Mickey Conroy misses the Mayo dressing room
BY SHANE STAPLETON
Mickey Conroy misses the craic inside the four walls of the Mayo dressing room.
“What else would you be at?” is perhaps the most succinct question he poses when considering the lot of a young man out in the west.
“I 100% miss the group and the players and the craic we had,” beams the Davitts man. “I 150% don’t miss the training. But, do you realise the craic that we had?
“December, January and February, three or four nights a week you’re meeting up with a group of young guys to train, have the chats in the dressing-room, talk about life, go for a meal. What else would you be at?
“Sitting at home eating biscuits and drinking tea? Forget that! There’s great fun in a group like that where you’re all trying to get to the one destination. The camaraderie is unreal. I’m involved with the Mayo Under-20s as a selector and training and that help fills the void being out with them a few nights every week. It was brilliant fun but I’ve eaten too many birthday cakes at this stage to be able for it anymore.”
This weekend, Mayo welcome Donegal to Elverys MacHale Park for a win-or-bust clash with Donegal in the Super 8s. James Horan’s men had to take the long way around the qualifiers to get to this stage, and a heavy defeat to Kerry suggested their race might almost be run for 2019. They steadied the ship with victory over Meath at Croke Park, but the Connacht side never truly hit their stride.
It’s coming up on seven years since Conroy started in an All-Ireland final against the Tir Chonaill men, a day when early goals through Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden meant that a Mayo comeback would be too steep a climb.
After being involved in heavy All-Ireland final defeats to Kerry in 2004 and 2006, the battling spirit shown by the green and red to push Donegal all the way after such a disastrous start hinted at a more resilient group. They have been within touching distance of the holy grail on many occasions, but just haven’t quite got there.
“What people think about that final in 2012, it’s hard to know,” says Conroy. “Both teams went up as new teams — I mean this in a nice way, but I’m not sure either team knew how to win it.
“They hadn’t lifted the Sam Maguire in 20 years, whereas we’d been waiting since 1951. It was two teams with managers in their second years: James and Jim McGuinness — and they got there in the end.”
After 12 minutes, it was 2-1 to 0-0, but Mayo had it back to three points by the break. “The early start was huge,” Conroy says. “If you look at Kilkenny versus Limerick last weekend, that 1-8 to 0-2 start was huge, and it was the same with Donegal getting 2-1 before we realised we were in a game.
“At half-time, we knew the deficit was gettable and we rallied. If you take the first 12 minutes out of it, we outscored them for the rest of the game, but of course that’s no good. They are just the facts though.
“Kieran Shannon was working with us, and at half time he kept telling us to focus on the process and that was our buzzword — process. But we needed a goal to ignite us.
“The full-time whistle and dressing-room was tough, but I’d been there before in 2004 and 2006. It was nothing new to me, in a way. When I gathered my thoughts, I knew we didn’t win but I felt there was an All-Ireland in us. The age profile of the team was really good, and we were in a position to kick on.”
Conroy takes us on a journey when talking about his favourite days in a Mayo jersey, starting with the Under-21 All-Ireland final win in 2006 against a star-studded Cork team. They might have lost an All-Ireland semi-final replay to Kerry in 2014 but the occasion was memorable, even if “Horan left the job after a manic journey — the atmosphere was unreal, epic stuff like Tipp and Wexford the other day. No one will ever forget it.”
Horan is back at the wheel in his first season of the second coming — still chasing that elusive All-Ireland. Donegal, meanwhile, have Mayo’s previous manager Stephen Rochford as part of their management team. For a brief time, Conroy was on the panel under Rochford, but doesn’t believe he has enough exposure to the Crossmolina man to compare his style to that of Horan’s.
“I think they’re very different, but I was only with Stephen for four months and I was off rehabbing my shoulder and achilles. With James, you’d believe anything he said.
“I do think it will add an edge on both sides though,” says Conroy of the clash at Castlebar this weekend. “The Mayo boys liked Stephen and he is a good manager who took them on journeys to two All-Ireland finals. He’s gone in with Donegal and changed how they play, they are scoring more.
It’s been said for a couple of seasons that Mayo are an ageing outfit and their best chances of winning Sam have come and gone.
The Davitts man has noted the injection of youth into Mayo this year, namechecking potential stars for the future that will have to bide their time before Horan unleashes them. The message is that the future is bright, but so too is the immediate future. There have been plenty of injuries but finally they’ve had a weekend off, and a chance to mend bodies and prepare game plans.
“I give Mayo a huge chance here,” Conroy says firmly. “All the form says Donegal, and even when you look at the players they have and their style of play. Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh are two of the best players in the country but if James can find a way to even quell half of what Murphy normally does, that will go a long way.
“I doubt anyone has the ball in their hands more than McHugh, so it’s the same with him. Kerry found a way to keep Jamie Brennan quiet, and he had been looking like All Star material, and Paddy McBrearty wasn’t as good that day either. They are four top-class players to try to tie down.
“Then it depends too how Donegal get over their injuries — Eoghan Ban Gallagher is out for the season, but how will Neil McGee and Paddy McGrath be?
“Donegal are playing well and I’m not inside the ropes with Mayo anymore, I don’t know what’s going on in the dressing-room. But James will have been making plans and one thing for sure is that the players will believe.
“Donegal went into the final game of the Super 8s last year and needed a home win against Tyrone in the final game but were beaten well. I know a draw will do them this time but they will want to win — but this time they are away to Mayo. They’re no further down the tracks than last year at this stage, and those are the facts. I think Mayo will win.”