Vaughan vi­tal to the Mayo ma­chine –

Un­sung hero makes those around him bet­ter in ways that elude the statis­ti­cians

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan

In the giddy af­ter­math of their team’s over­whelm­ing win in the quar­ter-fi­nal re­play against Roscom­mon, Mayo minds in­stantly trav­elled to one day of com­par­i­son. Every­thing about the re­vived flow and ir­re­sistible force of will evoked mem­o­ries of the 2013 All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal, when Mayo sacked cham­pi­ons Done­gal in sen­sa­tional fashion.

It may have been sig­nif­i­cant that as well as start­ing that match, Donal Vaughan was also in­cluded in the start­ing line-up for the Roscom­mon game. He was de­tailed to shadow Enda Smith, Roscom­mon’s best firestarter and ended up op­er­at­ing as full-back when Smith was moved into full-for­ward. In ad­di­tion to blot­ting out that source of joy, Vaughan found time to ven­ture for­ward to score a point.

The day was in keep­ing with an event­ful cham­pi­onship which has pro­vided him with a kalei­do­scopic view of Mayo’s cham­pi­onship pro­gres­sion. He started at wing-back, wear­ing num­ber 18, against Gal­way. He started mid­field against Derry, be­fore Séa­mus O’Shea re­placed him af­ter 58 min­utes. He was black carded af­ter three min­utes in the Clare game and came on against Cork af­ter 52 min­utes. He re­placed Colm Boyle af­ter 51 min­utes in the drawn Roscom­mon game be­fore re­turn­ing to the start­ing line-up. Now he’s been named at full-back for to­mor­row’s game.

He has been in and out and all over the shop to such an ex­tent that it is clear that his orig­i­nal role as an en­forcer in Mayo’s sec­ond de­fen­sive line, which was less a half-back line than a fly­ing col­umn, has changed. It is as if Mayo are not quite cer­tain what they want and need Vaughan to be and whether he is, af­ter mark­ing his 90th in­ter­county ap­pear­ance against Ca­van this March, even still a first-choice player.

Im­por­tant cog

“I’d say within in his own mind, Donie is a first-choice player and he doesn’t al­low, as far as I can see, oc­ca­sions of de­mo­tion to in any way de­flect from the idea that he is an im­por­tant cog in this par­tic­u­lar ma­chine,” be­lieves Mar­tin Car­ney, who was work­ing with then man­ager John O’Ma­hony when Vaughan made his se­nior break­through.

“And he is a vi­tal cog, with­out ques­tion. But if Lee Kee­gan comes back against Kerry peo­ple may say, well Donal Vaughan will prob­a­bly lose out. Then you ask who is the player most likely to be asked to sweep in front of Kieran Don­aghy and Vaughan comes to mind. It’s a con­tra­dic­tion. Be­cause any time he plays he gives to­tal value to the jer­sey.”

That’s the point about Vaughan. His con­tri­bu­tion of­ten goes un­re­marked and al­most un­no­ticed. He broke through sur­rounded by a de­fen­sive group of ex­trav­a­gantly gifted stylists, from the play-any­where-do-any­thing fa­cil­ity of Kee­gan to speed mer­chants like Boyle and Keith Hig­gins and, more re­cently Bren­dan Har­ri­son and Pa­trick Dur­can.

Vaughan has an al­most retro ram-rod gait in the way he runs and plays and while he is a pow­er­ful ath­lete, there is a pro­nounced method­ol­ogy about his run­ning. But he runs that way be­cause he sought ex­pert ad­vice on the most ef­fi­cient way to run and, also, he never stops run­ning.

There he is ad­vanc­ing up the field in the 13th minute of that 2013 game against Done­gal, clos­ing in on a ball Done­gal have spilled at mid­field and tap­ping it to Hig­gins. Then he keeps go­ing, not at light­ning speed but eat­ing up the yards at a pace that is de­cep­tive. Hig­gins plays the ball to Alan Dil­lon who in­stantly gives a re­turn hand-pass. By now, Vaughan has ghosted in be­hind the last line of Done­gal cover and when Hig­gins plays a hand-pass over the top, Vaughan ac­cel­er­ates, gob­bles the ball up be­fore Done­gal goal­keeper Paul Dur­can can get there and taps the ball into an empty net.

