobby that they have.

"Obviously the lifestyles are dictated by the trends that are in the country at the moment; if you are involved in an inter-county set-up you have got to be professional, whether it is for one year or ten years. You have got to give your all for that period.

"And I suppose the remarkable thing is, for me, it is the first time in my life being involved at inter-county level where I can't say, 'we are going to win a title here' because it is very, very difficult and I don't want to tell lies and I want to be very honest and straight. It is the whole question of trying to maximise the potential they have and be the best they can and all those clichés we are familiar with."

Does that make the job easier, with lower expectations? "No, I come away as frustrated as anybody after a performance that doesn't lead us to a winning situation. I come away really frustrated. What do we want out of this? And I've often said this to the lads, we just want that feel-good factor that comes with winning a game. Just the joy of a job well done, having played well. That's what drives us."

He felt they were hard done by in losing to Cork by seven points and also when not winning last Sunday in Tullamore. "I felt it was a game that we butchered," he says of the draw with Longford. "We didn't play well in the first half, Longford were the better team in the first half, but I thought we had such a volume of possession in the second half that it was a game we should have won. That is something that we are trying to improve on, because our scoring rate and conversion rate is not good enough. And that is something we are working on."

In 1990 when he took over Clare at a ridiculously young age, mature beyond his years and a notoriously uncompromising disciplinarian, Cork were on their way to winning the All-Ireland double. Now their footballers are in Division 3. So is the county that won the following year's All-Ireland, Down, and the one that won two years after that, Derry. Offaly last contested a provincial final in 2006. Division 3 has become a shelter for teams fallen on hard times.

"I was asked by a girl in the office there a half an hour ago," Maughan relates, by way of illustration, "'who did ye play in the first round?' I said: 'Cork'. She said, 'sure Cork aren't in your division.' I said, 'yes, they are'.

"I have to say it is unbelievably competitive. If you look at the quality of teams. And the history (of counties), the Derrys and Downs, and even Tipperary getting to an All-Ireland semi-final a few years ago. Cork . . . Longford who have done remarkable things . . . It is hugely competitive. It is way more competitive than the Division 1 that I was involved in with Mayo back in the day.

"It is dog-eat-dog. Every Sunday it is championship intensity. Jesus, you lose a couple of games and you are looking over your shoulder. Every game we play there is an uncertainty of outcome. You wouldn't want to be relying on a big accumulator based on the results in Division 3 because you are guaranteed to get it wrong."

He says, rather than expecting a miraculous transformation, they can aspire to be consistent, noting how Clare "have absolutely stretched themselves and maximised every last ounce they have" by reaching, and maintaining a presence in, tier 2.

After the unpromising start, staying in Division 3 last year led to a deeply encouraging display in the Leinster Championship which almost defeated Meath, followed by a few wins in the qualifiers although Maughan admits they were fortunate with the draw. He is setting down foundations, but is delighted with the buy-in from the players. "When I arrive here this evening," he says of the training session immediately ahead, "Niall McNamee will probably be the first man in the dressing room; he is 34 years of age. He'll be there at 6.30 for 7.30 training. Guys will come in and start rolling out on the foam rollers. They'll be stretching. You'll see them with bands and all sorts of stuff.

"My God, they're marvellous I have to say. I can only sit back and admire them. And the passion and interest they have. Which in a way is incredible. But they have a passion for wearing that county jersey or buying into an ethos and philosophy where there is a standard expected of them. They are really stepping up to the plate in that regard."

His last county team engagement ended in flames. In Roscommon, after a run of poor results in the League, repeated abuse and hostility from crowds, and criticism from hurlers in the ditch, he tendered his resignation in spring 2008.

"The reality was that we were working really hard in Roscommon at the time and the results weren't coming. When you see a situation deteriorating and you feel that you are not wanted, the one thing I will never find myself in is a situation where I will have to be pushed out of a job.

"Certainly, if I feel I am not wanted I will walk out the door in the morning because this to me is a huge commitment. I found myself in that situation in Roscommon. I had no option but to walk out. For my own selfish reasons. I wasn't going to persevere with the type of reception I was getting at the end."

How bad was it? "It was an ugly time. Certainly, it wasn't pleasant. There's more to life, I didn't want to be torturing myself, I wanted to enjoy this aspect of it. This is my recreational time too.

"But it didn't tarnish me. I got back involved in football. I was with Castlebar Mitchells for four or five years at underage level which I enjoyed immensely. My brother is chairman of a small club down the road from us in Castlebar, I managed them for two years. Got tremendous pleasure out of that. I enjoyed that too."

He says he has remained "quite friendly" with a number of the Roscommon players and good friends with his selectors at the time, Gerry Fitzmaurice and Eamonn McManus.

"I recall one individual (player) in particular warming up to come on as a sub, (and) to hear the tirade of abuse that came his way, I thought it was despicable to be quite honest with you."

Maughan gives a qualified endorsement of the second tier championship. "It is so important it is marketed properly and not seen as a losers' championship. That it is seen as something meaningful. That there are rewards in it for players and they get to play on a big stage prior to another big championship game. Otherwise you will lose hundreds and hundreds of inter-county players who will fall way from the game and say, well why would I bother? It is a critical juncture because we know that in the last few years the gap is widening to the top tier teams."

He won All-Ireland B championships with Clare and Fermanagh, which were extremely beneficial, platforms for higher achievement down the line.

Management has been "a huge chunk" of his life. "It is the greatest emotional roller-coaster ride you'll get; up one minute, down the other," he explains. "It's a crazy mix of emotions. But I can't say no, it's like a disease. When it came to the crunch with Offaly, I said yes, I'd give it a crack and see if I could get the same excitement out of it."

Time rolls on. The young man who came into inter-county management in 1990 will be a grandfather in a couple of months. His eldest daughter is three years older than he was when he took over Clare. But he is back in that familiar place where, at its most engrossing, time no longer exist.

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