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final hoodoo Lucky omen Stephen Coen may just be the man to end Mayo's All-Ireland curse

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Stephen Coen of Mayo in action against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park

Stephen Coen of Mayo in action against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park

Stephen Coen of Mayo in action against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park

A cottage industry of omens and curses has flourished around Mayo’s heroic, but, so far, futile efforts to secure the biggest prize in Irish sport.

So, it’s a wonder there isn’t a clamour to nominate Hollymount’s Stephen Coen as the team skipper. After all, he has impeccable pedigree when it comes to omens, having captained every team he has played on to an All-Ireland victory.

He was at the helm when Mayo minors beat Tyrone in 2013 to win the county’s first minor title since 1985. Three years later he skippered the county U-21 team to an All-Ireland final win over Cork, claiming their first title in the grade for a decade.

In 2018 he again tasted All-Ireland success when he captained UCD to victory in the Sigerson Cup final, having also featured on their successful 2016 squad which included Dublin stars Jack McCaffrey, David Byrne, Mick Fitzsimons, and Paul Mannion.

Even though Coen made his senior championship debut for Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Dublin in 2015, it has been a challenge to secure a regular first team slot ahead of established stars like Colm Boyle, Donie Vaughan, Tom Parsons and Keith Higgins.

This season, however, he has finally nailed down the number six shirt – where he played on the All-Ireland winning minor and U-21 side – and he could end up marking his old UCD buddy Con O’Callaghan next Saturday.

The latter was UCD’s most decorated forward when they won the Sigerson in 2018. “He’s a good fella with a great attitude,” said Coen. “He just wanted to do well in football and constantly wanted to improve. He was very honest and had skill, speed, and power. I was friendly with him and there would have been a strong mutual respect between us.

“We had good fun when we played Sigerson together for three or four years. It finished on a positive note and we have stayed in contact the odd time since.”

This All-Ireland series has been like no other, but Coen is not complaining.

Prior to the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals he was working in a bank in the centre of Castlebar. A sizeable percentage of the customers who came to his counter were far more interested in talking football than doing business.

“Here at home, I just see the animals and the good thing about them is that they don’t talk back to you and don’t ask you about the game. So, you can control your own thoughts and save a lot of energy.”

Home is Hollymount, a rural area of South Mayo close to the county boundary with Galway and just off the N7 motorway made famous by the Saw Doctors.

Together with his father and brother they run a sheep and beef farm which specialises in breeding pedigree Texel rams. “We have about 150 ewes and 20 cows. None of us rely on it. It is a bit of a hobby.

Coen’s future career will be in agriculture, however. He has completed two and a half years of a four-year PhD study into aspects of bovine nutrition and reproduction. Initially he was based in the Teagasc centre in Grange, County Meath where there are more than 1,000 livestock on site.

One of the reasons he opted to do a PhD is that it gives him the option of having a career in academia. “I have had a few different opportunities put to me already, but I need to finish my PhD first.”

Growing up in Hollymount had a seminal influence on his football career. His father Liam and two of his uncles featured on club sides which won Mayo senior titles in 1990, 1991 and 1994.

There was a family tradition of meeting every Sunday in their grandmother’s house.

“My father has eight siblings and there was a garden out the back of my Granny’s house. With all the cousins around there were always nine or ten lads there to play. We used to knock lumps of each other, but I learned a lot about football there.

“I’m the youngest of four so by the time I was old enough to play my father and uncles were well retired from football. We’d go down to the local pitch for all the games and be the ball-boy or the ‘maor uisce’ if you got the chance. Like all young footballers I wanted to be around a football all of the time.”

Current Mayo selector Ciaran McDonald was his boyhood hero. “For my generation he was a huge player.”

After McDonald retired Andy Moran (inset) became his role model and his appreciation of the former Footballer of the Year who retired last year grew when he joined the senior squad.

“He was a massive guy for me and then when I got to know him, I got even more respect for him.

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Brian Howard of Dublin shakes hands with Stephen Coen

Brian Howard of Dublin shakes hands with Stephen Coen

Brian Howard of Dublin shakes hands with Stephen Coen

“I would have seen him as this absolute legend and admired him so much because he always stood up in big games. But I wouldn’t have known him.

“Then (the first night) I came into the (senior) dressing room he was the first man to walk up to me and shake my hand and put his arm around my shoulder. And he taught me everything that he knew.

“To experience that at my age was kind of mind-boggling. When I got older and he was able to see me working hard and you earn his respect which was a big thing. It is something I will always cherish. But what he did wasn’t surprising because I knew the way he carried himself he was that kind of person.”

Though most Mayo players would be forgiven for having nightmares about their encounters against the Dubs, Coen has some positive memories.

In the 2016 All-Ireland U-20 semi-final Mayo produced what might be described as a typical ‘Mayo’ performance.

They were 1-7 to 0-4 ahead at the break but Dublin had drawn level (1-8 each) early in the second half before going four points up. But Mayo rallied with Conor Loftus holding his nerve to convert what proved the winning free in the fourth minute of injury-time.

Seven of the players who featured in that contest are likely to see action on Sunday with Coen, Matthew Ruane, Loftus and Diarmuid O’Connor starting for Mayo with Con O’Callaghan, Paddy Small and Brian Howard likely to play for Dublin.

So, it is not written in the stars that in tight finishes Dublin always prevail against Mayo. And here’s another omen – Coen celebrated his 25th on Friday. The party is on hold.

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