'In my last match, I was off after four minutes' - Mark Vaughan on his colourful Dublin career, and run in with Pat Gilroy
Mark Vaughan reckons that there was a period, about ten years ago now, when himself and Stephen Cluxton spent more time together than any inter-county players in Ireland.
It wasn’t that the Dublin team-mates were inseparable chums – Cluxton’s stoicism and aversion to the spotlight didn’t exactly tally with the flamboyant forward’s outsized personality and bleach blonde hair, but the duo did have one important thing in common: their dedication to dead balls.
Long before he stepped up to kick an All-Ireland final-winning free, Cluxton spent hours alongside Dublin’s mercurial free-taker as the inter-county odd couple honed their craft.
"He probably learned a good bit off me, I learned a good bit off him,” Vaughan says, remembering their unlikely partnership.
"Myself and Cluxton used to spend more time together than any lads in Ireland. We would go out for an hour, an hour and a half before training.
"He is at a different level than other goalkeepers and it's down to hours and hours and hours of practice. Left post, right post, trying to hit the crossbar from 50m, from 40m - you name it and he has probably hit 50 of those shots that week."
When you realise that Mark Vaughan is still only 31, it gives you pause – his last inter-county appearance came in 2009, just months after he won an All-Ireland club title with Kilmacud Crokes playing the football of his life.
That’s a long time to be off the inter-county grid.
"I probably peaked when I was 19," Vaughan admits, "whereas most people peak a lot later."
That final teenage year was when he burst on the scene as a bit of a whirlwind, making his senior debut for Dublin against Longford in the 2005 Leinster championship.
In his second appearance, he came off the bench against Meath to seal victory with two monstrous frees. It marked him as a prodigious talent, but Vaughan ultimately hovered on the fringes of the team, broke through as a starter in 2007 and was jettisoned after running afoul of Pat Gilroy two years later.
"I would never be bitter about a decision or anything like that, I probably forced my own hand," he says.
The former Blackrock college student came to Gaelic football as a teenager from a soccer background, with no knowledge of the sport’s past, or its present, struggling to put names to faces when he first joined the Dublin panel.
It wasn’t that he held established stars in low regard, more that he had absolutely no idea which players were the stars.
"I was naive," he says.
"I wouldn't have had a history in the game so I wouldn't have known a lot of these players. That's how I played and it was probably a lot easier than someone coming through who had played for 10 years and who knew all these Dublin players.
"It wouldn't have been a lack of respect but if I knew someone had been the best player for ten years then I probably would have been fearful that I couldn't get in ahead of him, but for me that didn't really make a difference because I didn't know how good a lot of these players were. So in my head, I was as good as these players."
He stood out at 19 on the field, and even more at 18, when he sported a blue Mohawk during Dublin’s run to the 2003 All-Ireland minor final, but Vaughan ditched his distinctive dome not long after his time with the Boys in Blue came to an end and he started working full time.
He now works for a start-up company that sells alternative data, and is proud to still be playing senior football with Kilmacud after so many of his vintage have called it a day. His Dublin career seems a long time ago now, although it is pointed out that his Whatsapp photo is of him warming up before a championship match with his former team-mates.
He still watches Dublin regularly but says the picture was sent to him by a member of the backroom team on his birthday recently, rather than a photo he sourced himself to relive his flirtation with inter-county glory.
"I played with Dublin but there are probably hundreds of people who did during that period, I just might be remembered for some of the things I did, either right or wrong," he says.
"The way the Dublin team is now, I don't think anyone who didn't win an All-Ireland will be remembered much except maybe someone like Ciaran Whelan. You look at someone like Kevin Nolan, who's probably forgotten about already and he won Man of the Match in an All-Ireland final in 2011."
Vaughan is wrong with his assertion, though. Pillar Caffrey’s Dublin team stand the test of time, even without an All-Ireland. It is impossible not to be remembered when a side is involved in that many famous - and infamous - encounters; just ask the current Mayo team.
It is exactly ten years since Vaughan’s inter-county career reached its peak, a season as a starter and free-taker that saw him notch 1-6 in a Leinster final and almost help Dublin slay Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Dublin fell short by two points, and Vaughan was culpable for a few misses from placed balls, despite the repetitious training regimen with Cluxton. The pain at missing out on an All-Ireland with that Dublin team is obvious when Vaughan mentions, in passing, how little emphasis he puts on his provincial medals.
"I didn't win that much with Dublin - I won Leinster every year I was there but that was a formality and still is," he says.
"The issue is the era when I was around, we failed to do it. We didn't beat the big teams.
"I think it was a mental thing. In 2007 we probably should have beaten Kerry. We were fairly unlucky. Shane Ryan was hauled down in front of goal before the black card. I missed a few frees - one of them was in front of the posts. It was probably just the mindset and us not believing that we could get it done."
With Vaughan, a lot of his on-field achievements are almost superfluous to the off-field stories that have grown legs over the years. Some of the more outlandish tales put to him, he denies, but others, he admits, are true - like when he caused an inter-county incident with Dublin manager Caffrey following a gesture to the crowd during a Kilmacud championship match against Na Fianna.
"I got in a bit of trouble for stuff I did, like giving the finger to the crowd," Vaughan says.
"Pillar's son was sitting in the front row! If people heard what the crowd were saying I'd say they would well understand the finger. I was going to have to apologise because Pillar was from the club but I got away with it. That was the way I was back in the day. I was only 19 and I wouldn't have cared what he [Pillar] would have thought."
Flipping off the manager’s son isn’t the most prudent way of currying favour, but Vaughan ultimately did more harm to his relationship with Caffrey’s successor.
He was on fire as Crokes captured the All-Ireland title in 2009, delivering a particularly imposing performance in a goal-scoring outing against Corofin in the semi-final.
Unfortunately for the then 23-year-old, his body was breaking down after trying to juggle club, county and college commitments and he missed most of that year’s league and championship through injury.
In the build-up to what ultimately turned out to be the ‘startled earwigs’ nadir for that Dublin team, Vaughan slipped into town one night, safe in the knowledge that the drink ban didn’t kick in for another week – or so he thought.
As Vaughan tells it now, there was a spy in whatever establishment he was in that night who alerted Pat Gilroy to the forward’s antics and, to borrow a Jim Gavin phrase, a frank discussion took place that precipitated the end of road.
"I probably wasn't as disciplined as other players," Vaughan admits.
"I thought the rules were slightly different. I think Pat Gilroy was in town that night. I left but he rang me and said he knew I was out that night and I had broken the rules."
Vaughan never played for Dublin again – ‘I think he was waiting for an apology off me’ - and has to dig deep into the recesses of his mind to summon the memory of the last time he pulled on the blue jersey, which turned out to be a darkly comic, and slightly fitting, end to an inter-county career that was both relatively brief and colourful.
"I think it was a challenge game against Cork - I started and played four minutes," Vaughan says.
"That was the last game. I don't really know what happened. I didn't run after a guy after he won a ball or something like that and I was taken off after four minutes. I wouldn't have known at the time that it was the end, but that's the way it goes."