That’s the mo­ment the con­test ended and the rout be­gan. Early in the sec­ond half, Vaughan popped up be­hind the last line again, feed­ing Cil­lian O’Con­nor for an open goal. Iron­i­cally, the only other player with the same un­canny fa­cil­ity for mov­ing al­most in­vis­i­bly through cov­er­ing de­fences was An­thony Thomp­son, the Done­gal de­fender. Vaughan’s score wasn’t ex­trav­a­gant and in the del­uge which fol­lowed, it was lost. But it was hugely im­por­tant.

“He brought an­other di­men­sion to the team,” says James Ho­ran, Mayo man­ager through the epic years of 2011-14.

“Op­po­si­tion teams don’t like to see him. In some games he got taken out of it quite a bit be­cause they would see this re­lent­less run­ner com­ing at them. Donie Vaughan goes ahead of the ball. He takes a chance – which is what we en­cour­aged. When we have the ball, go. And even if he doesn’t get the ball, he is bring­ing the cover out of the way.”

Ho­ran fully agrees that Vaughan is one of those ball play­ers whose game is ei­ther mis­un­der­stood or un-no­ticed. Like Thomp­son in his prime years, Vaughan’s in­flu­ence on the team only be­comes ap­par­ent once he isn’t there.

“I think he is a com­pletely un­der-rated player, yeah.” Ho­ran says.

“Per­cep­tion is key in Gaelic foot­ball. In Gaelic foot­ball, peo­ple re­mem­ber the guy who makes the two big catches. What hap­pens with Donie Vaughan is that be­cause he has this un­ortho­dox solo­ing style – a high style and he looks a bit ro­botic: guys like Mau­rice Fitzger­ald and Odhran Mac Nial­lis have a flow to them when they play – this easy, lan­guid style. Well, Donie doesn’t have that. So he mustn’t be skil­ful is the ex­trap­o­la­tion of that.

“Peo­ple are wait­ing for it to go wrong and if they see him get turned over in a tackle, it con­firms the bias they have. But the stats will show that Donie Vaughan loses the ball far less than the ma­jor­ity of de­fend­ers in the game. He suf­fers from that a lit­tle bit. But any day Donie was fit he was on my team be­cause he fright­ened the op­po­si­tion by be­ing such a re­lent­less run­ner.”

Phys­i­cal pres­ence

Off the top of his head, Ho­ran can eas­ily sum­mon Vaughan’s habit of pop­ping up at cru­cial moments. Cen­tre-back is a linch­pin po­si­tion but the Ballinrobe man still had the en­ergy and com­po­sure to present him­self to hit the point that beat Cork in the quar­ter-fi­nal of 2014 and the lev­el­ling score in the fa­mous All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal re­play against Kerry to take the game and the na­tion to ex­tra-time.

But it is the thou­sand small, vi­tal con­tri­bu­tions for which Ho­ran most val­ues Vaughan. There is his phys­i­cal pres­ence, for a start. Vaughan had not been courted by the Mayo academy as a young­ster – “Good enough to make an U-16 south­west team but not good enough to make an U-16 south team,” was Vaughan’s droll sum­mary of how he was quickly dis­missed in a mi­nor era when Pearce Han­ley and Tom Par­sons were the big names. He wasn’t de­terred. Mar­tin Car­ney was struck by Vaughan’s raw ath­leti­cism when he first came into the se­nior panel. And he no­ticed that what­ever lim­i­ta­tions lay in his game, Vaughan was un­com­monly se­ri­ous in his de­sire to im­prove and to learn.

“He mag­ne­tises your at­ten­tion in that way. He was very se­ri­ous about the whole thing. There is an in­ner cir­cle there that have set the tem­plate for oth­ers to buy into and he has been par­tic­u­larly in­flu­en­tial in that. He is a ter­rific lad and was al­ways ex­tremely se­ri­ous and ded­i­cated about what he was do­ing and was pre­pared to take any ad­vice or to go any lengths.”

Car­ney re­calls him getting stuck into a mar­quee for­ward at a pitch-open­ing one sleepy day and getting a box in the mouth for his im­pu­dence. He needed 10 stitches in the tongue, had them sewn in and then re­sumed the con­test.

When Mayo un­der­went a kind of phoenix act un­der Ho­ran, Vaughan came to em­body both the phys­i­cal and men­tal tough­ness of the new or­der. It came with a rep­u­ta­tion. He spoke out about the per­cep­tion that he was a dirty player af­ter the 2012 cam­paign.

