The John O’Mahony interview: Tales from Galway and Leitrim, why Mayo must ‘keep the faith’, and his battle with cancer

John O'Mahony pictured at his home in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon

Frank Roche

On the wall of John O’Mahony’s front room in Ballaghaderreen, there’s a framed photograph from the 1989 archives, captured minutes after Mayo had lost to Cork in their first All-Ireland final for 38 years.

In it, you see a tracksuited ‘Johnno’, deflation etched into his 36-year-old face, underneath a green-and-red banner that defiantly proclaims: ‘John says keep the faith.’

Now throw in another ten Sam Maguire heartbreaks, and you might wonder if any Mayo person can retain a shred of belief in the inviolable path towards glorious Croke Park destiny.

Except that John O’Mahony has led such a crusade – twice – with Galway. And he has steered Leitrim to the promised land of a first Connacht SFC title in 67 years.

On Sunday, O’Mahony will take his place among the Pearse Stadium crowd to watch his two adopted counties chase a place in the Connacht final.

Having spent most of his adult life coaching club, college and county teams, he will doubtless keep a gimlet eye on the two managers, both former star performers of his – Pádraic Joyce and Andy Moran.

The location could not be more familiar to a man who is once again taking that same road trip as manager of Salthill-Knocknacarra. Keep the faith? He hasn’t lost it, even in the face of challenges steeper than winning or losing a game of football.

* * * * *

‘Red and green … your life flashes’

John O’Mahony takes you a few miles up the road to the Galway Clinic. It’s the summer of 2020; he hasn’t got official word, but he suspects it’s coming: the ‘C’ word.

So there he is, staring out a window from the top storey, 2am and unable to sleep. “A few days before that, we had our youngest grandchild in Dublin,” he recounts. “Your life flashes … am I going to be around to see them growing up?

“And then looking out at the road … there were traffic lights, red and green, red and green. And that kind of flickered [thoughts of] sport. And the road in, on the main motorway, is the road that we’d have come back with Galway – 20,000 people – and there wasn’t a sinner. The silence.”

The next day he knew for sure: Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the blood.

Just months earlier, this former teacher had retired from his career in politics – after serving nine years as a Fine Gael TD and four as a Senator – and was loving the freedom that came even as the first Covid-19 lockdown brought normality to a halt.

Long daily walks. The weather was unseasonably sublime. He was shedding weight and felt in great shape … until a back pain intruded, was banished for a few days by Panadol, and then came back with a vengeance.

Cue a trip to the Galway Clinic, which, instead of hours, lasted days. Biopsies were taken, results awaited.

“It hits you in the face, and your life flashes in front of you, and you think of all kinds of things. Obviously, the two things that would be big in your life – your family and sport. It wasn’t necessarily politics I was thinking about!” he remarks.

The news was bad, obviously – but the prognosis less so. There was a treatment roadmap back to health. O’Mahony pays tribute to his “brilliant” consultant, Dr Janusz Krawczyk, and the wonderful teams at the Galway Clinic and then at University Hospital, Galway, where he underwent the “critical part” of his treatment, a stem-cell transplant at the very end of December 2020.

“They take out the cells and then give you the real strong chemotherapy, and they put back in the cells the next day. Then the body is readjusting, so your whole system breaks down,” he explains in layman’s terms.

Amid a huge Covid spike, with tubes “coming out everywhere”, he was happier that visitors weren’t allowed. “You could feel the pressure that was on the nurses and doctors because of Covid – and the care I got never deviated or suffered,” he says. Over a year later, his monthly blood tests are all still good.

A father to five daughters, who now dotes over 11 grandchildren, O’Mahony recalls that first evening in January 2021 when his wife, Gerardine, brought him home from hospital and the phone rang with news of a new baby grandson. “Isn’t that great?” he thought. “I have moved off the front page straight away!”

* * * * *

Hold the back page

Whereas John O’Mahony took “huge satisfaction” from serving his constituents, it’s equally fair to say he was happy to call time when the 25th Seanad ended in March 2020. Politics, he agrees, is a brutal business.

“In the GAA, it’s the opposition you need to watch, and in politics, sometimes it’s your team you need to watch!” he says, only half in jest.

“If you are to have a happy camp in the GAA, you won’t have leaks and there’ll be a togetherness that will be very obvious. And you have to have a unity of purpose to win, simple as that. Whereas in politics, it’s dog-eat-dog.”

But for a manager whose Mayo, Leitrim and Galway teams made countless back page headlines, O’Mahony the player was more low-key: an All-Ireland minor winner (1971) and U-21 medallist (1974), he was corner-back in two losing Connacht senior finals but was “never going to be an All-Star”.

It didn’t officially end his career, but the 1975 replay against Sligo was a watershed. Was he really taken off after eight minutes? “I was!” he confirms. “Sligo had a good team, but at the same time, it was kind of a mortal sin to lose to either Sligo or Leitrim. So, there was a big clean-out and I got cleaned out, if you like.”

O’Mahony was now teaching in St Nathy’s – he still lives across the road – and got stuck into coaching teams in the school and local club. He reckons his own experiences were a benefit, helping him to understand the more challenging nuances of keeping fringe players happy.

“That time, people wouldn’t believe it now, but you didn’t know whether you were playing for Mayo next Sunday (until) you’d read the Irish Independent and the team would be picked. You’d get a card then from Johnny Mulvey, the secretary at the time, on the Thursday, what your travelling arrangements were ... who’d pick you up or whatever.”

