‘Had an arse on me that would knock over cattle’

Little wonder his Mayo team-mates loved Michael Conroy. You know him? No you don’t. Not like his Mayo colleagues of the last 15 years know Mickey C. For the scores and the stories and the way that he’d tell ‘em. It’s less an interview than a ream of yarns. So read on…

At first Mickey Conroy doesn’t understand the nature of the call. Why would you want to interview him?! Usually this spread is for lads who’ve won All Irelands, All Stars.

Sure he never even started a match in Connacht! Fact! Twelve years from the day he was called up to the Mayo senior squad to when he finished up there 16 months ago and in all that time he still didn’t manage to start a single provincial match!

In a way though, that’s why you’re calling. After all, how many players have never started a single provincial championship match yet played in three All Ireland finals, started in two semi-finals and scored two goals in a quarter-final?

And eventually even he cedes, that’s quite the achievement alright. Yeah, he may not have known what it was like to go up those steps in the Hogan and get his hands on Sam Maguire. But man, was he in that arena. Man, did he see some things and have some fun. Just as there was a reason six different Mayo managers asked him onto their panel, there was a reason why he kept coming back.

“Because I loved it,” he says.

And team-mates loved him. You may or may not remember Michael Conroy but no Mayo player of the last 15 years will ever forget Mickey C. For the scores and the stories and the way that he’d tell him.

Which is why it’s best to just leave Mickey with the mic.

STINT ONE: LIVING THE DREAM

“When I got called up first I went absolutely bananas. I was a fresher in college in Galway doing health and safety. Well, officially I was in college. I barely knew where the college gates were. T’was partytown. And it was tough partying now, as hard as any training. By Christmas I didn’t know what was going on.

“There were people handing me [lecture] notes and there could have been anything on them. Physics! Chemistry! I hadn’t A clue! I’d made friends with the class swot and everything and that still wasn’t going to get me over the line here! But I decided, ‘You know what, there’s only a few months left, wait ’til the end and when the results come out I can say maybe it’s not for me’.”

Football season kicked in then. One Monday [Davitts club-mate and then Mayo U21 panellist] Ronan McNamara rings me up. “Hey, John Maughan’s looking for your number.” Maughan’s coaching the 21s as well [as the seniors]. I says, “Will ya stop!”

He says, “No, you’re to come in tomorrow.”

We’d played Hollymount in a league game the day before, I’d shot the lights out and Noel Connelly must have told him. So I’m buzzing. And I fly it the first night. I’ve been gyming, running – hey, you can’t drink all day, every day; you have to do something else! So Maughan brings me along to a challenge game against Derry. I think I’m going up just to make up the numbers but he starts me and I kick two points.

Then he brings me in for a game against the seniors. I’m marking Dermot Geraghty and I give him a bit of a roasting. Then we’re warming down on the back pitch and Maughan calls me aside. And I go, “F***! I thought I played fairly well there, now this fella’s getting rid of me. But look, I’m only 19, still another two years [U21]. Don’t worry.”

Maughan: “Michael, eh, what did you say you’re doing in college again?”

“Health and safety, John. Health and safety.”

Shit! This fella has me decked!

“Have you any exams coming up?” “[Conroy coughs.] Yeah, busy studying for them now, John. In the library again first thing tomorrow morning.”

He goes, “Okay, okay. Listen, is your passport in date?”

And that’s when I deck it. These boys [the seniors] are going to New York the following Thursday [to play championship], then staying on for a week’s training camp. So I go, “Yeah. Why?”

“You’re coming to America with us.”

Well, I arrive home and I’m doing handstands and jigs. I look for a passport. Mum says, “No passport.”

Ring Maughan. “John, I can’t go.”

“Why not?”

“No passport.”

“Huh! That’s not an issue!”

Michael Ring [TD] had it in two days.

So we go off and have the week of our lives. The team had been nearly relegated in the league but the whole mood had lifted. One night Maughan ordered these two white stretch limousines to bring us into Albany. We go into this nightclub. Maughan and all the boys are having beers. I’m thinking, “God, James Nallen must have a few drinks on him, he seems a bit steamed!”

I’d thought these boys were aliens, didn’t drink, smoke or anything like that, but this night they had been let out, like calves going out to eat grass.

Eventually we stumble out of the place and into the limos. And straight away I doze off but it’s a long journey back and for a moment I stir. And I look around and see everyone else dead to the world, slumped across the seats of this limo, and I’m thinking “Ah, this is just great!”

We trained savage hard over there. [Trainer] Martin McGrath with his ladders and SAQ work. Maughan with his army drills. [Goalie] Fintan Reddy was rooming with Alan Costello. Remember Cos? Played with Sligo a few years later? Down in Australia now, I’m going to his wedding at Christmas. Anyway, one night Cos wakes up and sees Fintan on the edge of his bed, his hands covering his face.

