Tuesday, April 01, 2008

John Maughan, Colm Coyle, and the Butterfly Effect

John Maughan fell on his sword as Roscommon manager last night. The writing has been on the wall for some time. Maughan was always an odd fit in Roscommon, as any Mayoman might be in that fiercely proud county, and once the results started to go wrong the rope was always going to be twisted for him.

It’s unfortunate, too, that this ugly business has developed between Maughan and the Roscommon supporters. GAA supporters can be astonishing in their levels of abuse. It should be noted, however, that Roscommon has some of the best supporters in Ireland. We often read in the papers how winning an All-Ireland is “necessary” for some counties in order to promote Gaelic football in those counties; this is not necessary in Roscommon. Even now, when Roscommon’s May 18th Championship fixture looks likely to make Salthill look like Normandy in 1944 you may rest assured that, even against daunting odds, the Rossies will be there in numbers, chests out, primrose and blue flags fluttering amidst the shot and shell.

Perhaps John Maughan himself will be there as well, doing radio commentary with RTÉ. Whoever is the new manager of Roscommon has a free throw at this Championship; if he succeeds, meaning beats Galway, then he’s a Messiah, and if he loses it was all Maughan’s fault anyway. It’s hard to win.

No-one knows how hard it is to win more than Maughan himself of course. Now, in 2008, having been run out of Roscommon, run out of Mayo in his second coming and having walked out of Fermanagh, John Maughan is synonymous with being a loser. He is hated in Mayo for falling out with players like David Brady, Kevin O’Neill and Peter Butler. And all the incredible, genuinely incredible achievements of his career as a manager are eclipsed by the fact that Mayo did not win an All-Ireland while John Maughan was manager.

Before Ger Loughnane led the hurlers to glory in Clare in 1995, John Maughan managed the Clare footballers to victory over Kerry in the Munster Final. Astonishing. Three years later, post the Jack O’Shea and committee management eras, Mayo were languishing in Division 3 of the football league – one division below where Roscommon are now, you’ll note – and Maughan led Mayo to a League semi-final and an All-Ireland Final replay. There was strolling room on Hill 16 when Mayo hammered Kerry by six points in 1996, and the porter was sweeter on Dorset Street than it’s been before or since. Who remembers that now?

Critics of Maughan say it was his inflexibility that cost Mayo those All-Irelands. Without that inflexibility, that frightening drive that he could summon, would Mayo have got there in the first place? On the evidence of the prior four years – humiliated in Tuam, humiliated by Leitrim, humiliated by Cork, humiliated by Donegal – not hardly. In his marvellous book on the recent history of Mayo football Keith Duggan recounts Maughan training regimes with Clare, where he shamed the panel by having his wife, Audrey, outrun the Bannermen on the beaches, and with Mayo, when Maughan devoted himself to getting Anthony “Fat Larry” Finnerty fit. It’s Full Metal Jacket stuff, but it got results.

But not the result. The ne plus ultra result.

It’s untrue to say that it was inflexibility that cost Maughan those All-Irelands. What cost Maughan everlasting glory in the county Mayo was the fact that Colm Coyle was able to point from seventy yards – on the half-volley! – to draw the first game in the miracle summer of 1996, and then got sent off instead of John McDermott in the second.

Everything else follows from that. The performance against Kerry in 1997 was abject, and by then the novelty of not being on our knees had worn off in Mayo. It was time to pick holes. By the time Mayo lost another Ireland, in 2004, the County Board spent 2005 waiting for Maughan to slip up and when he did, it was so long, thanks for nothing.

Colm Coyle is at the heart of the butterfly effect that saw John Maughan run out of Roscommon this morning. The butterfly effect is that phenomenon of Chaos Theory that states a butterfly’s wings flapping in Hawaii can cause, ultimately, a hurricane in Kansas. And so it’s come to pass. If Colm Coyle had not pointed that shot, Mayo would have held on to win their first All-Ireland since the ‘fifties, and John Maughan would never have been manager of Roscommon, because we’d still be buying his porter for him in Mayo. That’s the difference.

How thin a line is it? This thin: before, in their infinite wisdom, replacing it with Des Cahill’s rather disappointing Road to Croker, RTÉ had a magnificent GAA magazine show called “Breaking Ball.” One of the segments of that show was called Heaven and Hell, where great GAA figures relived moments of either Heaven or Hell from their careers. Coyler was on once, and they asked him to shoot from seventy yards, to see if he could do it again. He didn’t get close of course, and fell around laughing at some of his attempts, in the way that only the man that has the ballast of the All-Ireland medal in the back pocket can. And at the other end of the continuum, the scorching wind of Coyle’s seventy-yard shot still buffets and reverberates around John Maughan.

It’s easy to point a finger at John Maughan now and damn him as inflexible, as callous, as aloof, as tanned. If it’s any relief to him, Maughan can identify his butterfly moment, the seemingly inconsequential moment at the time whose reverberations have got bigger and bigger as the years march on. Reader, who among us can do the same? You may call John Maughan loser, punk, bum and tanned if you must, but remember: there but for the grace of God go we all.

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