John O’Mahony has always brought out contradictory emotions in me. So I have to admit that it was with some trepidation that I recently sat down to read his autobiography O’Mahony: Keeping the Faith.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint why conflicting sentiments might be held by Mayo GAA supporters in relation to Johnno. On the plus side, there was his excellent and far too short first tenure as manager of the senior county team a quarter of a century back; on the negative his disastrous and, in retrospect, far too long second sojourn back in the hot seat less than a decade ago.
Recent memories tend to get recalled more readily than those from further back, which, I guess, is at least partly why O’Mahony’s reputation as a manager wouldn’t be all that high among many Mayo fans. That would certainly be true in my own case – I’ve rarely spared the lash here on the site where he’s been concerned, especially since Longford, the final act of his spell as Mayo manager.
In my own case, it’s also a curious fact that I saw little or nothing at close quarters of his first stint in the job. I emigrated before the first championship campaign under his watch – 1988 – got underway and the only competitive match the county played during his first tenure that I got to was the 1989 All-Ireland final.
Despite this, I didn’t need any tutoring back then on Johnno’s talents as a manager. One of my favourite Mayo teams of all time, the All-Ireland U21 winning side of 1983, was a team managed by him, at which time he was then only thirty years of age himself.
That team – containing within its ranks players like Irwin, Forde, Maughan, Finn, Maher, Brogan, Geraghty, Durcan and McStay – was laden down with talent. Johnno was their conductor, the man who ultimately led them to a memorable All-Ireland triumph in a replayed final up in Irvinestown on a dank day in late October that year.
The 1983 U21 All-Ireland triumph, the first ever All-Ireland to be won in the Six Counties, was enough to convince many Mayo supporters, myself included, that this was the man to take charge of the senior team. I was delighted when he did so four years later and my leavetaking of home early the following year was made tougher by the knowledge that I would surely be missing better footballing days for the county than any I’d seen up till then.
I was happy enough too when he was reinstalled in the post in much changed circumstances in late 2006, notwithstanding the furore surrounding that appointment, preceded as it was by the shameful way that Mickey Moran and John Morrison were shafted. This site began in early 2007 so I don’t need to say much about how my opinion of his second term gradually unfolded: it’s all there in the blog archives and in the main it doesn’t make for pretty reading.
Probably because of this scar tissue I was fully expecting to dislike Johnno’s autobiography from start to finish. At the same time, though, I was curious to read about the earlier stuff, including his spell in charge of Leitrim during which time I was still living outside the country. I also wanted to learn in more detail about his spectacularly successful stint at the helm in Galway.
I’ll happily admit I ended up quite liking the book. It’s ghostwritten by Irish Sun sports journalist John Harrington in a no-nonsense, straightforward way, with no fancy narrative tricks. The story starts in Kilmovee in 1953 and ends with Johnno contemplating the challenge facing him as the 2016 General Election looms ever closer. In that sense, it’s obviously a tale that starts at the beginning and finishes at the end. In between, the story – which, thankfully, concentrates almost exclusively on Johnno’s life in Gaelic football with not all that much said about his political existence – moves on at a decent clip.
His time as a player, emerging from the St Nathy’s nursery before breaking into the county senior team before then being discarded at a ridiculously young age following the 1975 Connacht final defeat to Sligo, reads like a life story from a completely different age. But then so too is much, if not all, of what he has to say about his time in management.
This isn’t just because of the issue with the County Board that caused him to step down from the Mayo job in 1991. It’s also about how different to modern inter-county management norms that things were as Johnno describes it not just in Mayo and Leitrim in the Eighties and Nineties but also in Galway between 1998 and 2004.
The same can also be said in his brief discussion on his second period back in charge of Mayo. To be honest, though, I think this may simply be evidence of how someone who at the outset of his managerial career could lay justifiable claim – as he does in the book – to have been an innovator had by then become a man who was now quite simply behind the times.
But when he was good at the management lark, it’s undoubtedly the case that he was very good. The template he says was used first in Mayo, then in Leitrim and finally in Galway – of getting everyone on board, pushing an agenda of excellence and preparing in detail for the challenges that lay ahead – is described well.
O’Mahony doesn’t try to hog all the limelight by taking credit for everything good that happened in his time in charge in the three counties. At the same time, though, he’s careful enough to give himself a decent share of the plaudits being handed round.
I’ve heard it said more than once that it was just Johnno’s good fortune that he happened to take a Leitrim team that was already heading in the right direction and luckier still to inherit the most talented Galway squad in decades. I don’t buy that – as the writer Stephen King once said, talent is nothing without hard work and it seems clear in retrospect that the effort O’Mahony expended in leading the line for both Leitrim and Galway pushed them to heights they most likely would simply not have otherwise reached. In Galway’s case this was to two Sam Maguire successes, which has to rank as an enormous managerial achievement.
Which makes his abject failure back in Mayo all the harder to fathom. However, what Johnno has (or perhaps hasn’t) to say about his so-called Second Coming provides enough clues in this respect.
Although he curtly dismisses the charge that he may have been more focused on politics as “bullshit”, it’s a denial that rings a tad hollow. Who, after all, can forget the canvassing outside Salthill in May 2007 and the car festooned with ‘A Vote for Johnno is a Vote for Mayo?” Or the way his public pronouncements as manager morphed so profoundly into politico-speak after he’d made it to Leinster House in 2007? What’s starkly obvious is that the single-minded determination that he brought to the position of manager first time around in Mayo and then in Leitrim and Galway doesn’t seem to have been there in Mayo second time around.
If it was, he has precious little to say about this. Indeed, he hasn’t much to say about this period at all – his first tenure with us takes up 33 pages of the book, Leitrim accounts for 44 and Galway for 79, while his second Mayo stint accounts for only 22 pages. Much of what he says appears to be aimed at deflecting some (though in fairness not all) of the blame for what happened during his disastrous second tenure.
The County Board gets some of this flak, so does poor refereeing but I think the bit that will annoy most people – it certainly got my hackles up – was his take on the fallout with Ciaran McDonald, which became a major issue in 2008. For a man who was never shy at giving quotes to the media right throughout his time in charge it’s a bit rich to blame the one and only interview Ciaran gave during this time as the determining factor in why the split became one that couldn’t be righted.
Aside from grating incidents like that and also ignoring the hagiographic blurb on the book’s back cover, there isn’t a whole load else to get worked up about in the book. The pedant in me has, though, to point out the grammatical tic that keeps recurring from start to finish that sees sentences either containing an indirect question or no question at all ending with a question mark. This annoying error should have been caught somewhere along the production line. Maybe it’s a GAA thing – I recall Mort’s book last year had exactly the same grammatical failing.
Overall, though, I think the book is a worthwhile read for fans of Mayo GAA. While it’s not a work of literature (I’ve just started Jim McGuinness’s biography, which is written by Keith Duggan, and already I can see that that one is a good bit further along that particular spectrum), it’s an interesting account of an eventful period in Gaelic football, told by one of the game’s major protagonists of that era. Having read it myself, I can’t help but think that I’m perhaps unlikely to be so quick in future to put the boot in about his underwhelming second period as Mayo manager, not least in light of the very significant managerial achievements on his CV – sadly, ones mainly secured for other counties – that came before then.
O’Mahony: Keeping the Faith by John O’Mahony with John Harrington is published by Hero Books and retails for €17.99.