Mayo has never produced a more successful League of Ireland player than John Mountney and although still in the prime years of his career, he’s already looking at life outside of football. Anthony Hennigan spent a morning in Bohola with the Dundalk midfielder – and Mayo’s newest publican.
“The day you stop playing you need to work next week.”
John Mountney always did have one eye on the future.
At 16, he knew didn’t lie in secondary school and so, with his mother’s blessing, he bailed out of St Louis’ in Kiltimagh in the hope of becoming a professional footballer. At 30, he’s undoubtedly the most decorated Mayo has ever produced. The boy done good.
But where in other European countries there’d come a level of financial security for a five-time league, four-time cup winner, two-time league cup winner, even the best League of Ireland club pays only an average wage to most and below average to others. So the boy who done good also has a plan.
The cynic might say the prospect of John Mountney turning pro and playing European football against the likes of Arsenal and Legia Warsaw and Zenit Saint Petersburg was a lot more realistic than the likelihood of anyone making a success of a pub in rural Ireland nowadays, but if there’s one thing Bernie Mountney instilled in her children it’s the can-do attitude. And her youngest has that in spades.
John is getting ready to power-wash The Village Inn in Bohola the morning we meet. It’s a far cry from asking Arsenal’s €60million signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – also of Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and Chelsea – for his jersey on that night in 2020 when Mountney played in midfield for Dundalk against the Gunners at Emirates Stadium.
“He was the nearest player to me at full-time but he told me his shirt was already taken. I tried a couple more of their big names who were nearby and they all said the same. I couldn’t understand it.” It turned out that most of Mountney’s teammates had already struck deals with their opponents during the game.
“How naïve was I?” he laughs now. “The boy from the country.”
Dundalk’s deference that night had extended to their performance as they became the first team in Europa League history not to commit a single foul in a game. But they set better records too, like becoming the first club from Ireland to ever win a match at that level of competition when beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2017 – the first of the Lilywhites’ two times to reach the group stages of Europe’s second big club competition. And John Mountney was there for the whole ride. He still is.
1997 was a newsworthy year both sides of the Irish Sea. Tony Blair became British prime minister while Bertie Ahern was appointed Taoiseach for the first time. And a juxtaposition to the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales was Mary McAleese succeeding Mayo’s own Mary Robinson as President of Ireland – the world’s first instance of one woman replacing another as head of state.
Somewhere in the London suburbs meanwhile, Bernie Sweeney was a single mother of four sons and a daughter making a decision to return to Ireland to raise her family. Her eldest a teenager, her youngest just 4-years-old, Bernie needed to find a way to mind them all and earn a living. The Village Inn offered a solution and so the Ballaghaderreen native boldly moved lock, stock and beer barrel to Bohola.
“When I think back on it, I don’t know how she done it,” says John, who was
“She bought it because she knew she was able to juggle it all in terms of us going to school.
“She had no experience of a pub, just took it all on her shoulders and sort of raised us all in the pub, a family business, everyone chipping in to help out.
“My older sister was cooking and working the bar but between the pub and the B&B, it was seven days a week for mam. And yet I never missed a football training, never missed school, was never short of anything.”
“And did you all live above the pub?” I ask.
“No,” comes the response. “That’s just where we slept.”
Or as Christy Moore sang, .
It’s just as well that John Mountney has a good sense of humour, for how else to cope with his current misfortune? He might not be playing football but he hasn’t stopped playing football. There is a big difference.
When his contract ran out at the end of 2020 after an incredible 305 appearances in nine seasons for Dundalk, John signed instead for St Patrick’s Athletic who were now being managed by his former Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell. He would mark his 350th career appearance by scoring a 30-yard free-kick for St Pat’s away to Shamrock Rovers. However, during what, ironically, was his first return to Oriel Park to play against his old club on August 8, 2021, John ruptured his right ACL. His first goal and last game for St Pat’s had all come in the space of nine days.
And yet when Stephen O’Donnell departed Richmond Park a few months later to return as Dundalk’s new manager, in such esteem was Mountney held that O’Donnell had no hesitation in making the man alongside whom he had enjoyed so much success as a player, one of his first signings – despite the midfielder only being halfway to fitness.
The recovery time was estimated at nine months but Mountney, who played alongside current Premier League stars Michael Keane of Everton and Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford for the Republic of Ireland’s underage teams, shortened that to seven and so managed to play ten games for O’Donnell towards the back end of Dundalk’s 2022 campaign. How cruel then, when in the team’s very first pre-season game this year, a behind-closed-doors match with Shelbourne, Mountney suffered the exact same injury except on his other knee. He was under the knife again in February, the day after his 30th birthday.
“If ever a man didn’t deserve it, it’s John,” said Stephen O’Donnell at the time. “That’s his second cruciate in a year and a half and with the amount of work he put in to get back, how good a professional he is, and what a good influence he is around the place, he’s the last man that deserves it, to be honest with you.”
“I’ve not been his best signings,” quips Mountney, who’s ten weeks into his recovery.
“There’s no point dooming and glooming and feeling sorry for yourself, you just have to do it right and put yourself in the best position to return.
“All going well I’ll get some games before the season finishes, get some minutes on the pitch.”
This year actually marks the tenth anniversary of current Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny first taking over a Dundalk team that had only just managed to avoid relegation from the Airtricity League Premier Division. You don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of players who Kenny deemed worthy of keeping. 19-year-old Mountney, who had joined the club the year before from Mervue United, was one of them.
“I suppose he saw the potential in me. I’d have been raw enough back then but I was fully focused on football, fully committed. He knew after my first year that I was really looking to maximise my career and wanted it.
