The men behind the main man

Putting in the hard yards: Michael Walsh stands up to be counted when under pressure breaking out against Down in the All Ireland semi-final, the Mayo management team have called upon their side to stand up when called upon on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Putting in the hard yards: Michael Walsh stands up to be counted when under pressure breaking out against Down in the All Ireland semi-final, the Mayo management team have called upon their side to stand up when called upon on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

The focus on Sunday will be on the team and Ray Dempsey and whatever changes he makes, but behind the Knockmore man there are three other men who might not be the focus of attention, but have played as important a role in Mayo’s progress to the All Ireland final as anyone. Stephen Healy, Tomás O’Grady, and Kevin Beirne are all vital cogs in the Mayo brains trust that has mapped out Mayo’s route to a second All Ireland minor final in a row, and it is all about getting over that final inch this time and bringing home the first All Ireland minor title since 1985, according to Healy.

“It is, it’s a pretty good achievement to get to back to back in finals, but you are judged on your winning achievement and our whole basis is to go and win it on Sunday week.” Being back in the final is one thing, but Healy knows that no one remembers the runners up in the long term. “To be fair last year we were up against an exceptional Tyrone team and probably should have closed it out in Croke Park the first day. We had a few chances when we were a point up, but you can’t legislate for mistakes that are made in the cut and thrust of championship football. We gave it all in Longford and it was always going to be who got the first goal would win the game and they got two in pretty quick succession and they deserved to win.” But that was last year and this year is a whole new side starting from scratch and they scoured the county to find the best 30 players to achieve greatness. “This year we were starting with pretty much a new team, and we only have three or four survivors from it. Your working off 24 or 25 players who would have no affiliation to last year’s side, so we had to build a new team. Our goal was at the start of the year to find the best 30 players to play for Mayo, and give them the best training possible to let them achieve their potential. I’d imagine the vast majority of lads who wanted to play minor for Mayo this year would have been looking at last year’s run and wanting to emulate those lads, so in fairness and on any given day we trawled through 150 to 200 players in our bid to fine the right blend. Tight calls were made and players were let go, you are always wondering should I have held on to a player or given him more time, but that’s the ruthless nature of inter county football. We eventually settled on a balanced 30 so we obviously got most of the calls right.”

Learning all the time

Having played Armagh in a challenge game earlier this year, Healy knows that they face a tough task come Sunday. “We have already played a challenge game against Armagh back in May and they tanked us by seven or eight points. It gave us a lot to mull over on the bus journey on the way home. We are under no illusions of how tough it will be on Sunday, they are a very physical big team, with a very good inside line and a strong defence. We’ll be hopeful if we perform, if you perform on any day in any match you are in with a chance. This is my third year involved, it’s always a privilege to be asked to get involved, and the minor grade has been very enjoyable. All the lads we’ve had have been very committed from day one, anything we asked of them they’ve committed to 100 per cent. They have moved heaven earth to get to an All Ireland final, and hopefully they will go on to win ultimately.”

It hasn’t always been success for this current Mayo management team and they learned a lot from their first year in charge when they were dumped out of the Connacht championship at the first hurdle in 2007, by Roscommon. “The big thing we learned from the first year was the calibre of players who you need to wear a county jersey. A lot of people would think it’s all about skill, it’s not. Skill is only a very small part of the package, what you need is to be tough mentally and to be very self motivated and focused. And we have gone for in the last two years a lot of players who when they haven’t been playing well have been focused and have been able to dig deep, and that type of player at the end of the day will serve you better than the player who is talented, but may not have the conviction and the mental courage to come on when the chips are down. A lot of the players we have picked have done the business and not let themselves or the team down when things got tough.”

Passing on the torch

Even though it’s a different side this year Tomás O’Grady is also of the thinking that this year is a chance for the management team to put last year to bed and for him to hand over a torch as an All Ireland minor winner to a new batch of players. “Last year ended on a sour note, we are back to maybe put things right. I don’t know if you should say that but we are back again for a challenge. The first challenge is to get your panel together and that takes a lot of time, you then get your 30 settled and you have your league games, but your eye is on the first round of the championship once you have your 30 players picked.” Getting players ready for the challenge ahead of them and having them ready to play whereever they are required over the course of the game is something that Mayo have worked, on O’Grady believes. “In the modern game you have to be, even if you are playing in the full forward line, comfortable if you end up back in your full back line following a corner back or a full back. The lads do that a lot at training, and same for the backs, to know how to play if you are up supporting a forward what to do and how to play. It’s hugely different since my day as a minor, then it was the backs’ job to kick the ball to a forward, I’d say Mick Burke would have called back the full back if he saw him back past the 50 yard line. I suppose the game is changing all the time, going back just over 20 years it was still only coming out of the catch and kick style of play, it’s all the time changing. As long as the players coaching can keep the changes young fellas will too because all they want to do is play football.”

Having been a member of the last Mayo minor side to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand and lift the Tom Markham Cup, O’Grady is keen to pass that torch on to a new set of players this year. “I suppose we have good memories, but I don’t know if it’s getting older but the memories are fading. Our day is gone and it’s up to these lads to change all that history. And what better way to hand it over than to be part of it on the sideline. To be honest with you, the 1985 thing is wearing away from me now and it’s time for another minor team to take it on with them.”

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