'If you tried to invade his space mentally too much, you got less from him'

We examine the enigma of Mayo legend and current coach Ciaran McDonald.

ciaran-mcdonald Mayo legend Ciaran McDonald. Source: ©INPHO

ONE OF THE stories that best sums up Ciaran McDonald’s genius isn’t set in Croke Park or MacHale Park, but thousands of miles away on an artificial pitch at Hong Kong Football Club.

He was a member of the travelling 2004 All-Star party that pitched up at the club’s grounds for a light session during the tour. With the All-Star game between the ’03 and ’04 selections looming, some players decided to do a bit of physical work to burn off the excesses of the previous days.

At one end of the field, on his own, was McDonald with a load of footballs scattered around him. From a variety of angles and distances, he took shots from the ground and out of his hands, sending ball after ball sailing between the posts.

“He put spins on the ball, he put a bend on shots, his accuracy was sensational,” wrote journalist Donal Keenan in the 2014 Connacht semi-final match programme.

“If we had thought to film it, it would have been an internet sensation. It was mesmerising stuff.”

McDonald’s potent mix of flair and accuracy didn’t go unnoticed for long. John Maughan, one of the team managers, watched on from the sideline with Keenan. 

Then Maughan pointed across to four motionless figures on the far side of the field.

Colm Cooper, Peter Canavan, Declan Browne and Stevie McDonnell had emerged from the dressing room to join McDonald. But for a brief moment the four stood still in silence, watching a master craftsman at work.

“Look at that, what an audience,” said Maughan.

all-stars-in-hong-kong Ciaran McDonald practices his shooting in Hong Kong. Source: INPHO

They eventually went in to join the Mayo star and before long the fivesome were pinging balls over the bar. But the image of Cooper, Canavan, Browne and McDonnell admiring McDonald’s portfolio of elegant kicking from afar says a lot about the esteem other players held him in. 

It’s hard to believe that McDonald would play little over two more seasons of inter-county football after that scene in Hong Kong. His 2007 season was ravaged by a back injury and the following year he was conspicuous in his absence from the Mayo squad.

The exact nature of McDonald’s fall out with John O’Mahony remains unclear. We know he didn’t show up to a post-championship debrief following their 2007 qualifier exit to Derry, which the Mayo management took as an initial sign of disinterest.

O’Mahony always maintained relentless efforts were made to contact the then 33-year-old over the ensuing months. McDonald bristled at an invitation to attend a trial game in the spring. Mayo eventually made the decision to move on without the mercurial forward, which became a matter of great public debate.

He never played for Mayo again.

“Did I officially retire from inter county football? No,” he reflected in a rare 2012 interview.

“The manager at the time made his decision. At the time, I thought there were a few more years left in me. I was still playing good football and still training hard. I was alright, you know? That’s in the past.”

Just like that, McDonald’s illustrious inter-county career was over.

“I’m not sure how Ciaran would have personally liked to have finished his career,” David Brady tells The42. “In GAA terms you’d always like to finish on your terms but again was that the way that Ciaran just wanted it?

“From just switching the light off, whether it was on his terms of Johnno’s terms. Maybe it’s left a sense of not unfinished business but a sense of that love and grá is still there for the game and that’s why he’s gone back into management now when it’s not the first time he’s been asked into the Mayo set-up.

“He probably sees how that the time for him is right and he still has that love and desire from a Mayo and a football perspective.”

ciaran-mcdonald McDonald on coaching duties with Mayo. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

12 years on and McDonald is part of the county’s senior set-up again. James Horan brought him on board as part of his coaching team in the off-season to great fanfare from the Mayo public.

Horan recently spoke about McDonald’s unique approach to the game. The Mayo boss said he often receives “early morning calls with different ideas and suggestions” from the Crossmolina man.

“By all accounts, he’s bringing a massive amount of detail which you don’t see as synonymous with a free-flowing fantastically skilled player,” says Brady.

“A very hands-on, detailed approach, not alone to games but to pre-training and after training.”

His knowledge has greatly impressed the players too.

“Ah he’s brilliant,” says Stephen Coen. “He’s absolutely savage. I wouldn’t have known him really before he got involved. I would have admired him for years.

“Great player and all that, but you’d always think maybe he mightn’t be as good at coaching. But he’s brilliant. Very, very clever.

