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'He's a dream to play with, his skill level is so high' - The quiet Mayo veteran that remains key

After playing over 150 senior games for Mayo, Kevin McLoughlin remains a vital figure.

Kevin McLoughlin with his daughter Saorla after the Connacht final.
Kevin McLoughlin with his daughter Saorla after the Connacht final.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Updated Sep 9th 2021, 7:59 PM

TWO POINTS TO begin with.

For the first, go back a decade to James Horan’s first day out on the championship road with Mayo. An afternoon in Ruislip which transpired to be a baptism of fire.

Approaching the stroke of full-time, Mayo were trailing London by a point and staring at the exit door. Alan Dillon scythed through the rearguard and released a handpass to Kevin McLoughlin, who stepped inside the cover and popped the ball over the bar.

Normal time finished on a score of 1-9 to 0-12. Mayo got the job done in extra-time and flew home in a state of great relief.

For the second, go back to just under four weeks ago. Mayo again in arrears, this time by 0-12 to 0-7 against Dublin, in the 63rd minute. Rob Hennelly sizes up a long-range free and booms a kick that is drifting wide before the sheer force of Diarmuid O’Connor’s will sees him get across to fly kick the ball back into play.

McLoughlin is first to react, gathering possession, turning and swiftly snapping over a point. It is the score that helps ignite a comeback that also forces a draw to deliver an extra-time period where Mayo emerge victorious.

The scores, ten years apart, are a product of the creativity and work of Ballintubber men in Dillon and O’Connor.

But on both occasions, the finishing touch was applied by the Knockmore man who continues to invest so much for the Mayo cause.

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In the Mayo cycle of All-Ireland final experiences, 2012 is the modern starting point. Since then the county has lined out in six deciders – five defeats and a draw.

Of the 19 Mayo players used in the first of those finals, the 2012 loss to Donegal, there are only six still involved. Injury has curtailed the input of Cillian O’Connor and Jason Doherty this season, Colm Boyle has been restricted to a substitute role.

It leaves just three players in line to start on Saturday, just as they have for every one of Mayo’s finals in that period. Lee Keegan and Aidan O’Shea are megawatt stars. One a former Footballer of the Year, the other the current captain. Seven All-Stars between them. It illustrates their talent and explains the level of profile they enjoy.

The other is Kevin McLoughlin. A low-key figure, yet a constant presence in Mayo’s football fortunes. He has started all six of Mayo’s recent All-Ireland final outings, wearing the number ten jersey on every occasion. He played the full course of five of them and the only time he was withdrawn was in the 74th minute of the 2017 epic against Dublin.

This summer has been about hitting personal milestones. June’s Connacht quarter-final against Sligo was his 150th senior appearance, encompassing league and championship, for the county. Andy Moran and Keith Higgins were the only Mayo footballers to have blazed that trail before.

The last day against Dublin saw McLoughlin reach the 70 mark in championship matches under his belt for Mayo.

Plenty game time, yet in a way it feels that he continues to fly below the radar.

“I don’t know how you qualify an unsung or a sung hero,” says Ray Dempsey, McLoughlin’s club manager with the Knockmore senior footballers.

ray-dempsey Knockmore manager Ray Dempsey. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“The football fraternity down here in Mayo, they’d recognise the importance of Kevin McLoughlin. Maybe he doesn’t get the limelight or media attention but I think from a football point of view, he’s well respected.

“He’s a very quiet, very private man. He’s happy that way. He’s done his talking on the pitch.”

Dempsey is well-versed on McLoughlin’s capabilities, through coaching in the club underage ranks before they worked together with Mayo minor and U21 teams.

Gaelic Park in the Bronx was the setting for McLoughlin’s senior championship bow with Mayo in May 2009. He lined out at corner-back that day, one of four debutants that John O’Mahony entrusted – Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan and Aidan O’Shea the other newcomers.

If wing-forward has become McLoughlin’s home, a beginning in defence makes sense to Dempsey.

“I’ve worked with Kevin very closely, of all the club players coming through. He was brought into the minor panel at 17 (in 2007), he was only in a few weeks and then he was playing in the championship, at corner-back.

“From there at half-time when we were under a bit of pressure and not scoring, we moved him to the half forward line. He’s played a lot of football for Mayo there since.”

McLoughlin doesn’t lack a scoring weapon. At different times he has supplied important goals for Mayo, like the trio into the Davin End in Croke Park against Cork in 2011, Roscommon in 2017 and Meath in 2019.

In the 2012 and 2017 deciders against Donegal and Dublin, he weighed in with a brace of points of play in both games.

There have been personal low points, like the free skewed wide late on when Mayo chased a draw against Roscommon in 2019 or the luckless passage of play that saw him divert the ball into his own net against Dublin in 2016.

