Lead­ers

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - ALL-IRELAND FINAL | FOOTBALL PREVIEW -

from scratch with their con­di­tion­ing.

“I brought the guys down to see Dr Tony Wat­son in Lim­er­ick. I re­call him say­ing: ‘Some of these guys should have done this years ago’. I was looked at like I had 10 heads for do­ing this stuff. And I went to Dr Bob Shep­herd at Brigham Young [Uni­ver­sity]. I knew they were ahead of the curve there for strength and fit­ness. So I got in touch and he was de­lighted to help me out. Bought the tapes and had them sent over and got them copied and sent them around. It was an im­prove­ment – for the lim­i­ta­tions of that time.”

He may have been for­tu­nate to take over at a time when there other chinks of light. John Prenty was an up and com­ing county board mem­ber and O’Neill re­mem­bers him as “new school”, ready to help how­ever he could to ad­vance the se­niors. The un­der-21 team had won the 1983 All-Ire­land and into the se­nior fold came Noel Durkin, Peter Ford, Finn, Gabriel Ir­win and McS­tay. Seán Lowry, the two-time All-Ire­land win­ner with Of­faly, was liv­ing in the county and hes­i­tantly agreed to a re­quest to join the se­nior panel. “He brought a huge amount. But we had some big lead­ers in that team. A lot of them were re­al­is­ing there mightn’t be a many years left. I al­ways re­mem­ber we had a very open dis­cus­sion one week­end above in Brian McEniff’s ho­tel. In Bun­do­ran. That cleared the air. Lots of things were thrown down from play­ers and man­age­ment. I felt the is­sues were the in­con­sis­tency of se­lec­tion. We were try­ing a lot of play­ers but we needed to tie down play­ers to cer­tain po­si­tions. That’s one of the great things about this team.

“Then, it was a mat­ter of try­ing to get the guys to be­lieve that they could win an All-Ire­land. Of putting a bit of steel into their play. Mayo peo­ple . . . you couldn’t meet nicer. But there is noth­ing stop­ping you hav­ing a ruth­less streak on the foot­ball field within the rules. And some of those guys brought that. Then you have to have the con­fi­dence to say we will push on.”

That Finn played through that drawn game with such a se­ri­ous in­jury was a re­flec­tion of the col­lec­tive re­solve. The in­jury left him out of the game for eight months. Forty-four thou­sand at­tended the drawn game: 63,000 showed up for the re­play.

When Dublin and Mayo met in a league game in the spring of 1986, O’Neill was in­censed by an off-the-ball in­ci­dent dur­ing the match. “It was ig­nored by the ref­eree and I chal­lenged him af­ter­wards. Af­ter what hap­pened with John Finn, I felt I had to. So I was brought be­fore the [dis­ci­plinary] com­mit­tee – I was given three months. But what I didn’t like was that the Mayo county board de­cided to put in one of their own guys to mind me. That was com­pletely against my prin­ci­ples.

“And I felt the knives were out then. I felt I should have got­ten the back­ing of the Mayo county board more pow­er­fully. When I went in for the hear­ing, the chair­man was a Gal­way man and I felt that maybe it would be okay. But there was a cer­tain gen­tle­man at the back and I just got the sense: I’m done here. So I got sus­pended and not alone that but to be banned from train­ing the team for three months . . . I knew the writ­ing was on the wall. The county board was get­ting itchy. That was it. That was the run.”

Roscom­mon edged Gal­way in the Con­nacht fi­nal of ’86 and O’Neill’s term was over. But some­thing had changed. Within three years, they had taken another step, re­turn­ing to an All-Ire­land fi­nal un­der John O’Ma­hony in 1989. O’Neill’s son Kevin won an All Star with the county as a teenager in 1993 and had a sec­ond com­ing for his county when Mayo fea­tured in the All-Ire­land fi­nal of 2006. UCLA’s John Wooden. When he re­turned to Gal­way a few years ago, he was more con­vinced than ever that Fr Quinn had tapped into the fu­ture di­rec­tion for the GAA in all coun­ties. He isn’t con­vinced that Gaelic games can ever truly go main­stream in Amer­ica but is more con­cerned about the care of the game at home.

“Gaelic foot­ball has the po­ten­tial to gain a foothold in Amer­ica. But the idea of it spread­ing is far-fetched, in my es­ti­ma­tion. And I think we need to take a look at what is hap­pen­ing here first. We are go­ing to have prob­lems with the way the game is go­ing. I think the way for­ward is all based on get­ting qual­ity coaches; on track­ing peo­ple, giv­ing play­ers a path­way so that it all fun­nels to the se­nior team. We have good peo­ple there. But there is a five-year plan needed. Sell the con­cept of Gaelic games to young play­ers. You won’t get a big con­tract but you will get per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion and it opens up roads and doors and con­tacts in the busi­ness world, what­ever. We un­der­state that. Peo­ple are walk­ing away from games.”

Gal­way city is crawl­ing with Mayo-ites and, of course, when they see him they are mad to chat about the high in­no­cence of ’85 and of ground re­claimed. Some­times, too, they will be­moan the aching Septem­ber feats that would mark the 90s, the noughties and this decade.

O’Neill waves the laments away. He tells them that 30 other coun­ties have en­vied Mayo in all those years. He re­minds them that they keep com­ing back and keep get­ting bet­ter. He has his reser­va­tions about the stul­ti­fy­ing cau­tion at the heart of the mod­ern game; the reliance on heav­ily de­fen­sive think­ing, the re­luc­tance to kick, the fear of en­ter­tain­ing.

But still, he talks with much more an­i­ma­tion about to­mor­row’s Mayo team than with the gang he brought out of the twi­light 30 years back. It should be no sur­prise: it’s his na­ture to push ahead, to look for the next thing. He’ll be there in the crowd to­mor­row and laughs at the idea that it will, as it must, be a day of high anx­i­ety for all of Mayo.

“There is al­ways anx­i­ety. Ev­ery good per­for­mance is based on anx­i­ety so long as it doesn’t over­crowd your think­ing. I do think this team have gone through that. It is pay-off time now. I think there comes a time when you have to get the pay-off. I feel they are all on the same wave­length in terms of their pos­i­tive an­swer to that ques­tion. You have to vi­su­alise and see your­self as a cham­pion. They are so fit now and so ath­letic that I would just say to them: get in­volved. Don’t wait for Dublin. Bring the game to them.”

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