HomeFootballColin Sheridan: O'Mahony kept the faith in a football life less ordinary

Colin Sheridan: O’Mahony kept the faith in a football life less ordinary

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“After Mayo lost to Cork under Johno in 1989, there was an iconic photo of him on the field surrounded by Mayo fans, one of them holding a banner that read JOHN SAYS KEEP THE FAITH. Not long after, as if in an act of defiance, John’s wife Gerardine put up a sign outside their home that simply read ‘Keep the Faith.’ It was like something you’d see in deepest Texas in a town obsessed with high school football.

“The message required no explanation. Mayo was always a football-mad county, and that 1989 championship run gave belief to a team and a people that had endured decades of heartache and no little hardship. 

“I’m sure when Gerardine put out that sign, she intended to take it down when Sam finally crossed the Shannon under Johno. Well, it did, twice. 

“It was a measure of Johno’s ambition and drive that, unable to do it with Mayo, he went and succeeded with our oldest rivals Galway.

“As a community, we felt great pride and joy in one of our own doing something so unexpected and remarkable.”

— From Andy Moran, Lessons Learned in the Pursuit of Glory

IN THE winter of 2021, John O’Mahony was announced as the manager of Salthill-Knocknacarra senior football team. As often happens in the world of armchair sport, his appointment raised eyebrows, and drew somewhat cynical comments as to what the motivations of a man who had achieved so much were in getting involved with a team 90km away from his home in Ballaghaderreen.

Salthill, the club everybody loves to hate in Galway club football, are an easy target for such conjecture. Like most city clubs, they attract the odd celebrity signing. Johno’s arrival fed that narrative of avarice, and heaped fuel upon the fire of schadenfreude that willed the club to fail.

Bringing in the most successful football manager from the province of the last 70 years was not without its risks, both reputationally and strategically. Failure would be greeted with much mirth and derision. Success with sarcasm and suspicion.

Depending on your definition of success, Salthill did fail. In terms of trophies at least. In O’Mahony’s first year in charge, the club reached the county final, losing a game they should have won to Mhaigh Cuilinn. The following year, Salthill lost again to the same opposition, in similar circumstances at the county semi-final stage. The disappointment for the club was profound, but the external derision was largely absent.

They had lost, yes, but the feeling was different. The club had turned so many corners since its All-Ireland club success in 2006; it was in danger of colliding with itself. There was nothing particularly noble for a club so big, so drenched in young talent, to be losing county finals by a point. But, after just one season, O’Mahony’s influence, both within the club and on the naysayers’ perception of it, was writ large.

His effect was statesmanlike. Whether by accident or design, he de-stigmatised a club beset by a perpetual identity crisis. You could say he did the same to the Galway footballers in 1998, albeit with more silverware to show for it.

O’Mahony’s faith in Salthill was a vote of confidence in a club that had perhaps displayed more hubris than humility in seasons past. He believed in them, otherwise he wouldn’t have wasted his time in being there.

Players and spectators during a tribute to the late John O'Mahony former Galway, Mayo and Leitrim manager. Pic: Stephen McCarthy, Sportsfile
Players and spectators during a tribute to the late John O’Mahony former Galway, Mayo and Leitrim manager. Pic: Stephen McCarthy, Sportsfile

And the fickleness of that time, one can only guess now, was something O’Mahony was all too aware of. Many of the days he travelled from Ballaghaderreen to Salthill to train, he also received treatment for the cancer that would eventually take him. There was little or nothing ever made of this, but it serves to silence any cynicism as to what his motives were in pursuing his passion of Gaelic Football to the very end.

The emergence of players Rob Finnerty, Cathal Sweeney, and John Maher had long been flagged, but the rate and maturity of their development was exponentially improved under O’Mahony’s tutelage.

So too the evolution of fringe players, the foot soldiers clubs rely on to carry them through the barren months of split seasons, where having lads on a county panel is much more a curse then a blessing. 

O’Mahony’s stewardship also yielded another outcome — continuity and succession planning. An integral part of his backroom team during his two years with Salthill were former players Finian Hanley and Sean Armstrong. When he stood down at the end of last year’s club championship, the two friends were the only logical successors. For a club with a reputation for drama, the transition was discombobulatingly serene.