“The way he man-managed, he has some sort of aura about him that brings out the best in people. He makes you feel relaxed and able to enjoy and express yourself, which is easy to say but it’s a hard thing to actually get someone to fully let go and just play.
“There’s no surprise he’s with the Irish team and I still think there’s success to come from them, the style of football they’re playing and all the young lads he’s bringing through. He’s fearless with his decisions,” says John Mountney who enjoyed some glorious days and glorious nights during Kenny’s six-year reign.
Dundalk came within one game of qualifying for the Champions League group stages – and a pairing with Real Madrid – when visiting Legia Warsaw in August 2016. 30,000 had watched the teams play at the Aviva Stadium and 30,000 more filled the Polish Army Stadium for the return game, with Dundalk needing to make up a two-goal deficit. Within 19 minutes of kick-off Robbie Benson had given Kenny’s side the lead.
“I was on the bench that day and it was hard to even watch the game because the atmosphere was just electric,” recalls Mountney. “The whole stadium was moving and to this day I’ve never experienced a match with that sort of atmosphere. It was incredible.”
Dundalk’s hopes of a famous away win were eventually dashed by a 92nd-minute Michal Kucharczyk equaliser but Mountney is more about the journey than the destination.
“That whole experience of travelling to different countries, playing against big European clubs in full stadiums, every bit of it was brilliant.”
The life of a professional at Dundalk FC is a six-day week, even when you’re injured. But John Mountney is experienced and trusted enough now to carry out some of his rehab away from Oriel Park, which has made becoming the new licensee of The Village Inn in Bohola, some 230-kilometres away, a little less stressful.
Commuting between both every second or third day, he thinks it’s probably because he was the youngest when the family moved into the pub – and so spent longer under its roof – that he holds the most sentimentality towards it. And then there’s all its history.
Since the current premises was established in 1910 the names of McEvaddy, McNicholas, Dunleavy, Roche and Carey have all appeared above the door but locals are actually understood to have brewed illegally on the site as far back as the 17th century. It’s a bar that Michael Collins is said to have frequented when visiting his sister Kitty who was married to Michael Sheridan, brother of legendary Olympian Martin, and lived in the village all her married life. Paul Gascoigne and a gang of his Tottenham Hotspur teammates also paid a visit during the club’s pre-season tour to Ireland in 1989, where on a day off they fooled manager Terry Venables into believing they were visiting Co Mayo on a fishing expedition.
“Of course, it just turned into an excuse to go for a drink,” recalled Spurs player teammate Paul Stewart in .
“He wanted to take us around the famous three pubs. We were a bit of a sideshow really,” added Stewart. “Everyone was desperate to get their photo taken with Gazza. By the end of the afternoon we were all legless.”
The three pubs in Bohola, immortalised in song by Brendan Shine, had become one until the recent reopening of McDonagh’s across the road. The extra activity that will bring to the village can only be good for The Village Inn too, believes its newest licensee.
“I’ve always had an emotional attachment to the place and deep down I always wanted the pub once mam was ready to retire,” John Mountney admits. His publican’s licence came through just last month.
“I’m proud to take over from her because I’ve seen what she’s had to go through and all the complications, having a massive mortgage over her head and raising the five of us to get it to where it is now.
“It’s a privilege to play football and get paid for it but playing in the League of Ireland is a normal paying job, even below average, so the day you stop playing you need to work next week. That’s the reality of it. I’m lucky I have the pub now. When you’re so invested into football and then have a setback, it’s good to have something else to focus on.”
The late nights probably wouldn’t be conducive to the life of an elite sportsman but the unpredictability of pub life is something that holds a particular appeal for Mountney.
“Everyone comes into a pub for a different reason, some just want to forget about life, forget about the stress of the day, forget about work, or maybe they just want to have the craic or a sing-song. I like that unpredictability, the different characters coming in, that’s one side I do enjoy.
“Of course, with the football being in Dundalk it’s a lot of driving but every time I get in the car, no matter how tired I am, I’m looking forward to getting home. That feeling never leaves.”
John married Dundalk girl Shannon Moran in June last year. The pair tied the knot in Malta and as a “proper townie”, it came as quite the shock when her future husband first began to describe Bohola. And yet it’s the petiteness and quietness of the place that is now the big appeal to Shannon, says John, who himself enjoys that sense of time always passing a little more slowly in the country.
Few businesses thrive upon quietness however, so The Village Inn will hope to buck quite an alarming trend of pub closures, particularly in rural areas. A report issued by the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland last August showed that there were 1,829 fewer pubs across the country in 2021 than in 2005 – and that the rate of decline in Co Mayo was even greater. The county had 467 pubs in 2005 but only 350 in 2021, representing a 25.1% decline compared to 21.2% nationally. And more pubs have shut their doors since then.
John Mountney, however, remains optimistic for the future.
“What I noticed growing up was that locals in Bohola are fiercely supportive. Even since I’ve taken over from Mam, everyone’s been coming in and enjoying the craic, which is good to see. It’s always been that sort of area, where people will get behind you and support you. That’s been a great side to it.
“There’s great characters in the village too. There’s always plenty happening, there’s never really a dull day here.”
A playmaker still pulling the strings – and now the pints.
Party at the Inn
To celebrate becoming the licensee of The Village Inn in Bohola, John Mountney is this Saturday (May 20) hosting an official opening party to which one and all are invited.
“It’s a night to give something back to the locals who have supported me,” says John who is looking forward to welcoming customers new and old alike.
Aaron Houlihan will get the party started with live music from 7pm with more live music at 10pm from Dara Duffy and Tommy O’Hara. There’ll be finger food served, free raffles and plenty of craic – so get the glad rags out and the dancing shoes ready!