The Dr Mickey Loftus Suite was the venue specially picked by Mayo manager Kevin McStay to give his briefing ahead of a new-look All-Ireland senior football championship. It was chosen with good reason, writes Stuart Tynan.
Before members of the local media sat down last Friday morning to speak to Kevin McStay about the upcoming All-Ireland SFC group stage and this Saturday’s encounter with Kerry, the Mayo manager wished to speak about the loss of one of the true greats of Mayo GAA.
Only a couple of weeks have passed since former GAA president Dr Mickey Loftus – the only Mayo man to hold that position – went to his eternal resting place. The final player from Mayo’s All-Ireland winning squad from 1951 joined the rest of his teammates in the skies above, a man who McStay had much respect and admiration for.
“He was a magnificent human being. I was very friendly with him since I was a child. My father was involved in the North Board and I think Mickey was chairman at the time,” said McStay in what were his first words spoken publicly about Dr Loftus since his passing.
“He was a remarkable human being in GAA, in medicine and in his family life. He excelled at those and was a beautiful, warm guy. I was down at his club, Crossmolina Deel Rovers, and he got a great send-off.” Kevin McStay told a brilliant story about an early interaction he had with the genial Loftus when he was a teenager, which summed up the man.
“I got sent off in an underage final at U14 level against Bonniconlon, in the wrong. We were at a match in Crossmolina and Dr Mickey was there. He was chairman and we had the under-16 North Final coming up.
“For some reason, my father said: ‘Here’s Dr Mickey now, ask him. He might quash it.’ Like a bloody eejit, I went over and got the courage to ask him was there any way he could look after me.
“He smiled at me and said: ‘You know I can’t Kevin, but you’ll be okay for the county semi-final.’ The expectation was we were going to win the under-16. He had a lovely way of letting you down.” It has been a reflective time for the Ballina native, as he now gears for what in many ways is Mayo’s ‘second half’, after their National League title victory in Croke Park over Galway and exit from the Connacht championship to Roscommon a week later.
Asked on what lessons he learned from that loss, McStay said: “We need to be more careful with the ball in our hands. We certainly wandered away in the final fifteen minutes from what we’re trying to do. A little bit of panic was the most disappointing thing, as we had quite an experienced outfit on the field at that stage.
“If you’re not at it, you’ll get turned over. We’ve known that for forty years. If your energy and enthusiasm is not at the opposition’s level, you’re in for a long day. With ten minutes to go, it looked like Roscommon were going to win that match. That’s the way it looked to me. We couldn’t bring it to the boil.” McStay added: “We took a twelve-day break and used it well. All the lads went off and we went back and redrew the plan after the defeat to Roscommon. We’ve trained really well since then. We had some team days in South Mayo that went really well. We improved our injury situation and got a lot of work done.” Injuries have been a headache for Kevin McStay and his backroom team but he doesn’t feel it’s a consequence of the condensed season which is continuing to draw ire, and is simply the nature of high-level sport.
“I think it’s something we’ve been dealing with for quite a while. These are highly tuned athletes, very strong, very athletic, pacey and explosive. If you don’t have pace and explosiveness, you won’t be around the squad. The price of being explosive is finely tuned hamstrings and groins, quads and what have you.
“The plan, of course, was to go on and win the Connacht title, which brings you the number one seed, home advantage in the first match and push you to be number one in the group and straight into the quarters.
“That’s the one we wanted to take but Roscommon beat us fair and square. We had to back off and analyse it and see what lessons could be learned, what we did well, what we didn’t do well. It was very disappointing for us after the high of the league win.
“It was a gorgeous league to win. It was validation for the effort we put into the campaign to build out a squad. We used it very well and won the cup out of it but maybe we couldn’t come down quick enough for Roscommon. I thought we did come down but Roscommon just caught us, not like an ambush, but they were the better team on the day.
“When we lost, first thing we said was: ‘Take two weeks off.’ Four weeks will be grand to get us ready. Essentially, the next bit in front of us is a new tournament. That’s the reality of it.” That ‘new tournament’ begins on Saturday against Kerry, followed by a home game against Louth on the June Bank Holiday weekend before Cork on the weekend of June 17/18 at a neutral venue. For now, it’s all about Killarney and nothing else, and Kevin McStay is expecting a reaction from his players after the Roscommon defeat.
“Looking forward beyond the next fence is a form of complacency. I know that sounds boring but I’ve always seen it that way. What’s the point in daydreaming about being in a quarter-final in Croke Park when you haven’t played a group game yet? The next one is the one that counts.”