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Seán Moran: John O’Mahony — a life raising bars and awaking the west

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It was a very John O’Mahony answer. His Galway team had just lost a league final to Mayo in 2001. In the improvised media zone under the Cusack Stand, it was put to the losing manager that no county had ever won the All-Ireland after a league final defeat.

This wasn’t actually true but none of us knew that for certain. There was silence followed by the response, laced with slight annoyance.

“Is that so?”

In other words, he wasn’t going to address the idea that the April (as it then was) setback might undermine the rest of the year, but instead turn it back on the questioner to see what they wanted to make of the factoid.

Of course, Galway went on in September to win a second All-Ireland in four years.

For someone with a penchant for deciding the world was against him and his teams, that victory in the first year of the qualifier system, allowing beaten teams the novelty of readmission to the championship, was perfect. He could validly give out about being written off, having slumped to defeat against Roscommon before rewiring Galway’s entire season.

That severe, recriminatory pose camouflaged a sense of humour, a lightness about the whole business which complemented rather than compromised how seriously he took football.

The same year, Croke Park and the semi-final against Derry: with little over 15 minutes left and Galway, playing poorly, trail by five and their revived season looks done.

I look down at O’Mahony, urgently moving up and down the sideline, the pressure rising and the thought occurs: wonder what he’ll be doing next year. Then out of nowhere — literally, nowhere, as their play has been so listless and ineffective — Galway wake up. Lazarus on speed. In 13 minutes, they knock off 1-5 without response.

I tell him afterwards about my faithless musing.

“Is that so?”

Months later in the conviviality of a Christmas function, he admitted that he had been thinking the very same thing.

By then, we had known each other for 12 years, including during his time as a columnist for The Irish Times.

A feature of the various media tributes paid to O’Mahony is the number that say how kind and accessible he was to young reporters. In 1989, I had come late to journalism and was attending my first press night in advance of Mayo’s first All-Ireland since the mythologised 1951 victory.

John was the manager and despite neither having met nor indeed heard of me, he was immensely helpful and helped to organise a player interview. He was and remained a generous soul or as he was described by a former player, “a good man”.

His phone number sits on my desk in an ancient orange box of index cards, written in as the first entry under “O”, just above Mick O’Dwyer — a conjunction that used to amuse him.

Both, though, had unparalleled success, not just in winning All-Irelands but as missionaries, bringing success to places from where it had been long estranged — in O’Mahony’s case, Mayo’s first All-Ireland final in 38 years, Leitrim’s first Connacht in 67 and Galway’s first Sam Maguire for 32.

He was a pioneer in the science of preparation, the meticulousness of everything being properly organised and nothing out of place.

There was also his openness to sports psychology and performance coaching, then innovations that helped to instil confidence in teams to achieve things their counties hadn’t done for decades.

His wife Ger, a home economics teacher, drew up nutrition plans for players and he enlisted Bill Cogan, a performance specialist, who worked in industry. There was also an annual battery of physical tests for his players at the start of the season, conducted in what is now UL.

Reflecting on his experiences in management, he often referred to “raising the bar”, getting players to focus on attaining higher standards.

This attention to detail extended to using video not just for analysis but to produce positive, motivational images of players doing things well.

In this he was assisted by RTÉ’s Tommie Gorman, who died just two weeks ago. They had been in touch about ensuring they got out of their respective hospitals in time for a project planned for August.

The last most heard from O’Mahony was the day after his friend’s death, on Morning Ireland, clearly upset by the suddenness of it all.

In a retrospective interview three years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of his first All-Ireland final, he also talked about the cancer that cruelly beset him just as he was settling into retirement in 2020, as well as how “touch and go” his 1971 minor medal had been.

As a briefly enrolled clerical student in Maynooth, he wasn’t even sure if he’d be allowed to play.

In 2007, I followed him on his first general election canvass in Mayo when he ran for Fine Gael. His football instincts were entertainingly at odds with political practice. He couldn’t really tell constituents that the other candidates had to be considered favourites to beat him.

Then in a local radio studio, he made further history when his support for a western rail corridor was questioned, by actually losing his temper. The one thing that he brought persistently to the doorsteps and homesteads was an ambition to do something for the west. It was his theme.

He was elected for two terms in Mayo and added a third in the Seanad.

This Thursday when he is laid to rest, the worlds of football and politics will pay their respects.

It is so sad to realise that there will be no more phone calls, dispensing insight — and information — on football and politics. He will be truly missed.

sean.moran@irishtimes.com

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