If, like me, you’ll find yourself dashing round the shops like a mad thing over the next few days, desperate to catch sight of something, anything, that might resemble an acceptable Christmas present, then I think I may be of some assistance.
Books are always a sensible option. This year a good Mayo GAA-related one comes in the form of Kevin McStay’s memoir The Pressure Game.
I had meant to do a more considered review of this book but, for various reasons, that never happened. I did, though, read it and I enjoyed it too, so I guess that’s the first point I’d make about it.
It’s not, of course, of interest solely from a Mayo GAA point of view. Indeed, as the book’s cover picture confirms, the main focus of the memoir is the Ballina man’s three-year spell as Roscommon manager. The pressure he alludes to in the book’s title is that which comes from being in the spotlight as a Senior inter-county manager.
The book is structured around the three years – from 2016 to 2018 – when McStay wore the Bainisteoir bib for Roscommon. It charts the ups and downs he encountered in that period, which saw McStay lead the county to three successive Connacht finals – never meeting us in the province at any point during those years – and a memorable Nestor Cup victory over Galway in 2017. That year ended, though, with an unmerciful hiding from our lads in the replayed All-Ireland quarter-final.
The story gallops along at a fair old clip and, as it does so, it’s interesting to review that period – one of highs and lows for us as well – from a different vantage point. We don’t feature much when those years are viewed through the Primrose and Blue prism, except for those two games where we came into direct contact with them at Croke Park.
But there’s plenty of Green and Red in the tale all the same. As the account of his time as Roscommon manager unfolds, Kevin’s backstory is weaved neatly into the narrative. Away from the primary story, he leads us off down what I often found to be more interesting byroads. Perhaps because they’re mostly all Mayo ones.
The U21 team of 1983 – as I’ve said before, one of my all-time favourite Mayo teams – get a mention, in the course of which the late Dermot Earley, a much respected mentor and great friend of McStay’s, has a walk-on part. Dermot drove Kevin up to Irvinestown and back on the day we won that replayed U21 All-Ireland final against Derry because, All-Ireland or no All-Ireland, the young cadet had to be back on guard duty in Dublin that evening.
I recall well myself the time that same summer, months before the U21 crown was landed, when the impish young Stephenites forward broke into the Senior ranks for the first time. Pitched in at the deep end in the Connacht final against Galway, he performed well and it was clear then that this was a prodigiously talented player.
McStay is, I think, overly hard on himself in assessing his Mayo career. Borrowing a phrase used by his late father, he muses that too often he was just ‘slobbering’ and didn’t hit the high notes he should have been capable of. Maybe it’s the sentimental hue of the passing years but I think that’s a tad harsh – Kevin was one of our leading performers as the county finally began to compete seriously once more from the mid-Eighties onwards. It wasn’t slobbering that won him his All-Star award in a stellar 1985 season.
If he’s too hard on himself, Kevin isn’t, though, the kind of man to go in studs up on others, even when the opportunity to do so presents itself. That much is, of course, abundantly clear from The Sunday Game where, in contrast to the often vicious sledging that other pundits are willing to engage in, he always comes across as a considered and measured contributor.
In the book Kevin would have been well within his rights, for example, to give what-for to the individuals on the Mayo County Board who treated him so shabbily when he went for the manager’s job after the end of James Horan’s first tenure in 2014. He could certainly have given Gay Sheerin a far rougher ride when he talks about the fallout from the disgraceful rant the former Rossie ‘keeper came out with about him on Shannonside radio.
But, in both cases, this trained fighting man opted to pull his punches. In doing so, he demonstrated what I thought looked like a rather old-fashioned sense of decency, an admirable trait which, sadly, is becoming rarer nowadays.
The book ends with McStay back up in the media area in the Upper Hogan, back on co-commentator duties with RTÉ, back on The Sunday Game. But back, surely, a changed person, now that he has in his kitbag the kind of insights he learned while walking the line down on the pitch as a county manager in the white heat of the Championship.
In summary, this is an enjoyable and informative read. It’ll appeal to followers of Mayo and Roscommon alike, as it also will, I’d say, to those interested in GAA affairs more generally. You could do a lot worse than grab a copy off the shelves over the coming few days – that’ll be one present off the list and a decent one at that.
The Pressure Game by Kevin McStay (with Liam Hayes) is published by Hero Books, priced €20, and is available from good booksellers as well as online.