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Summer set for John Maughan and Offaly

by Keith Duggan was published in the Irish Times on Saturday the 4th of May 2019

Veteran manager giving his all in a bid to help revive the Faithful County's fortunes

The saloon car pulls into the K-Circle station on the outskirts of Castle bar at exactly quarter past the hour. You could make easy quips about zero-sixteen hundred-hours and Army discipline but John Maughan has been a civilian now 17 years.

He looks much the same as when you last saw him patrolling the sidelines a decade ago: lean, all-weather-tanned, wryly amused by the world. Through the petrol and coffee haze of the forecourt you can, if the day is clear enough, just about see the peaks of MacHale Park. Maughan is heading out of town, though.

He wants to be in Kilcormac, in Offaly, by 6.15pm. His team is playing Clare in a challenge, under lights, at 7.30. He has been at his desk as procurement officer with Mayo County Council since eight in the morning. He'll arrive home just around midnight. He's been doing this through black nights, through rain, through frost, every Tuesday, every Thursday and every Sunday morning since January.

He's an energetic 57-years-old but these eight-hour football shifts are soul sapping. If he's asked himself why he does this, it's only for the conversation because he travels alone. He'd be entitled to quote the Pacino line in the Godfather that Silvio loved mimicking in the Sopranos. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

"I still hate this drive," he laughs cheerily. "But from the moment I arrive in the gate, I love it."

The call came out of the blue. He was alone at home: the five Maughan siblings are kids no longer and are making their way in the world. Audrey was visiting with her mother. He picked up the phone and listened to the Offaly chairman explain why they wanted him to interview for the job. He laughed, said no way. Then he kept listening. He was sitting looking faintly sheepish and excited when his wife returned home. Audrey, you won't believe what I'm after doing. A decade is a long time out.

"Maughan" - as he is uniformly known through Greater Mayo - had nothing to prove. As a manager, he serially overachieved. And he was helplessly box-office. Took on the Clare footballers and promptly guided them to an historic Munster title in 1992. He was 28-years-old then and used to participate in the fanatical training sessions, bouncing back into the car afterwards.

I couldn't believe how the whole operation has shifted - coaches, gps tracking, video, dietary stuff

He graduated to Mayo and brought his county from Division Three to the folkloric All-Ireland finals of 1996 (The Replay and the Fight) and 1997 (Maurice Fitzgerald's Aria). Up in Fermanagh, he orchestrated an emotive Ulster championship win over Brian McEniff's Donegal - even if the hotelier foxily guided Donegal to an encore Croke Park appearance that August.

A year later, Maughan was back with Mayo - and back in an All-Ireland final. The only sour experience he had was in Roscommon, stepping down during a league campaign that turned dark.

So Offaly? The last time that any county football team was going for five All-Irelands titles in a row, Offaly was the stone on which the gods stumbled. But that was the last century. Now, Offaly are in Division Three and operate far, far away from the bright lights. Maughan would be returning to a different world.

Seismic shift "There's been a seismic shift," he concedes. "I've been following Mayo and involved with club and underage teams but still, I couldn't believe how the whole operation has shifted - coaches, gps tracking, video, dietary stuff. . .I thought I had a fair idea. I didn't.

"And then, the first few weeks at training, we had maybe eight players turning up. I think it is well flagged that I tried to get another 10 or 12 guys that I contacted. Some didn't have the courtesy to return a phone call. Others, for a combination of reasons, couldn't give the commitment. Others were going on international travel.

"There was a myriad of reasons I wouldn't have encountered back in 1990 with Clare when the passion and desire to play at inter county level superseded everything. So I came home on lots of nights disheartened and questioning myself for getting involved. I had underestimated it in lots of ways.

It's a lifestyle choice now. Some guys can embrace it and others cannot

"The distance of the drive - I wish I had given four or five test runs before I took it on. But, hey, I have no regrets now. Those early weeks . . . there was a huge element of frustration and annoyance and then I was coming up to Mayo where guys would give their right arm just to get a trial.

"I cannot relate to the idea that guys wouldn't die to play inter-county football and try to stretch themselves. I suppose the flip side is that there may be the fear of embarrassment going out against a top tier team. It is a lifestyle choice now. Some guys can embrace it and others cannot. But we have 30 guys who are absolutely thrilled to be involved with Offaly. And I have gotten to know them well. It's not always easy.

John Maughan in action for Mayo during the All-Ireland semi-final in 1985. Photograph: Billy Stickland/INpho "The energy levels wouldn't be as high as when you were 28. But you adjust. I was in bed last Saturday night on a bank holiday weekend at ten o'clock and up at quarter to six to go to Kilcormac. And I haven't missed a single session since I started. Once I'm in, I'm in."

The route takes us down through Galway, shooting up the M7 motorway and then hooking a right for Shannonbridge. He's close to the phone code of his old boarding school, the Carmelite college in Moate. A chance visit from a recruiting officer sold him on the notion of joining the cadets. He was taken in by the smartness, the discipline, the promise of something different. As we drive, he tells this story that was a kind of hinge-moment in his life.

A few months into his first year in the Cadets, he applied for a weekend furlough. He furnished his superior officers with three good reasons. He had won a Hogan Cup with Carmelite the previous year and the medal ceremony was on the Friday. Crossmolina, his club, were playing on the Saturday. And Carmelite were playing defending their Hogan Cup that Sunday. Each request was flatly turned down.

Deserted barracks Every where he looked, his class mates were packing bags for the weekend. He hung around a deserted barracks on Saturday and cracked that night, putting a call into Fr Cremins in Carmelite. A car would collect him on Sunday and bring him to Hyde Park. He showed up on time. Carmelite won. The cadet ate heartily in Moate and ghosted into the barracks. Nobody was any the wiser.