“Sees a lot of things that a lot of players wouldn’t see. Great for just giving little tips here and there. Not just for forwards, but for everyone on the pitch. He just spots things, notices space, helps lads move a bit better, even distribution of the ball and stuff.

“You’d be doing a bit of practice with one fella, whether I’d be kicking a ball into him, and he’d take the ball off you and ping it in. You’d just feel that little bit inferior, because he still has it!”

He’ll be able to relay some of his experience over the coming weeks as the Mayo squad deal with the GAA’s suspension in training and games due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

When Crossmolina won the All-Ireland club title 19 years ago, the playing of the final was delayed until 16 April due to the foot and mouth disease outbreak earlier that year. It was the last time the GAA suffered such a major disruption to the season, though nowhere near as impactful as the current crisis. 

A star in Mayo since he posted 1-12 across five games on their run to the 1997 All-Ireland final, McDonald was seasoned campaigner by 2001, but he went on to reach even greater heights in the latter part of his career.

He also found himself on the wrong side of All-Ireland finals against Kerry in 2004 and ’06. A few years ago, he described the pain of losing three deciders as “still pretty raw.”

His best years arrived after controversially quitting the panel halfway through 2003 when he received abuse from the stands during an away league game in Fermanagh.

He didn’t play again for the rest of the season.

“It wasn’t (because of) stick towards me because I was able to handle it, it was stick towards a member of my family which I thought at the time was very much out of order,” McDonald told Second Captains Live in 2015.

“It wasn’t my sister’s fault that I was kicking the ball 10 yards wide that day. I didn’t think that me personally playing a football game should affect her, so that time I said enough was enough.”

ciaran-mcdonald McDonald in 2004. Source: ©INPHO

The Mayo players and supporters largely respected his decision at the time.

“I do remember Ciaran stepping away,” says Brady who was part of the Mayo squad.

“Like a lot of us, we always put it down to the individual choice. I can’t say it was ever discussed, you had to get on with what tools you have in your box and it was one tool less.” 

Martin Carney, who managed McDonald at minor and U21 level recalls: “The Mayo public I think understood Ciaran as he went on. In ’03, you’re talking about eight years after he started making a name for himself.

“People realised the guy he was and he was probably saying to himself at that age, he was 29 or 30 at the time, that, ‘I can do without this.’ He did walk away from the game but got back into it when John Maughan came back in. John being a Crossmolina man was able to convince and encourage him to come back.

“But Ciaran walking away from it, I can’t speak with full knowledge of this but probably felt as if, ‘I don’t need any of this shit any longer.’ He would have had his All-Ireland club at that time which probably would have been the pinnacle of his career.

“It was then when he was away for a while that maybe he just felt he was missing it. With the bit of encouragement from John Maughan, a guy he obviously knew all the years, he felt it was worth his while to come back.”

Despite his undoubted talent, McDonald was often underestimated because of his appearance.

ciaran-mcdonald-celebrates Ciaran McDonald celebrates after the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

His tattooed arms, braided blonde hair, socks up around his knees, white boots, untucked jersey and flamboyant talent were at odds with his more introverted personality off the field.

“A very good lad who never sought attention,” says Carney. “People saw him as flair player, a flamboyant guy and all that – he was the very opposite. He was taciturn, he was never keen on the limelight.

“Maybe there’s a certain contradiction there because of the blonde long hair and all that, you would have maybe thought looking at that that this fella is a show pony and wants to be seen by everybody. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“He was a very quiet lad first and foremost. He came alive basically when he went on the pitch. He always had flair, great vision.”

Many opponents over the years spoke about their surprise at his strength, which Brady describes as “phenomenal.” He adds, “It was just pure and utter natural strength. When he had a ball in his hand he was unmovable to a degree.”

McDonald famously was far from a gym rat during his career but his strength came from years of working as a pipe-layer alongside his father Danny around the country. During those long hours he poured concrete and laid down foundations which helped him develop into a steely athlete.

Carney relays an interesting anecdote from his days managing McDonald with Mayo U21s. 

His father had a farm in Clonmany, a small town in north Donegal. On a couple of occasions after training on Saturday morning, Danny collected a young Ciaran and they headed on the lengthy trip up north “to do whatever work was needed on that farm.”

