GAA Football

Mayo star Ryan O'Donoghue's Down roots as west turns Focus on Croke Park invasion

Ready for the road. Mayo fan John Shevlin will be heading for Croke Park bright and early on Saturday morning. Thanks to Anne Marie Allen for the photograph taken at St Brendan's College, Belmullet
Andy Watters

BELMULLET nestles along Blacksod Bay on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and it's about as far west as you can get. Next stop Newfoundland.

Situated out in windswept Tallagh, the Belmullet club has produced a steady supply line of talent for Mayo down the years including Willie Joe Padden, his son Billy Joe and defender Chris Barrett. Tenacious corner-forward Ryan O'Donoghue and his cousin Eoin are the latest to emerge from ‘The Mullet'.

After injury robbed the county of forward talisman Cillian O'Connor, pressure for scores fell on Ryan's young shoulders and he has answered the call with 2-19 so far in this Championship campaign including five points in the semi-final win over Dublin.

There was something about his determined attitude against the Dubs, when Mayo were floundering in the first half, that was reminiscent of fearless Ulster forwards of yesteryear who were inspired by the biggest stage and the toughest opposition.

And it turns out that Ulster football is in Ryan's blood - his mother Brenda is from Newcastle in county Down. She remains a Down woman at heart but of course is immensely proud of her son. The entire community is.

“Ryan is a great all-round sportsman,” says Belmullet clubman Ian McAndrew.

“As a young fella he excelled at boxing, he boxed for Ireland at schoolboys' level, he played soccer for Ireland at schoolboy level and the GAA is just a natural fit for him.

“He's speedy, he's confident and he has stepped in to Cillian O'Connor's shoes for the free-taking and so on and he is unfazed by it. He's a man for the big occasion.

“A mark of his esteem in the club here was when we won the intermediate championship three years' ago and Ryan was 19 at the time. He was made captain of the team and on the same team was Chris Barrett, one of our greatest corner-backs (retired from county football last year). He is dedicated to training and confident in his ability.

“When we lost players of the calibre of Chris, Keith Higgins, Seamie O'Shea, Donie Vaughan, Tom Parsons and now Cillian O'Connor through injury at the start of the year we thought: ‘Oh God, the rebuilding is going to take a few years'. But James Horan has given Ryan, Tommy Conroy and boys like that their chance and they have seized it and they're playing great football.”

Declan O'Reilly is the coaching officer in county Mayo. A native of Castlebar, he teaches at St Brendan's College in Belmullet and credits Horan with breathing new life into a panel that many feared had missed the boat.

“The vast majority of supporters would agree that we thought it would be two or three years down the line before it came to fruition but he has got them through so quickly and they have bedded in,” he said.

“They're like seasoned campaigners now.”

For most neutrals, last year's All-Ireland final seemed like the annual spoonful of misery for Mayo. It was that familiar story: Mayo competitive for two-thirds of the game but Dublin pulling away at the end to win comfortably. But Declan argues that the experience will benefit his county on Saturday.

“It kind of went under the radar because of the Covid and because there were no supporters there,” he says.

“Dublin won and got their six in-a-row but it didn't seem like an All-Ireland loss to us. It was a free shot for James Horan and his young guns. They got their experience, they played in a final and that is going to stand to them big time.”

Partnering Ryan O'Donoghue up front on Saturday will be Tommy Conroy from The Neale GAC in Lisloughrey in the east of the county, around 80 miles from Belmullet. Will veteran Aidan O'Shea operate between them at full-forward? Declan thinks not.

“I think he might be further out the field,” he says.

“He might start in midfield and I think it's going to be a 50-50 game, we're supporting our team but I think it's going to be chaotic, there'll be chaos everywhere and both teams will revel in it and try and put a bit of structure on it.

“Against a team like Mayo or Dublin you'd have a fair idea of their weaknesses and strengths but with Tyrone it's just going to be hell for leather! The team that has a bit more composure on the day will get over the line.”

Both counties have won three All-Irelands in their history. Mayo's came in 1936, '50 and '51; Tyrone's in 2003, 2005 and 2008. All the players on show will be chasing their first Celtic Cross and Mayo's line-up now seems likely to include fit-again Oisin Mullen. Declan says the delay caused by the Covid outbreak in the Tyrone camp has worked for Mayo.

“Whatever Tyrone did with Covid is their own business,” says Declan.

“It hasn't been talked about down here.”

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IF you landed in Mayo from Mars this week it would take you about five minutes to realise that something BIG is brewing in the county.

Sam Maguire fever has gripped the county again and it's no exaggeration to say that almost every house has the red and green out and most of the cars you see are decked out in all sorts of paraphernalia.

John Shevlin has gone a step further than most. One of county's most passionate fans, he'll hit the road for Croke Park early on Saturday morning and he won't need Sat Nav to show him the way in his Mayo Ford Focus.

John, a part-time mechanic and a part-time caretaker at St Brendan's College, has been making regular trips to Dublin for over a quarter-of-a-century in a range of motors decorated in the Mayo colours.

“I started off with a Fiesta in '96 and that done me a couple of years,” he explains.

“Then I had a Volkswagen Beetle, left-hand drive, for a few years. Then I had an Escort, which we brought to London and then I did this Focus four years ago. Hopefully it'll last another few years.”

I MET Seamus O'Malley yesterday. His grandfather, also Seamus, captained Mayo to their first All-Ireland title in 1936.

On the way home from that win, the team bus headed for Castlebar but Seamus, who passed away in 2002, hopped off at Claremorris with the Sam Maguire and brought it to the school he taught at the following day. After showing it off to the pupils he put Sam on the handlebars of his bicycle and cycled the 19 miles to Castlebar for the celebrations with the team that night.

His grandson would be delighted to do the same on Monday morning.

THERE was controversy in the west this week when Mayo County Council decided to remove a road sign – and there are literally hundreds of them on every road from businesses, families and GAA clubs – which showed the Mayo team the way to the Sam Maguire.

‘N5 Sam Maguire' read the authentic-looking road sign which the council decided to remove because it might “cause confusion to drivers”. I suppose they had their reasons but the council's action didn't deter the county's intrepid sign-makers and another, even bigger sign was erected on Tuesday on the road to Dublin outside Castlebar.

It even included a cheeky dig at the Tyrone camp's recent Covid-19 issues.

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