The following days and weeks will be filled with worthwhile testimonials to John O’Mahony’s transformative impact on the GAA in Mayo, Leitrim and Galway.

There will be many, many mentions of his ability to enable players to excel beyond themselves. 

There will be justified talk of his devotion as a Gael, a husband and father, and as a teacher and politician. Perhaps his last contribution to Gaelic football with Salthill is the easiest forgotten, but it tells the story of a man who put one thing above all others, the one thing he asked us all to keep; Faith.

Expect England to deliver at last  

We are a funny race of people. We want it all, but not in the way you think. We want to be successful, but we don’t want to be asked about it. We want love, but we loathe the idea of expressing it. We only remember the people who don’t go to funerals, not those that actually do. Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo, say, we are the epitome of “look at me, don’t look at me.” 

A fellow Mayo man once told me he’d rather see Galway lose an All-Ireland than Mayo win one. I’m not kidding. The source of our joy is rich and varied and often a little confusing. 

Still, we are nothing if not original about the route we take during our relentless pursuit of happiness. It must be confusing to be in love with us, as it’s impossible to know how to keep us happy. 

Except when it comes to vainglorious England, and her perpetually embattled footballers. We often pretend otherwise, but Christ, do we love to watch them lose. That immature affliction is not innate, but learned behaviour. 

My earliest memories of England are Paul Gascoigne weeping and Gary Lineker giving Bobby Robson the “he’s f**ked, gaffer,” side-eye. I liked that team. 

Our emergence at Italia ‘90 felt in no way compromised by their presence and progress. I was 10, so I guess the whole 800 year thing wasn’t such an issue. And it wasn’t until adulthood that it became so. 

Even when Michael Owen scored against Argentina in 1998, I could appreciate that here was a man, the same age as myself, who had just scored a goal we all dreamt of scoring as kids. I was capable of that duality of thought. What changed? 

Well, whatever changed, I best brace myself for the prospect of England winning this summer’s European championship. This England. An England made in the image of their manager, Gareth Southgate. Dull. Boring. Harmless. Utterly forgettable. 

Against Switzerland on Saturday night, they gave a performance so laboured, you almost wanted them to find a winner in normal time, then extra-time, just to save us the inevitable shootout victory. 

There was a time you could rely on England, much better versions of England, to screw up a penalty shootout, thereby guaranteeing us the smug sense of justice being served, that taste of “that what Empire gets you, plonkers.” 

Graham Taylor, one of the more likeable characters of England’s tortured past, one lamented “Napolean once said give me a lucky general. I don’t think he would’ve worked with me.” 

Oh, that he might’ve wished for some of Southgate’s luck. Brace yourself, people, England are the broken clock who are about to tell the right time. You’d delete your socials. This will not be pretty.

A good walk shared  

 I played one hole of golf with my son and daughter last week. Our first together. It took about an hour (no, Patrick Cantlay was not in the group ahead), and was populated by many moments of frustration, ecstasy, agony, and about two dozen cartwheels on exquisitely manicured greens. 

Already concerned about how quickly he could get his non-existent handicap down to scratch, I preached patience to my son, insisting that patience was a virtue more relevant in golf than talent. 

As we packed up the car, the silhouette of Liam Nolan, the Galway amateur destined for the Open Championship at Royal Troon in a fortnight appeared on the horizon. Head bowed in concentration as he hit putt after putt. 

I wonder if he asked the same questions, share the same doubts, do the same cartwheels when he started out? The beauty of sport, and the small community we all share.

Bielsa continues to spin fairytales 

Remember there was a wild rumour many months ago that the FAI were considering an approach for Marcelo Bielsa to succeed Stephen Kenny as manager? No. Neither do I. 

Things never got that exciting, but I wish they did, because as much as it’s the hope that kills, having no hope whatsoever is much worse. 

Bielsa’s Uruguay won on penalties on Saturday night as he guided La Celeste past Brazil and into the last four of the Copa America. The man is walking fairytale who once said: “Football is about bringing joy to those who find joy hard to find.” 

Those words should’ve been enough to guarantee him the Ireland job and whatever salary he wanted. Instead, we continue to climb into dumpsters looking for that same joy. What might have been.

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