“They did high­light us and said we fouled col­lec­tively this many times in one game. But they didn’t take the year in a full con­text or the teams we were play­ing. When you are crit­i­cis­ing some­thing you’ve got to be bal­anced. It is true, though, that once peo­ple start talk­ing about you as a dirty player, then peo­ple au­to­mat­i­cally pre­sume it.

“The per­fect ex­am­ple is Paul Galvin. There was a pic­ture in the pa­per a few months ago – some­one had a hand in his mouth and an el­bow in his face. I was talk­ing to some­one and they said: ‘Did you see that pic­ture of Galvin?’ And I was like, in fair­ness there’s a fella with a hand in his mouth and he is about to be el­bowed in the face, he’s do­ing no wrong. If you look at the cham­pi­onship last year, I only got booked in one game.”

The ob­ser­va­tion re­flected the emer­gent Mayo at­ti­tude un­der Ho­ran: in­de­pen­dent-minded, un­blink­ing, driven and im­per­vi­ous to crit­i­cism.

As Mayo’s re­nais­sance grew into a seem­ingly daunt­less push for the All-Ire­land, Vaughan be­came prob­a­bly the least-spo­ken about in the the se­nior group of play­ers who com­prise both en­gine room and soul.

Just one mo­ment from last year’s All-Ire­land fi­nal: 53 min­utes in and Dublin 2-6 to 0-10 ahead and mov­ing down­field, with Diar­muid Con­nolly in pos­ses­sion. It’s a hugely threat­en­ing mo­ment be­cause you fall three be­hind to Dublin with 15 on the clock and they can quickly move out of sight.

Vaughan comes from nowhere and un­bal­ances Con­nolly with a clean shoul­der and with­out break­ing stride col­lects the ball when it spills loose and turns to set up a counter at­tack.

Blink-of-an-eye, un­fash­ion­able stuff in what was a hel­ter-skel­ter fi­nal. But you can bet that Con­nolly, one of the best to play the game, re­mem­bers it. Not many play­ers have dis­pos­sessed him like that.

But the case for Vaughan may even be more tan­gen­tial than the big tack­les. Per­haps the best rea­son for in­clud­ing him on any team is that he makes those around him bet­ter in ways that elude the statis­ti­cians.

“He is up and down the field, link­ing, tack­ling, nig­gling if nec­es­sary, link­ing up the lines,” says Car­ney. “Bomb­ing for­ward. When­ever Mayo need a job done – sweeper, an ath­letic mid­fielder, they go to Donal Vaughan.”

Ram­pag­ing mode

And there is the other more in­stinc­tive con­sid­er­a­tion now that Mayo’s en­thralling pur­suit of this thing has reached crit­i­cal mass. They have made it to the last four de­spite sus­tained crit­i­cism and scep­ti­cism that their day was done.

Stephen Rochford told Mike Fin­nerty in the Mayo News this week that the squad has not laboured on the quar­ter-fi­nal per­for­mance, “But we’ll be look­ing to repli­cate it, with a bit more, be­cause we know that’s what’s go­ing to be needed.”

The sight of Mayo in ram­pag­ing mode against Roscom­mon seemed to cap­ture them in their most nat­u­ral state of play and be­ing. It made a lie out of the be­lief that the wild stal­lion had left this par­tic­u­lar team and they were win­ning games on mus­cle mem­ory.

There is a hugely per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment to be made now that Mayo’s best last hope is to go back to what they do bet­ter than any elite team out there: thun­der through teams with that pow­er­ful run­ning game.

It is not a sight that Kerry would wel­come. No­body gal­lops bet­ter than Vaughan. And as Mayo tease out the com­bi­na­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties of what they need to go that ex­tra step, his role be­comes an es­sen­tial part of the con­ver­sa­tion.

All sum­mer, the ques­tion seems to have been whether or not they can af­ford to go with Vaughan in a house crowded with po­ten­tial starters.

Maybe the plain an­swer is that they can’t af­ford not to.

The stats will show that Donie Vaughan loses the ball far less than the ma­jor­ity of de­fend­ers in the game. He suf­fers from that a lit­tle bit. But any day Donie was fit he was on my team be­cause he fright­ened the op­po­si­tion by be­ing such a re­lent­less run­ner

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RYAN BYRNE/INPHO

Mayo’s Donal Vaughan in ac­tion against David Mur­ray in the All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal re­play vic­tory over Roscom­mon at Croke Park on Au­gust 7th.

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