A few days before the 2012 All-Ireland final, I was at a breakfast event in Croke Park where the two star turns were Donegal’s Kevin Cassidy and our own Conor Mortimer. Both had departed their respective county panels inside the previous twelve months – the former turfed out by Jim McGuinness, the latter of his own volition – and both were asked the obvious question as to whether or not they’d have liked to be involved in the upcoming final between the two counties.
I can’t recall Cassidy’s reply to this question but Conor’s response was immediate and without artifice. He freely admitted that he’d love to be involved and it appeared obvious that his absence from the squad was something that pained him considerably.
Although Conor’s book, One Sunday, has as its centrepiece an earlier All-Ireland final – the 2006 decider – involving the county, it’s the fracturing of his relationship with James Horan and his decision to leave the county panel a few days before the 2012 Connacht final that will, I suspect, be of greater interest to those who read this title. This isn’t because what Conor has to say about the 2006 final isn’t of interest – it is, not least in its searing honesty about all that went awry for us that day – but rather due to the fact that that particular ground has already been well trodden (notably in Keith Duggan’s The House of Pain) and also because we’ve had two more recent final disappointments to deal with in the meantime.
In that sense, the decision to make the All-Ireland final from eight years ago the dominant centrepiece of the memoirs of a footballer whose inter-county career spanned the period from 2002 to 2012 is a bit questionable and, for me at any rate, it didn’t really work. This is all the more so given that he has little or nothing to say about his first appearance, two years prior to this, in another All-Ireland final. Who ever said the first cut was the deepest?
Structurally, this main section of the book – where a succession of short chapters are named for members of the Mayo team of 2006 as well as a few others – is a bit of a mess. The parts about the individual players has the appearance of padding and there’s no clear narrative running through this section of the book. Most readers will, I reckon, be tempted to speed-read through much of this.
The real meat, of course, is in the final section where Conor deals with events subsequent to the 2006 final, encompassing the managerial eras of John O’Mahony, who Conor clearly thought highly of and with whom he obviously clicked, and James Horan, who Conor transparently had little time for and where the feeling appeared pretty much mutual.
Somewhat bafflingly, Conor has nothing but good to say about O’Mahony’s disastrous 2007-2010 reign and little positive to say about Horan’s far more successful tenure in the four years that followed it. He says he felt “crushed” when Johnno stepped down after the calamitous Longford defeat, when, in truth, this was the only honourable route for the manager to take after four years of pretty epic underachievement.
His issues with Horan are front and centre right from the start but the most emphasis he places is on the way that James failed to keep him close to the panel when he was recuperating from his cruciate operation in 2011. He probably has a point in this respect but the flip-side is that the timing of this operation (which Conor reveals was delayed for a whole decade – I still can’t fully get my head around that one, I must confess) meant that he wasn’t an option for James in 2011 and so, quite simply, wasn’t really treated as a panel member then.
That said, Conor obviously was a player Horan would want involved when he was fit again, which was why, I guess, he gave him game time off the bench in our first FBD match at the start of 2012. Could James have been a bit more generous in the TLC stakes when Conor was recuperating? Probably. Is Conor being a tad precious about all this? Almost certainly.
The reasons why the ultimate falling-out happened later that same year are there for all to see. Mort reckons that Horan never rated him as a player but he freely admits that for his part he never bought into the manager’s game plan, in particular the bit about forwards having to work hard high up the field, especially what was expected of them in the area of tackling.
It was, ultimately, this difference of opinion which had a bearing on the decision not to start him in the Connacht final against Sligo. It needs, though, to be recalled that it would, in truth, have been a bit of a surprise had Conor got the nod to line out that day. He’d only come on in the semi-final when James was emptying the bench with the rout of Leitrim all but complete and nothing he did in that cameo appearance made his selection for the final any kind of imperative.
Conor’s inability to acknowledge this transparent fact undermines the credibility of what he has to say about all that followed. His protests about his claims for a starting place in the final ring a bit hollow and do nothing to undermine the fairly well established viewpoint that his withdrawal from the panel represented a stupid and selfish betrayal.
Once he’d flounced off, there was simply no earthly way that Horan would ever have him back, a point that James confirmed in his recent in-depth interview with Keith Duggan in the Irish Times. Conor’s story about meeting up with Noel Howley to talk about a possible way back some months later has, then, a bit of a comical air about it, as this was something that simply wasn’t ever going to happen, no matter how well the wine might have been flowing in the Shelbourne.
Could he play a part for the county now, in this post-Horan era we now find ourselves in? Well, if he’s prepared to see that his part would only be a bit one, if he’s prepared to buy fully and completely into the management’s playing philosophy and he’s up for doing all he can to execute these plans on the pitch, then maybe. On balance, though, you’d have to think that this is unlikely, even if Kieran Donaghy demonstrated forcefully this year that a player considered well over the hill can come back and make a telling contribution at the business end of the championship season.
As I guess is fairly clear at this stage, Conor’s book didn’t really rock my boat. Part of this is down to me – ghostwritten bios of ex-players tend to conform to the same annoying style, one that’s almost beyond parody at this stage, and Conor’s is no different. A few things really irked me, issues that I’d lay at the door of Conor’s ghostwriter Jackie Cahill. One was the rather prudish way that profanities were dealt with – if you’re going to say fuck, you may as well come straight out with it, I reckon, and avoid all this f*** and s*** nonsense that really started to give me a pain in the b**** after a while. Another was the rather alarming appearance in print of that modern way of talking which sees every sentence ending in a question? This is just plain bad grammar and it should have been edited out well before the final version went to press.
For all these failings. I’d still say that followers of Mayo GAA will find enough of interest in the book to merit getting their hands on it. And despite the many bits that grate in it, I’d argue that it’s a brave book in that, as is the case in so many areas in life, sporting history tends to get written by the winners. In this sense, Conor deserves credit for putting out there an unvarnished picture of the pain that players endure when All-Ireland final day doesn’t go to plan. For that and the insight it provides into one of the more controversial and colourful characters to wear the Mayo jersey in recent years, One Sunday is a book that hard-core followers of the county and others will relate to.
One Sunday: A Day in the Life of the Mayo Football Team by Conor Mortimer is published by Hero Books and is available to order here.