By Anthony Hennigan
Seven years have passed since one of the most dramatic endings ever to a Mayo junior championship final. The Neale, unfortunate to have been dragged to a replay, were five points behind Ardnaree Sarsfields with eight minutes to play. They were saved by the last kick of stoppage time, a goal from a 20-metre free that forced extra-time. In extra-time, The Neale cut loose to lift the Pete McDonnell Cup in scintillating style, 1-17 to 2-9.
The goal-scoring hero was Seán Cosgrove, but it was another player that former Mayo manager John Maughan singled out for The Neale’s remarkable recovery.
“Most of The Neale players played well, but, for me, Eoin Hughes was brilliant, when moved to midfield. He, more than anyone, took the challenge to Ardnaree when the chips were down.”
Anyone who had watched The Neale toil over the years knew it was a sentence applicable to probably a hundred Eoin Hughes displays.
It’s a commitment and dedication that endures; at 35, Hughes is into his third season as manager of the club he helped hoist into the intermediate ranks in 2012. On Saturday night, they aim to take the next giant leap: promotion to the Mayo senior football championship.
To do so, The Neale must break virgin ground; never before have the south Mayo outfit won the intermediate crown.
The closest they came was in 2015, when, with Hughes at left half-back, they lost the county final to eventual All-Ireland finalists, Hollymount-Carramore. Their opponents on Saturday, Ballyhaunis, have won it three times.
John Maughan, of course, had first-hand knowledge of Eoin Hughes’s abilities as a footballer. A member of Mayo’s minor panels for two seasons, the boy from Caherduff had played midfield in 2002, before being selected for U21 duty by Maughan, in squads that contested two Connacht finals and one All-Ireland final between 2004 and 2005. Among Hughes’s teammates were future senior stars Colm Boyle, Michael Conroy, Aidan Kilcoyne, and Keith Higgins, who’ll lead the line for Ballyhaunis next weekend. You just know that were it not for an accumulation of injuries, Eoin Hughes would be in the thick of the action in MacHale Park, too. He will be; just in a very different role.
“Initially, you’re going in at the deep end and just trying to find your feet and the best way to approach lads who you have played with for ten or fifteen years. That was probably the biggest challenge,” said Hughes last week. But when transitioning from player to manager, the biggest challenge is not necessarily the biggest difference.
“The biggest difference is the initial start-up,” says Hughes, “trying to build a backroom of knowledgeable GAA people and trying to strike a balance between personnel who may have played football at a higher level than where the club is currently at; introducing someone with a different outlook or perspective, who wasn’t previously involved with this group of players, whilst, at the same time, utilising the good resources within the club.
“It’s a challenge convincing any individual to give up a significant amount of time to get involved with any team, at any level now. Everyone wants to be successful, but when you cannot guarantee success, there are other means to ensure it will be a very satisfying experience for them.”
And that it certainly has been for a backroom that includes selectors, Paul Higgins and Peter O’Malley, and Eoin’s older brother, Declan.
“If we haven’t them, we have nothing,” he says appreciatively.
“It’s surprising what you can take from them on a day-to-day basis, when football or GAA is the topic of conversation. My job has definitely been made easier by the people I work with, because there’s a number of different facets to management that not only do you never consider as a player, you probably don’t even know they exist. But every day is a school day. You’re not managing everything solely, and, thankfully, I have a good team with me.
“There’s a lot of other activities that go on day-to-day in the club, that you’re trying to work around. You’re trying to utilise playing areas, the facilities, and then there’s the management of the players and the management of the game.
“It’s something you wouldn’t expect when you take over and it definitely is a challenge, but, I suppose, if it wasn’t a challenge you wouldn’t be at it.”
The Neale had just gained promotion to Division 2 of the Mayo Senior League for the first time in their history when Hughes took charge, in 2017, and whilst they were unable to retain their status, the fledgeling manager and his staff learned a lot, even more than the players perhaps. It was a good place to start, he says.
“When we got involved first, the team was in a small bit of transition, so it probably suited us, in a way; it took a small bit of pressure off. Everyone knew what was coming down the road, in terms of players that were developing at under-16 level at that time, so I wouldn’t say everyone was focusing on two or three years’ time, but, in the back of our heads, players and management alike knew that the transition period mightn’t be too long.
“Thankfully, the older crew stuck at it and now we have a nice average age within the squad.
“That was the vision when we took over; that we’d be involved when those younger guys came through. It definitely does add to your drive, when you’ve a vision to try and integrate everyone together.”
Last Saturday evening, The Neale were crowned league champions, having sailed through Division 3 with only one defeat to their name (it was in April, away to eventual runners-up, Mayo Gaels). And team captain, Aidan O’Sullivan, will be hoping to accept a second trophy in the space of seven days, now that the team has already gone one step beyond its 2018 intermediate semi-final appearance.
“We were a bit disappointed with our display against Burrishoole last year,” says Eoin Hughes, “so if you get back to that stage, the following year you’re going to use that as a motivating tool. Something like that does give you an added incentive to push on and go one step further, because, then, if you do, it’s progress and it means that the lads are developing.”
The reward for a hard-earned, extra-time victory over Louisburgh is a crack at 2014 champions, Ballyhaunis, whom The Neale beat by three points in round two of the group stages. It’s a game that could have gone either way, says Hughes, but one that should have little relevance come 5pm next Saturday.
“I don’t know if the strengths Ballyhaunis had two months ago are the same as what they might bring to the table this time, but that’s similar to us.
“Every day, we’ve different lads who go out to represent The Neale, so there’ll be different approaches to play and we’ll have to be prepared for everything that Ballyhaunis are going to throw at us. We know they’ve exceptional footballers, top quality at inter-county level, and some exceptional young guys coming through, but we’d be hoping it’s a game where we can match them in every aspect and, hopefully, we’re there or thereabouts when the end is in sight,” says the manager, whose philosophy on how to play the game seems pretty clear-cut.
“It’s the scoreboard that counts, at the end of the day, and we firmly believe that you have to get ball up in the other half to put scores up on the board. We like to bring a balance between attack and defence, without over-emphasising one or the other, but we try and focus on getting the ball up there [quickly], I won’t deny that.
“To score well, you need to be able to draw the best out of your players and get them confident in an attacking position, to be able to play football, to have the basic skills within the game.” Eoin Hughes talks just the way he played.