By Mark Higgins
A golfing craze has swept the Mayo football team. Last Sunday week, the morning after they brushed off Sligo in the Connacht championship opener, four of the brightest young things of Mayo football gathered in Westport to play a few holes and debrief.
Tommy Conroy, Eoghan McLaughlin, Rory Brickenden and Ryan O’Donoghue – this time last year, none of the quartet had played a senior championship game. Now three of them are nailed-down starters (with Brickenden pushing hard to join them) and All-Star nominees. O’Donoghue said this week that he picked up the golfing bug over lockdown and over the past few weeks, since he finished his business degree in UL, he has been making full use of the renowned Carne Golf Links near his home in Belmullet. He’s taking the summer to focus on football before he gets stuck into the working world in the autumn.
The question can’t go unasked: who is the best golfer on the Mayo team? Robbie Hennelly, says O’Donoghue, from what he’s been told. James Durcan gets an honourable mention too.
O’Donoghue is doing the media rounds for AIB’s official launch of the All-Ireland football championships this week (if you’re wondering why such a launch is taking place with seven of the 31 participating teams already knocked out, you’re not alone.) He reflects firstly on the 20-point win over Sligo and how he felt Mayo played.
“I think we performed very well for the full 70, 75 minutes. Against Clare, in the third quarter we fell off a bit, so our goal was to play to our standard for the full 70 minutes. I think it’s fair to say we did that,” he states. “Looking forward to Leitrim, I think we can build on that and try to play to a higher standard.”
It was a game Mayo had wrapped up after about 15 minutes; they kept the hammer down to an extent in the second half but O’Donoghue admits it is a challenge for Mayo to keep their intensity levels up when the result is already decided.
“I think that’s been the test for us over the past couple of years. We’ve maybe let teams like that back into games,” he offers.
“Our test this year is to play to that high level for as long as we can. We’re just trying to be ruthless, so that when we do get on top, we stay on top, and don’t let teams get that glimmer of hope to get back in it. It can be difficult at times but that’s the test, to play to our own standard at all times.”
One aspect of the win over Sligo that Mayo supporters were particularly interested in were the frees, specifically who would shoulder the responsibility of kicking them with Cillian O’Connor out for the year through injury. O’Donoghue was that man and he cleared the first hurdle with room to spare, nailing four from four.
“I wouldn’t say pressure, but I do like that extra bit of responsibility,” he says of taking over the job. “I think I’ve shown in the past that I’m well able to handle responsibilities in different things.
“I put myself forward and proved in training that I was well able to do it and thankfully James put his trust in me. I just have to prove that in training now this week and we’ll see what happens against Leitrim. But I’m more than happy to take on the duties now that Cillian is gone.”
It’s not a case of a player demanding to be assigned to the frees, but nor is it a situation where one man is told he’s taking them, like it or not. The way O’Donoghue describes the conversations with James Horan that led to him getting the nod, it’s very much a two-way street.
“With the mark in place now, I’ve always been practicing. You need to be able to take your frees because you can get them at any time. I’d be preparing for that all the time,” he says.
“After the Clare game I had a quick word and said I was willing to take it on; if James wanted to put his trust in me it’s more than welcome. Thankfully that’s what happened. I’ll just keep trying to build on that trust and see where it goes.”
O’Donoghue has plenty of experience kicking frees, be they for Bemullet or for underage county teams. Like all regular dead-ball specialists, he has his own routine. He also received a timely confidence booster from O’Connor the morning of the Sligo game.
“It’s like what they say about the golf; stick to the same routine no matter the level of pressure, whether it’s the last kick of the game or you’re just kicking it back in Tallagh practising. If you stick to that, the outside pressure shouldn’t really matter,” O’Donoghue says.
“Cillian sent me a voice note Saturday morning wishing me well and saying that I’m well able. He told me to stick to the routine. That instilled a lot of confidence in me, getting that voice note off him and it went well for me then, I was 100 percent on the frees.”
Away from the frees, this season has seen O’Donoghue make a subtle but significant positional switch. Last year he played at centre-forward on Mayo’s run to the All-Ireland final, where he gave arguably his best display of the year running directly at the Dublin defence.
This year, he has been moved closer to goal to play at corner-forward. In the modern game it’s not as seismic a change as it would once have been but it’s not negligible either.
“Throughout my career it’s pretty much been between 11 and 15 so it doesn’t really make much difference,” he offers. “At 11, you’re closer to the midfield, and when I play at 15 I usually play around the top of the D, so you’re only one hand-pass away from 11. They’re similar roles, just a small bit closer to goal.