But in the Mayo squad, the appreciation for what the four-time All-Star nominee offers their team was never diluted.

“He just links the play,” says Andy Moran, who soldiered in Mayo attacks with him up until the close of the 2019 campaign.

robert-hennelly-consoled-by-andy-moran-and-kevin-mcloughlin-after-the-game Andy Moran and Kevin McLoughlin after the 2017 All-Ireland final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“As an inside forward, he’s a dream to play with. His skill level is so high, he can kick the ball inside, outside. He can punt it, he can kick it right and left. Yes of course he gets a score here and there, but it’s his link play and his break winning and his work-rate, that really stands out.

“He was a dream to play with for a player like me. I’m sure the young fellas are seeing the benefits of having him on the field as well.”

Dempsey sings from the same hymn sheet.

kevin-mcloughlin-with-james-mccarthy Kevin McLoughlin with James McCarthy in the recent All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He’s a range of skills that suits a lot of positions when he gets himself on the ball. He’s unbelievable vision and balance and guile.

“He has a balance and movement that not a lot of players are gifted with and can’t really work on it either. It’s probably to do with frame and the lightness on your feet.

“You’d hear more about that in a boxing term than anything but Kevin is very light on his feet. He’s very elusive and (teams) aren’t able to hold him down.

“You very seldom see him getting held up. His speed of mind, that’s relevant to every inter-county player, his is very good.”

McLoughlin’s longevity is striking. This is his 13th senior championship campaign, graduating to the Mayo senior ranks while still eligible for U21 football. His underage career was not decorated, a Connacht U21 win against Sligo in 2009 was his solitary provincial medal.

But he has become a mainstay on Mayo senior teamsheets.

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ryan-odonoghue-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-with-kevin-mcloughlin Ryan O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin celebrate after the recent win over Dublin. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Initially he was part of the Mayo crew commuting from Dublin to pursue their football ambitions at home. After qualifying as an engineer from DIT, McLoughlin worked in the capital before retraining in education. Since 2014 he has been teaching Maths and Science in Rice College in Westport.

If the cutdown on miles spent on the road has been an aid, his style of play is another factor in why his career has largely been devoid of injury setbacks.

“It’s huge and it’s a credit to him the way he’s kept himself,” says Dempsey.

“You don’t want to tempt fate but he’s been injury free. I think his awareness, the way he plays, and how agile he is on his feet, has probably allowed him to be injury free a lot of the time. His family have supported him and allowed him to develop his career.

“That’s one side of the preparation and being prepared to play for your county for that length is the other side. There’s a lot more games now, he’s represented Mayo the best he can with a fairly high standard of performance.”

With the wave of retirements that crashed across the Mayo football landscape last winter, their squad has a different look to it in 2021.

Moran picks out a league game this year which reminded him that for all of the youthful energy Mayo possess, McLoughlin remains an important asset.

“I was lucky enough to go to the Westmeath game in the National Football League up in Cusack Park. We were struggling up top, we were struggling to get the ball into the forwards. Jack Cooney and the guys had a really good system put in place, in terms of having 10, 11 behind the ball at all times.

“Kevin came on and he just changed the game. He starts winning breaks, he starts linking the play, he starts kicking the ball into Cillian O’Connor. All of a sudden Tommy Conroy, Ryan O’Donoghue is on the ball. It all stemmed from him having come on to the field.

“Against Galway we’re struggling, six points in it in the first half. Johnny Heaney is playing hell against us from wing back, Kevin comes on, wins the first break, outside the left foot in to Aidan O’Shea, to Mattie Ruane and we get the penalty out of it.”

***

Life as a Mayo footballer has brought success up to a point. Seven Connacht medals have been secured but the days of heartbreak in the All-Ireland series have mounted up for McLoughlin and his team-mates.

Last year did represent one significant breakthrough.

kevin-mcloughlin-lifts-the-paddy-moclair-cup Kevin McLoughlin lifts the Paddy Moclair Cup. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In September, Knockmore’s 23-year wait for Mayo senior glory ended. They had lost five finals, McLoughlin playing in two of those, since their previous victory in 1997.

The success over Breaffy brought the Paddy Moclair Cup home to their North Mayo community, realising a major ambition for McLoughlin.

“When you have players that are serious about their game and they’re around and they speak the right tone and say the right things, they’re very crucial to any setup,” says Dempsey.

“Kevin’s leadership within the group was very, very important. The skillset he brought to our team was important, which was complemented by other players on the team.”

He is joined on the current Mayo squad by club-mates Darren McHale, Aidan Orme and Colm Reape.

They conquered a local arena in 2021.

Now there is a chance at last to strike gold on the national stage on Saturday.

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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