“Now that is a three-hour journey, but he took it in his stride.

“He was a very hard worker off the field. He had a good balance to life. He worked very hard physically away from football. He was much stronger physically than a lot of lads around him and this was before an era of strength and conditioning.”

He returned rejuvenated under Maughan in 2004 and won an All-Star for his performances that summer. He was one of the few players to emerge from the All-Ireland final mauling by Kerry with his reputation enhanced. 

He was often at the centre of barbs from pundits and opponents.

During the championship, Joe Brolly jokingly referred to him as a “Swedish milk maid.” Later in the summer, Pat Spillane said Mayo fans wouldn’t care if he wore “frilly knickers” as long as he kept playing so well.

In the International Rules series that October, the Australian team mistook his exotic appearance for weakness and tried to rough him up before throw-in. “Get Sheila,” they roared before descending on him, which sparked an all-out brawl.

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But McDonald stood up for himself that day as he always did on the field. He was one of the standout performers and led Ireland to a convincing 132-82 aggregate series victory.

He was no soft touch or Sheila for that matter. “He was definitely able to handle himself,” says Brady.

McDonald was a free spirit who had it all. 

His passing off the outside of his left boot was thing of beauty, his tendency to nonchalantly sweep over scores from outrageous angles endeared him to supporters all over the country. 

He gave an exhibition against Dublin in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final that might go down as his greatest day in the Mayo jersey. His score directly from the sideline went down in GAA folklore, a love-letter to Maurice Fitzgerald.

“That particular point is the one I remember, when he did a gesture after it with the finger up, it was a fabulous point,” recalls Carney. “I remember as much as anything else the animated look on his face, the joy on his face.

“Because Ciaran wouldn’t have been that overtly expressive. But here was a guy franking the ability he had with a score of that quality and maybe the self-satisfaction it gave him was reflected in the gesture he made and also in the actual smile he had after it.”

There were other two stunning efforts from open play that afternoon against the Dubs, including his last-minute winner.

“You could encompass it in one word and that was natural,” says Brady. “Phenomenally natural.”

a-dejected-ciaran-mcdonald McDonald after Mayo's championship exit in 2007. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

He became a more vocal presence in the dressing room as the years went on. 

“Definitely in the latter years especially towards ’04, ’05, ’06 he was very, very influential,” explains Brady. “He spoke not for the sake of it, but what he said and brought to the dressing room and team meetings was very relevant.”

Carney was always of the belief that he needed a certain amount of latitude from managers to get the best out of himself.

“What I always loved about him was he had a great range to his passing. I came to trust him to do what he believed himself was best rather than giving him instruction.

“Very often you can overkill by talking to players and what to do in every situation, you got most out of Ciaran by basically trusting him and letting him apply his own judgement to a given situation. That was always my take on him. Less was best with him. 

“You just trusted him to apply what he saw best for the team in a given situation.

“He worked to his own rhythms off the field and on the field. If you tried to invade his space mentally too much, you got less from him. That was always my take on him.”

McDonald has always danced to the beat of his own drum. He was at his calmest in the middle of the field with chaos descending around him. He made the sport into art in a way that we really haven’t seen an individual do since.

“The one thing I’ve always said is that none of us tried to figure each other out in a Mayo dressing room,” says Brady. “You were what you were and you are who you are. That was the way it was.

“It was very much respectful, it wasn’t trying to figure guys out and saying. ‘Is that their modus operandi?’ It was very much taken as Ciaran was himself outside the dressing room, kept to himself and his personality was Ciaran’s personality and different to all of us.

ciaran-macdonald-celebrates-scoring McDonald celebrates a score. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“He’s very private and he kept himself to himself out of the football season to a degree. He had his own nuances and we all did. I have to say it was very much never discussed what one guy was and what one guy wasn’t.

“It was not the flamboyant portrayal that Ciaran had on the pitch. It was different off the pitch. Whether it was on the pitch or off, he still liked his style. That was constant.”

He was truly one of a kind, a unique confluence of athleticism and artistry.

An intensly private individual who shied away from media interviews during and after his career, there’s much more to his personality than he’s ever likely to give away.

There’s always been the sense that he is at his happiest away from the limelight with a ball in hand.

Like that afternoon kicking points in Hong Kong. 

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Kevin O'Brien

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