In a pre-WhatsApp world, communication breakdowns were inevitable. O’Mahony had been a clerical student in Maynooth – his brothers Dan and Stephen went on to become priests. “I remember myself and Dan, he was on the team for a period, thumbing to a league game in Charlestown. So, if there was a GPA back then!”

O’Mahony’s managerial path, littered with historical landmarks, is well documented.

The All-Ireland U-21 triumph with Mayo in 1983. His first four-year senior stint that initially delivered back-to-back Connacht titles and Mayo’s first All-Ireland appearance since 1951; four years with Leitrim crowned by that famous win over his home county in 1994; then seven seasons with Galway, opening in a blaze of All-Ireland glory in ’98 (to end a 32-year famine), followed by a replay defeat to Kerry in 2000 and then a second taste of Sam in 2001 as the first back-door champions.

O’Mahony quickly came to view management as a battle of minds, not just bodies. Take the 1988 All-Ireland semi-final against Meath: Mayo were being “hammered” and only started playing when the game was lost. “We were so frustrated that we didn’t do ourselves justice, and I said we better start working on the heads here because it’s not the fitness levels.”

He brought in Bill Cogan, a native Scot who knew nothing about GAA, to introduce Mayo to the exotic new terrain of sports psychology; he would later partner O’Mahony in Leitrim and for Galway’s ’98 success.

Back then, a dismissive “fellas in white coats” would have been the default reaction. “Everyone does it now, but it was seen as a taboo thing in GAA terms anyway. And we were sworn to secrecy about it,” he says.

In Leitrim, for generations raised on summer pastings, psychology was “absolutely crucial.” He dug up old paper headlines such as ‘gloom and doom’ and ‘disaster day for Leitrim’, then asked the players for preferable alternatives.

“They were reticent to begin with … maybe ‘a better effort by Leitrim’ or a ‘close call’. But I says, ‘Lads, you’re still not f***ing winning!’ Then we beat Galway in ’93 and that changed everything.”

He promptly disappears to bring back a giant cardboard display emblazoned with headlines from that ’93 Connacht quarter-final – including ‘Leitrim’s Day of Glory!’ and ‘Miracle Men! – which he brought into a subsequent team meeting. Over the winter of ’93, they had more meetings than training sessions. And, ultimately, it led to Connacht’s holy grail.

Galway was different: bigger. When the offer came, Mayo had reached back-to-back All-Irelands under John Maughan, but O’Mahony knew from his knowledge of Connacht colleges football that there was a “lethal cocktail” coming together in Galway.

When did he sense they could go the distance? “August of ’97!” he says, recalling how he told Ger that “if we get this job, we’ll win the All-Ireland.”

It happened twice even if – after Roscommon shocked them in 2001 – he was convinced his race was run. The new qualifier format had just been voted in, but O’Mahony mistakenly believed it was just for first-round losers. “Coming off the pitch, I didn’t know we had a second chance,” he admits. When the late Pat Egan, Galway football board chairman, put him straight, he was still unsure if redemption could be achieved.

History would prove otherwise.

* * * * *

No regrets

O’Mahony is adamant: he doesn’t regret his double-jobbing brief from 2007-10 as Fine Gael TD and Mayo manager for a second time. Mixing the two was difficult, for sure, but he operated on the basis that the two pursuits were “totally separate” and his head space was entirely devoted to football at the appropriate times.

“When the Mayo County Board officers were sitting on that sofa at the end of ’06, after Mickey Moran resigned, there was a feeling, because I had won All-Irelands with Galway, that I could wave a magic wand here.

“But the reality was totally different, and I told them that. I said what we have to do here is deconstruct an older team, rebuild a new team and stay competitive in the meantime. It’s the same job as James Horan is doing now, but people didn’t see it that way … they were in the All-Ireland in ’06 and why weren’t we in it in ’07 and ’08? What puts the perception on it is we lost to Sligo and we lost to Longford (in 2010), and this was the ‘nadir’. But to put a long story short, I knew that it was time to go.”

Since then, initially propelled by many players he first blooded, O’Mahony has marvelled at Mayo’s endurance. “It’s a difficult road for them now,” he says after their recent defeat to Galway, “but they have confounded, not so much the critics, but they’ve confounded their supporters.”

He has always delighted in seeing former players move into management. For Joyce, it was approaching “squeaky-bum time” against Mayo two weeks ago. “They were a different team in Castlebar – and they had a plan. He got a great performance out of them.”

For Andy Moran, who played under O’Mahony with St Nathy’s and Mayo, the challenge is different but no less daunting. “I knew he was mad to get involved,” his former mentor says.

But fairytales a la ’94 don’t happen anymore, do they? “No,” he concurs, “and that’s the difficulty Andy Moran has. You see, at that time, if you were well organised, you could get an edge on other teams that weren’t as well organised. I said it to someone lately, the backroom team in Dublin for the All-Irelands that they won was bigger than the panel we had in ’94.”

Yet, for all the affection he retains for Galway and Leitrim, the godfather of Connacht football is – he emphasises – Mayo to the core. Even if Ballaghaderreen – geographically if not in GAA geopolitical terms – is in Roscommon.

O’Mahony himself was born in Magheraboy, Kilmovee parish – “the last house in Mayo” – while he mischievously displays a framed map of Roscommon from the 1800s, with an arrow pointing towards Ballaghaderreen “in Mayo”.

He was born in 1953, two years after Sam last visited his county. Will it ever be back? “I always say, of course, they’ll win an All-Ireland, but I can’t tell you when. “Talk about a pilgrimage – I think ‘keep the faith’ sums it up well.”

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