Kevin McLoughlin and his children after his final game with Mayo. Evan Treacy/INPHO

'Swiss Army Knife' footballer McLoughlin bows out with understated excellence

Another of Horan’s crew waves goodbye to the impossible dream.

LAST UPDATE | 28 Aug 2023

SOMETIMES, THERE IS an art and a science to watching Gaelic football and judging players.

A swift analogy.

Most of us drive cars, and do so perfectly well. We know cars. We know how to drive. It’s all locked down.

But if I should drive down a road and suddenly, smoke seeps from the engine, I will calmly pull over, lift the bonnet and find myself staring cluelessly at the unknown mysteries of the internal-combustion engine.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion on football and many of us watch a huge amount. We feel experienced and learned.

We see a player like Kevin McLoughlin, Mayo’s retired servant who finally drew an end to his 15-season career, and we think we have him pegged.

Until you see what his contemporaries say. That’s where the real juice is.

2017 Footballer of the Year, Andy Moran, is particularly effusive in his autobiography, tracing McLoughlin’s club lineage with Knockmore and their tradition of providing county players.

‘I’ve no doubt Kevin was a product of the footballing environment in which he grew up. I can’t imagine being a young cocky footballer, a know-it-all, and surviving in a Knockmore dressing room. Kevin has a strong personality, sure, but his is a quiet intelligence, just as his presence on the field is often defined by a quiet excellence.

‘He was responsible for some big scores in big games for Mayo – relegation-defying points in ’17 and ’18, saving the day against London in 2011 and many others – but, more profoundly, his consistent presence in the team for almost a decade provided an unbroken chain of excellence.’

In his 33rd year, Moran became Footballer of the Year. He doles out the credit to Jason Doherty and McLoughlin for all the donkey work and water carrying that left him with enough juice in the legs to make his multiple lateral runs.

kevin-mcloughlin-dejected-at-the-end-of-the-game Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

In a way, McLoughlin’s contribution began from that day in Ruislip when London had Mayo out on their feet. It took two long range points from McLoughlin and Trevor Mortimor to force extra-time. Had they have lost, according to James Horan, his managerial career would have been over before it got a chance.

As shaky as they were that day in London, the team arrived as a serious force later that summer. They had beaten Galway and then later Roscommon in the Connacht final, but weren’t given a chance against reigning All-Ireland champions Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

After twenty minutes, he took a handpass from Aidan O’Shea and burrowed past Cork defenders before burying a shot to the net beyond Alan Quirke. His first championship goal kickstarted the form needed to beat the then-All-Ireland champions, a trick Mayo would repeat for the next two seasons.

To most, he seemed a thoroughly-modern invention. A ‘middle-eight’ player. Diligent with his strength and conditioning work, but never suited to carrying bulk as his game revolved around covering the ground.

As good as his left foot was in open play, he never quite nailed the role of freetaker from the right side of the pitch. But he brought nerve, too. He could indulge in the mild ‘shithousery’ stuff such as standing in front of the ball to prevent a quick free, yet it never seemed obnoxious behaviour.

Back to Moran’s view; ‘…A Swiss Army knife of a footballer, he could do pretty much everything.

‘…From his match-saving cameo in Ruislip in 2011 to the end of 2019, he played an incredible 52 championship matches in a row. An achievement like that is no accident. His discipline in looking after himself was an example to every young player. This allowed him to be durable and reliable – two traits all management teams value in a player.

‘To the untrained eye, he looked incredibly gifted. Blessed with a remarkable turn of pace, his trademark dummy solo, his side-step, his ability to kick off both feet and his outstanding capacity to play in every outfield position – but it would be lazy to suggest that all these skills came so easily to Kevin. I was privileged to see the work he put in honing those skills and can only guess that much of what he possessed, he had worked on since he was a kid.’

The Swiss Army knife had a few attachments that were used when required. When Stephen Rochford was manager and Tony McEntee a coach, they used him as a modern-day sweeper. The move was criticised as it took Mayo away from the box they were shoved into. The Television pundits were not best pleased.

“I remember talking to Kevin after the Galway game about the feedback from the TV (analysis),” explained McEntee back then.

“I told him not to worry about what they were saying because that wasn’t what we were asking him to do. And Kevin is a smart fella. He said: ‘I watched it with my girlfriend and I was able to say “that’s not what the management are telling me to do”’ and therefore he wasn’t worried about it. That’s important because as a person playing a new role like that it’s going to take time for it to bed in. The Tyrone game was the best one for him so far.”

One by one, the band of Mayo players that went closest to landing Sam, are slipping off the stage. In another few weeks, you could easily see Rob Hennelly preparing his own retirement statement, while you suspect that Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from their objective.

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