“Playing off Aido and Cillian brings different things,” he continues. “Aido has that aerial threat, and more often than not he’s going to suck in two if not three defenders trying to bottle him up, and that leaves space for the rest of us. It worked very well last Saturday and if we can keep it up we’ll all be happy.”
Another aspect of Mayo’s forward play that was particularly evident and effective against Sligo was their forward press. The likes of O’Donoghue, O’Shea, Conroy and Darren McHale hounded the Sligo defence relentlessly and a sizable proportion of Mayo’s scores came off turnovers generated in the attack. O’Donoghue confirms that it’s an aspect of the game they spend lots of time working on on the training field.
“That would have been one of the biggest things we worked on when we came in last year, to get that understanding and timing, because if you’re out of sync, one handpass puts you out of the game,” he offers.
“We worked on that last year, pre-Covid, a lot. Me and Tommy, Kevin McLoughlin and Aido have been there most of the time so that’s four that have always been working together and we know each other inside-out at this stage.
“That was what Cillian gave; he’s probably one of the best forward tacklers in Ireland. Most people wouldn’t even associate him with that but that’s what we see him as. So it’s for the rest of us to step up. It’s the first line of defence and we have to take pride in not conceding as well, not just the lads at the back. It’s a very important part of our game.”
From a distance, it can look like the press is pre-planned, or that every player instinctively knows which man to pressure or which area to cover. According to O’Donoghue, that’s not really the case.
“In Gaelic football there are thousands of different scenarios that can happen in every game. There’s no benefit in having it pre-wired; it’s all about communication. Now with no fans, it’s a bit easier to communicate,” he says.
“Like for example, for Aido’s first goal, that was Sligo’s second kick out into that pocket. We knew it was coming, we read it, Conor Loftus bottled him up, the ball spilled out and Aido got the goal. It’s all about reading scenarios.”
It has been a steady rise for O’Donoghue; he captained the under-20s to a Connacht title and an All-Ireland final in 2018 and by 2020 he was ready to step into the senior side, starting all five of the pre-lockdown league games. His performance against Meath in Navan was one that stood out; his was the turnover and pass that set up Kevin McLoughlin for the winning goal, the highlight of an excellent all-round display.
Horan singled him out for praise after the game and at full-time, O’Shea made a point of finding the youngster and delivering a thump on the chest as if to say, ‘that’s how we do it.’
It’s a moment O’Donoghue vividly remembers.
“I made one run,” he recalls, “your man was driving down the sideline and I just made one sprint across to turn him back. It was just one lung-busting run and that was what Aido was proud of. That’s what we see inside the four walls; it’s not Kev Mc’s finish or some shot off the outside of the right that goes over, it’s that one run that turns them back. That’s what he saw that day.”
Later in the year, after the lockdown, he made his championship debut against Leitrim. With Mayo set to face them again just over eight-month later this weekend, he gives his memories of that rainy day in Carrick.
“I was very proud to make my senior debut. I think seven or eight of us made our debuts that day so it was nice to all be together. I remember the pitch wasn’t too hectic. Looking back on it, we didn’t perform that well, there were only a couple of points in it at half-time. We ended up pushing on when our subs came on,” he says.
“This time we’ll just be looking at being able to control it better, performing to our standards and where we can get to. Being proactive rather than reactive.”
He still hasn’t played a championship match in front of any sort of crowd; there were 200 in Sligo and it looks as if 500 will be let into MacHale Park this Sunday but he has yet to experience the full force of a championship Mayo support behind him. He only had one ticket going for the game in Markievicz; it came down to an impossible choice between mam and dad that wasn’t really much of a choice at all.
“Oh I had to give it to mother,” he says. “I couldn’t not, after all she’s done. Although that’s harsh to say on dad! It’s not ideal, the last couple of games having to differentiate. Even two tickets, just one for each, would be nice.”
O’Donoghue was one of seven Mayo players to start against Sligo who hadn’t even made their championship debuts this time last year. It’s an ongoing refit job that Horan is attempting that probably hasn’t been given enough attention, but O’Donoghue says that he can certainly get the sense of a new team forming and emerging from within the framework of the established squad, taking their examples and their cues from the senior men around them.
“I think it’s fair to say that. The main core is still the older lads, but what we’re adding outside of that is very important. We’re adding a new dimension. Tommy’s raw pace and power is something that probably hasn’t been seen in a while. Andy was a different player to Tommy. Eoghan’s pace – he’s like another version of Paddy. He showed he’s back to form at the weekend,” he offers.
“It is a pretty new team and we’re going pretty well at the moment. The challenge to us is to keep pushing on, not to look back at last year and think ‘we had one good year.’ We’re looking forward to Leitrim and please God, we’ll keep her lit.”