# At The Helm
Kerry native and ex-Mayo boss at core of McStay's star-studded coaching team
“I willl leave no stone unturned,” declared the new Mayo manager.

HOLLYWOOD DREAMS OF sporting scripts like it. At half-time in the 2008 league, Limerick were losing at home to Leitrim. Then a man came thundering down from the stand and took over the dressing room. 

Mickey Ned O’Sullivan was the manager. Midway through their campaign, he approached fellow Kerryman Donie Buckley and invited him in for some coaching sessions. The Castleisland native accepted and ultimately had a groundbreaking impact. It started that day in Kilmallock. 

With O’Sullivan’s permission, Buckley left his vantage point in the terrace to deliver precise instructions at half-time. They’d kicked seven wides in the first half and had started to panic. In the second period, Limerick turned it around to win by one and avoid relegation.

donie-buckley Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

His work with the county inspired a raft of former players to go into coaching including Pa Ranahan, Stephen Lavin and Seanie Buckley. The ultimate disciple was eight-time All-Ireland hurling title-winning coach and current Limerick football academy director Paul Kinnerk. 

After a recent spell with Monaghan, Buckley is back in Mayo now, where he previously coached for six seasons from 2013 on. He is included on Kevin McStay’s ticket along with former Mayo manager Stephen Rochford, former Mayo All Star Liam McHale, and former Belmullet and Breaffy manager Damien Mulligan. 

Buckley was part of successive regimes that brought Mayo to the brink. He helped to build an extraordinarily athletic and versatile outfit, instilling steel and skill that defined the side at their best. No better example than their greatest player, Lee Keegan, who routinely hails Buckley for moulding him with box drills and footwork sessions.

His reputation has been forged primarily by player references and word of mouth. The coach is notoriously media-shy and determined not to court a public profile. He takes an annual trip to Florida where he visits various sporting institutions. During a trip around Melbourne’s various AFL clubs last year, it was striking how often Australians brought up Buckley’s name when they discovered this writer was Irish. 

When Kerry reached the 2019 decider, it was the third time in four years Buckley was involved with a team in the All-Ireland final and the fifth time in a decade.

The county board often pushed back on the idea they wanted Buckley to assist a minor management team progress to senior and in his typical way, Peter Keane softly side-stepped the issue whenever it rose. Even still, the ship soon hit the rocks. 

On 02 March 2020, Seamus Moynihan told the Irish Examiner he’d like to see Buckley more involved: “Donie Buckley is inside with Kerry. Donie is unbelievable, I would just like to see him getting more time with the players. I’m not sure how much time he is getting.” Five days later, the county board released a statement confirming the coach had stepped away.

Despite his two stints with his native county culminating in disappointing ends, Buckley was ready to go again when the Kingdom looked to appoint Peter Keane’s successor. He was included on Stephen Stack’s crew, alongside Moynihan and Mickey Ned O’Sullivan. Dara Ó Cinnéide, Joe O’Connor and Aidan O’Mahony were also involved. 

What does it mean for Mayo? Firstly, in an era where celebrity big-name backroom teams seem to be a requirement, that can present a challenge. The only way to avoid a ‘too many cooks’ situation is clarity of roles. Who is in charge of what? McStay was no doubt pressed on this during the interview process and was able to sell his vision. 

The Rochford-Buckley double act pushed Mayo as close as they ever came to the summit. Their attention to detail, McStay’s organisation and McHale and Mulligan’s local knowledge make a fine array of ingredients. 

There is also a crucial coaching lesson here. To succeed in such a role often demands a lack of ego. Buckley demonstrated such with his appetite to return home. Despite how it ended in 2018, Stephen Rochford has returned to Mayo. A former manager with considerable tactical acumen. 

The ultimate case study is the man at the helm. Twice Mayo’s choice for manager was McStay or nobody. Both times, he didn’t get the gig. 

kevin-mcstay-with-liam-mchale Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

A man who McStay has worked effectively with in the past is McHale. The current Belmullet manager was present at St Brigid’s and Roscommon. McHale is also his brother-in-law and knows how desperately this opportunity was craved and the toll of previous denials.

One of the most striking scenes in McStay’s outstanding autobiography is when he spells out the aftermath of his first rejection. He returned home and knew his wife, Verona, would be waiting for the car lights coming up the drive, the door to fling open and the announcement that she was looking at the new Mayo manager.

Instead, she spent a sleepless night consoling McStay as he reexamined where it all went wrong. 

When McStay went for the job in 2014, he had amassed an extensive checklist of every single aspect of the job. Everything from training loads to jersey designs was accounted for. Last year, this writer interviewed him and mentioned in passing the fact he had that document and preparation done for a position that might never materialise. Was there any frustration it didn’t see the light of day? 

“It’s still there,” he immediately responded. 

Now he has his chance. The level of expertise assembled highlights the meticulousness that McStay will bring to every aspect of the job. “I will leave no stone unturned,” he declared when finally confirmed. This was a long time coming. 

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