‘The nicest fellas you can meet, their potential is huge’ – Mayo’s rising stars from schools to senior level

WHEN DAMIEN EGAN reflects on that spring of 2017 as they brought All-Ireland glory back to their pocket of south Mayo, it is the route to success rather than solely the culmination he thinks about.

The freezing February night at the home of Connacht GAA when they took the provincial title. The semi-final in March at the Clare club of Tulla against Cork side Coachford.

And then the final on the first day of April, the Ballinrobe CS team climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand.

“It was about the journey of that year. Getting to and winning in Croke Park was the peak of it. But I think of the Connacht final on a Monday evening. It went to extra-time, it was after ten it was finished. I think it was minus five, minus six degrees by that time of night

“You think back of that and we had some close shaves in the various games. The day in Croke Park, that Ballygawley team were a good team, the likes of Darragh Canavan and lot of boys on that team went on to play Tyrone U20s. 

“When I started the school the previous year, if I said to those lads, are you going to win an All-Ireland in Croke Park next year, they would have laughed at me so creating that culture and belief to do what we did, that’s probably the main highlight.”

The feel-good factor from that victory lingered and is reawakened ahead of this weekend. Egan coached that team with Oisin Mullin from Kilmaine one of his key defensive components and The Neale’s Tommy Conroy a central attacking weapon.

Schools stars in 2017 and now senior players in 2020. Their debut championship in Mayo colours has brought them to an All-Ireland final on the biggest stage.

The rapid progress has not surprised Egan. A native of the Bonniconlon club in the north of the county, he has witnessed the strides they have made from being involved with Mayo U20 sides.

Conroy played in the All-Ireland final against Kildare in 2018 and captained that side last summer. Mullin was have been involved that first year but dislocated his shoulder in the Connacht final and rebounded to feature in that grade in 2019 and 2020. Through those seasons they have been joined by Ballinrobe team-mates Adam Barrett, Aaron McDonnell, Evan O’Brien, Nathan Moran and Liam Hughes.

That gives an indication of the talent they possessed in their ranks, a couple of them leading the way. 20-year-old Mullin will be tasked with shutting down Dublin’s fearsome attack.

“The last year in with James Horan, working with the likes of Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle, he was only going to get better, working in the company he’s in now,” says Egan.

“That he’s not even 21 as well, shows his potential. He’s blessed with pace and that innate physicality. Yo can see why James Horan would put him on likes of David Clifford and Conor McManus. He has that physical capability despite his age. He wouldn’t bat an eyelid being tasked with marking these fellas.

“From all the games I’ve ever seen him play, he’s 8.5 or 9 out of 10 player all the time. Off the field, you definitely wouldn’t think he plays football. He’s just a sound fella, once a game is over he can focus on other things, almost a Lee Keegan approach.

“When he crosses the white line, he’s the mmost ruthless competitive player you can get. If that ball is there to be won he’ll put his body on the line. He’s the bravest player I’ve probably ever seen play but off the field he’s a very unassuming fella.”

In that schools campaign it was Conroy who supplied the scoring touches to help Ballinrobe at vital stages – four points in the Connacht final, 1-2 in the All-Ireland semi-final and another four in the big decider. All scoring returns from play, just like it has been for the Mayo seniors over the past couple of months – 1-3 in the league against Tyrone, a goal in the Connacht opening win over Leitrim, a point against Roscommon and a trio when meeting Galway before in the fog of Croke Park, he buzzed around to shoot 0-4 over Tipperary.

“He actually started the U20 final, we had him at wing-forward, that kind of coming off the shoulder approach,” recalls Egan.

“On the field he’s that physicality and pace. The Covid break probably would have helped him in terms of developing his physicality. It was always in him to get where he is now. At 15 or 16, you look at him, you’re coaching, you’re explaining to Tommy what he should do or not do.

“The way he took on board the feedback even at a young age, it was different to other young lads. He had that burning desire to learn at a young age. It’s quite rare really at times, it’s a special type of fella.”

The pair have stepped forward as part of a young group that Mayo have brought through during a cycle of change.

“The window to bring these young lads was probably a little wider than other years,” says Egan.

“If you think back to the Mayo U21 team that won the All-Ireland in 2016. The likes of Diarmuid O’Connor and Stephen Coen progressed from that. If you look at the senior team, the age profile of that team, there wasn’t as much flexibility to bring in the young lads really. In terms of that window to experiment and bring in these fellas, that sped up the process for Tommy, Oisin and the other young lads. It’s okay to be given an opportunity, it’s up to them to grasp it.”

They have passed every test presented of them in recent weeks but the stage and the talent of opposition rises sharply now.

Egan will not be present in Croke Park for this All-Ireland challenge they face but is willing them to round off their progress.

“They have natural attributes but it’s their ability to get better that’s top notch.

“Off the field, they’re very good buddies. They would have an absence of ego in a good way. The nicest fellas you can meet, their potential is huge.

“It looks like a quick transition but I would have no reservations really about them playing against Dublin on Saturday.”

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