On Monday, though, he was told to report to the colonel's office. They left him stewing outside the door for 90 minutes. He was 18-years-old. Inside, a committee of three was waiting, heavy on uniform decoration and faces like Easter statues. They cut to the point.

Don't open your mouth. We know your exact movements between 08.00 yesterday morning and 23.59. Tell us a lie and you are out the door. Tell us the truth and you might get to stay on here. He looked outside the window and felt his universe tilting as his colleagues filed into a history class. He felt like shouting for help. Eventually, he 'fessed up.

I was in Hyde Park.

No. You were AWOL. Get into civilian clothes. Pack your bags. Report to this office in one hour.

"So I went to pack," he remembers as the commuter traffic thickened at the Loughrea arteries. "And I cried. I fucking cried. I thought I was gone. One of the biggest crimes you can commit in Cadet school is to be absent."

When he returned, after about "ten minutes of a bollocking" he knew he wasn't going to get axed. Instead, he was put through three months of misery: all privileges revoked, effectively grounded. The experience stuck with him. A week or two before he retired from the Army, he met Tom Aherne, one of his jurors that day and a man he came to like immensely.

"I said, Tom, answer me one question. How did you know?"

"We didn't," came the reply.

He laughs.

"They just knew there was no way I was going to sit there and miss that game. They were testing me."

He looks askance when you ask him if he's glad he told the truth anyway - life lessons hard earned and all that.

"No! Am I fuck. I should have known they were bluffing. And I had no regrets going to the Hogan Cup final, either."

Faithful Fields Offaly's Faithful Fields complex, on the edge of Kilcormac, is like a mirage. It's an exhibit of GAA fabulousness just off a busy road. The Offaly minor hurlers and senior footballers are using it on this night.

The synopsis on Maughan's playing career is that he played minor for Mayo for two years, won two Sigerson Cups with UCG, an All-Ireland U-21 with Mayo in 1983 and a Connacht senior medal in 1985 during Mayo's emotional phoenix-from-the-flames year. He went in for a routine cartilage operation in 1986 and never played county football again.

Two years after that, he found himself in Lebanon for a tour of duty. He'll never forget talking to Fintan Heneghan from Ballinrobe on a Friday night in March 1989 about football. He can still hear their conversation. The following Monday, Fintan was killed in a landmine with two other Irish Army members. The Army friendships he made and its values remain his guides and markers as a football coach.

It didn't show on the national radar but Offaly's league season was quintessential Maughan; never a dull moment. They went 0-11 to 0-3 up against Westmeath but managed to lose by a point. Six up against Louth with ten minutes to go, they concocted an own goal with the last kick of the ball to lose by a point.He became acquainted with the term "full house", when all XV drop behind the ball. Offaly do not play a full house policy.

"It doesn't make for attractive football. But everyone is trying to hang on for dear life and get a win."

Relegation loomed all spring. On the last day, they were reliant on Laois to beat Carlow while they went to Sligo and scraped a one-point win.

"And just coming up the road after that . . .the bounce and the fun. For the boys to experience that bit of fun and happiness . . .you have to savour the fun and crack of playing as well. Had we been relegated to Division Four, it would have knocked us back a bit. But we got a bounce, yeah."

The Clare game starts in sunshine and ends in twilight. Evening traffic whistles past. There's a crowd of around six, sometimes swelling to eight. It's a different sensation watching inter-county fare on the sideline, without the bells and whistles.

The constant communication of the players; the fizz of the kick-outs; the claustrophobic spaces within which the players work. Offaly win 2-21 to 1-21. They play a direct, attacking game built around their superb veteran Niall McNamee. It's impressive from both sides. But it's the opposite of the GAA's slickly marketed summer dream of Croke Park and cups hoisted. It's anti-glamour.

Afterwards, Colm Collins and Maughan share a few words. The teams eat in the dining hall and it's around 9.30 in the evening when the Clare lads board their coach.

Better place "Some of those guys are heading on to Cork tonight," Maughan says when he starts his ignition around ten. "It's no joke."

And this same pageant is being played out in 30 other counties: challenge games, training, midnight finishes. Maughan is pleased with the performance. He feels that already the team is in a better place than where he found them.

I thought it was a disgrace for Roscommon football to be subjected to that kind of stuf

Roscommon was the only project from which he walked away.

"It had become very ugly," he recalls of that time in March 2008.

"When I arrived at a venue to see a number of Roscommon followers - as I called them - and saw maybe ten people congregating to hurl abuse at everyone. Not just me. I remember a lovely young fella warming up to go . . .they didn't embrace that I was an outsider. Things were uncomfortable. I made a phone call because I wasn't getting any enjoyment out of it.

"Eamonn McManus and Gerry Fitzmaurice, my selectors, were very hurt and very loyal to me and remain great friends of mine. I was genuinely hurt, yeah. I thought it was shocking. I thought it was a disgrace for Roscommon football to be subjected to that kind of stuff. It was ugly and nasty and uncalled for."

The experience shook him. He thought it had turned him off the scene for good. But you can't truly leave, see. A few nights helping out an Achill island team turned into every Friday night for two years. An U-14 team with Mitchels became the Mayo minor champions. You should hear the life in his voice as he moves through the empty midlands talking about these games nobody knows about. "The buzz the boys got . . .that stuff, to me, is just magical. It's magical. You know?"

Offaly play Meath in Navan on Sunday May 12th. Offaly are 10/1 to win.

"It'll be very, very tough," he says. But he's giddy at the thought of it. When you're in, you're in. John Maughan arrives home to find midnight fallen on Castlebar and he turns for home.

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