John O'Mahony talks Leitrim 1994 and challenges for smaller counties

Former Leitrim, Mayo and Galway boss speaks to Newstalk.com as Connacht Championship time nears

John O'Mahony, Leitrim,

Leitrim’s selector John O’Mahony ©INPHO/James Crombie

Even 23 years on, the glow from 1994 doesn't fade away if you're from Leitrim.

But then, 23 years is a drop in the ocean of time in comparison to the 67 years we had to wait for Connacht Championship glory to return to the county with the smallest population of them all.

How long Leitrim will have to wait again for the Nestor Cup? Only time will tell and time is not the type to give away secrets readily.  

But as the 2017 Connacht championship approaches, the memory of 1994 has been taking form again with a management team led by Brendan Guckian, including former 1994 All Star Seamus Quinn and the man who managed Leitrim to Connacht glory, John O'Mahony.

The one great benefit for the current crop of Leitrim players is the presence of figures who have been there and done that with the county, a point John O'Mahony concurs with as the shining light from the last era of success.

"I think it was important. At this stage for me, it was great to see people like Brendan Guckian as manager and Seamus, and Michael Moyles as the trainer. He would have All Ireland success with Crossmolina," says O'Mahony as he sat down for a chat with Newstalk.com. 

"So I think it's important that those people are leading the charge, as it were, as evidence of what can be done."

And as he renews his involvement with Leitrim, he notes a "yearning to get back in that territory" of success again after a few tough seasons.

He adds of a time when the margins were less vast: "That's, I feel, more difficult than it was then because the game is still amateur but the approach everywhere is professional. I knew back then that not every county was organised to a high degree and that's the little edge that I along with the selectors at the time hopefully give."

That edge was a mixture of changing mentalities and improvements elsewhere that shaped the success that came back in 1994.

It was no coincidence that Leitrim clubs were doing well in the years leading up to 1994 on the provincial scene, reaching five finals between 1986 and 1997, although neither Aughawillian, Sean O'Heslins or Allen Gaels were able to win those respective deciders. But significantly, 1997 was the last time a Leitrim reached a Connacht final and the same level of success at inter-county level has not been repeated.

On the inter-county scene at the dawn of the '90s though, a B All Ireland title win came in 1990, followed by a first (and only the second overall) Connacht under-21 final victory in 14 years the following year. In 1993, they also earned a first championship win over Galway for decades. So something was brewing rather than 1994 just coming totally out of the blue.

"As you say, 1994 is the touching stone of it but it was a process and you had PJ Carroll in advance of me," says O'Mahony, who would later lead Galway to All-Ireland triumphs in 1998 and 2001.

"They won an All Ireland B Championship in 1990 and the under-21 in 1991 at provincial. In fact I was manager of the Mayo team that they beat in a semi final in Carrick and even at that stage you knew there was something bubbling under the surface."

Leitrim’s selector John O’Mahony in January during the FBD League ©INPHO/James Crombie

And at a time when margins were still sizeable but less vast between the bigger counties and the weaker ones, tweaks and changes could have a wider-ranging effect.

For example, O'Mahony brought in a team psychologist well before Leitrim began the 1994 journey, following a practice he had used with his native Mayo previously. 

"I suppose it was necessity. I had already used a psychologist in Mayo when I was manager there as we won two Connacht Championships and I felt at that time that there was a glass ceiling in Mayo, that if you won a provincial championship that that was good enough and I just felt that wasn't good enough," he says.

"I felt we had as good of players, as talented of players, as fit of players as the rest of the country. At the time of course, we were out of the '70s and early '80s where the big teams were Dublin and Kerry. We were moving out of that territory and I just felt that Mayo needed that.

"And then I continued that in Leitrim because if there was a mental block, if you like, for a bigger county like Mayo - and Galway were also having a lean period at the time - there was a bigger mental block in Leitrim. So I brought the same person who had no knowledge really of football but had a knowledge of how the mind works and I think that's the biggest challenge for weaker teams who have smaller numbers and less resources. A lot of it is in the mind."

For example, as former Leitrim captain Declan Darcy told Newstalk alongside O'Mahony in 2014 for the 20th anniversary of the Connacht triumph, the manager kept feet firmly on the ground by regularly reminding the panel that training would be on the following Tuesday after a match regardless of the excitement in the camp or the success that was coming as Leitrim overcame each challenge.

And on that occasion, Darcy also highlighted that for Leitrim, it was the fear of winning rather than the fear of losing that needed to be overcome as successfully exemplified by how they fought back in the '94 final against Mayo after the concession of a very early goal.

But a sense of winning culture was also instilled by small gestures like the bus for 1994 final post-match celebrations being pre-booked as a sign that victory was attainable.

Declan Darcy

The other point O'Mahony makes is that a process could be adhered in a county like Leitrim because there wasn't a large playing pool and without too many options to bring in from outside the panel each year, therefore improvements had to come from the players already in place.

"We confined ourselves to literally 30 people in a room and there were 26 panellists and maybe another 10 people who were involved in the planning or the organisation of it and we got to a stage where we don't care what people thought, we're going to go on this adventure and as long as we keep believing and keep the faith. There were setbacks. In 1993 we beat Galway and broke a 44 year record but then came a cropper to Roscommon. So we had to reset and go back again," says O'Mahony.

"I suppose the advantage in a weaker team is that you won't have huge changes in the panel from one year to the next because they're not there and you need to get each individual to get better. That was the challenge and that was the opportunity. In hindsight, it looks easy but I felt that it needed every single person in that room to be pushing themselves to excellence in whatever excellence was to them."

Of course, as has become clear over the years, the gap that a county like Leitrim needs to bridge has grown as a level of professionalisation has spread across setups especially at the highest level like your Dublins, Kerrys and Mayos.

And while we saw Tipperary make the jump to an All Ireland semi final last year to the joy of neutrals after building on underage success, a tilt at Sam Maguire seems pretty much nigh on impossible but for a select few.

Even the provincial championships tend to go to the same counties with Kerry, Dublin and Mayo dominating Munster, Leinster and Connacht respectively over the last decade. But something like that could still just about be within reach for a Leitrim if all things come together like back in '94. 

For O'Mahony, the existence of attainable goals, trophies and staging posts of value for counties is important, emphasising the value of provincial championships for a county like Leitrim back in 1994.

"There's need now for a structure that would still have that there but also maybe we have the Super 8s, so we need a Super 8 for the weaker teams as well, if you like," he says.

As for the recent crop of Leitrim senior players, the FBD Insurance League was won back to back in 2013 and 2014, although there hasn't been any breakthrough at Allianz League or Championship time.

This year, if victory could be achieved over London in the Connacht quarter final, then rivals and neighbours Roscommon await in the semi finals.

As former Roscommon goalkeeper Shane Curran told me back at the start of the league, the transition phase that Kevin McStay's team are going through would bring "an equilibrium and equalisation of the capacities of both sides" and gives Leitrim half a chance. 

And as championship approaches, O'Mahony is intrigued by what the emerging players can do for Leitrim.

"There's a number of new players in the squad who would have come up through the underage ranks and there's a continual effort to improve coaching and that's ongoing and there are plans for that at the moment. These lads would have had a competitive under-21 this year for instance and were unlucky enough against Galway."

But when they come into training or gaze towards the sideline, at least they can look around and note the presence of figures that have written a golden chapter in Leitirm history.

Leitrim begin their 2017 championship against London on May 28th in Ruislip.