‘Fintan, are you all right?’ [Winces]

“Cos, do you think it’ll be hard today?”

And Cos goes, “Yes, Fintan! It’s been hard the last five days! It’ll be hard again today!”

I had my own Fintan Ruddy moment out there. After the game we were at a reception on McClean Avenue. So there’s a free bar and myself and McNamara are ploughing it in. At one point we’re having an argument about whose round it is — even though the drink is free — the next minute, we’re out on the floor, dancing. Even though there isn’t any music and there isn’t any soup yet on the table.

The next day we’re on the bus arriving at camp in the Catskills. Maughan comes over the intercom. “Lads, we’re going to flush out the legs here. The boys who didn’t play yesterday will be doing a bit extra.” I counted every lap he made us do. Nineteen. I nearly died. I was in bed by nine o’clock that night. Next day, I was “Okay, let’s go.” I’d got my wakeup call. Welcome to the real world.

That September, Mickey Conroy would make his senior inter-county debut, coming on at half-time in the All Ireland final, a week before he’d also play in the U21 final.

He’d kick a goal and a point off Marc Ó Sé but it was bittersweet; the game was already over by the time he was brought on as Mayo suffered one of their most humiliating days. Still, they’d reached the final.

And they’d some handy young players coming through. Alan Dillon. Andy Moran. And now this Conroy buck. Only, after tearing his quad on the eve of the national league, the same boy decided to head back over to America for the summer of 2005.

“Was it a good move? No. I should have stayed home and got my S&C done, but lookit, I’m 20, Boston, bright lights, a few dollars, free accommodation... ‘Accommodation’, yeah. Sounded great over the phone. I’m thinking penthouse, Jay Z, MTV Cribs. There were rats in the place. But we had a bit of craic, played a bit of ball, then back home.

’06. January. U21 trials. Pissing rain. I was looking for the ball in over the top because I had an arse on me that would knock over cattle. Afterwards, we were all in the old dressing rooms in MacHale Park, 45, 50 boys all looking to win an U21 All Ireland. Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes were over the team.

They were brilliant at 21. So they close the doors. I’m sitting down, shattered. They start, “All right, gents, we’re not here to pick on anybody, because anyone can have a bad game — but Michael Conroy! You’re a f****n’ disgrace! You played senior when you were 19, this is your third year U21 but you might not be on the panel the rate you’re going!”

Ah sure, I had no comeback. I said, “That’s fair enough.” And I remember that winter doing one-to-one sessions with Connelly down in the back pitch in MacHale Park, dogging me. In the All Ireland semi-final against Tyrone I kicked the winning point. [Aidan] Kilcoyne, the designated free-taker, was off. I said, “Hey, get that ball over here!” Noel Connelly wasn’t at that game, his son was born the same day, but when we got off the bus in MacHale Park after arriving back from Cavan he was there with a great big handshake for me.

The final then against Cork. Got the job done. In with the seniors. Started the semi-final against Dublin. I can safely say I was overawed by the occasion. The Mill at the Hill and all that. A couple of senior players must have decided on it before the game but the first I heard of it was David Heaney getting off the bench, ‘Go down to the Hill.

’ Sure when the Dubs came out, all hell broke loose. I was a bit unsettled after that. Couldn’t get a ball in my hand and five minutes before half-time Kevin O’Neill came in for me, kicked a few bombs, so for the final I didn’t get in. Which was fair enough. I knew I had missed my chance but I knew too I was going to learn from it.

“John O’Mahony came in then that winter. I remember watching the news on the telly and going even harder in the gym that night. The following spring, I was coming along nicely. Started the league final then against Donegal. Marking one of the McGees. Hadn’t my best game; 50 minutes in, got the curly finger, which was fair enough.

Ten days later I got a call from John O’Mahony. I hadn’t made the championship panel. It was some shock to the system. I counted eight forwards that he didn’t think were good enough to start ahead of me in the league final yet 10 days later, they were on the championship panel and I wasn’t.”

And so ended Stint One. And with it, the dream.

THE HIATUS

In 2009, there was nothing really happening for Michael Conroy at home: no jobs, no Mayo, so off he went travelling. First spent a month in Thailand. It was nearly like a training routine. Monday morning – golf. Monday night — party. Tuesday: Dying, so take it easy by the pool; a recovery session, you could say. Wednesday then, back to the golf course. And repeat.

He moved on to Melbourne. That had its own routine too. Work, drink. Work, drink. One night he was in the bar with a club footballer from Tyrone and Luke Howard, who’d later play for Down. One of them asked: What’s it like to be out there on All Ireland final day? At that Conroy had a moment of clarity. I said, “Wait and I’ll tell you now.”

Because I’m sitting here at 24, having been involved in two senior All Ireland finals yet I’m nearly three years departed from the scene. “Jesus,” I say, “it’s great. To turn the corner and run out that tunnel in Croke Park, it’s unbelievable. The crowd...”

An hour later and I’m still talking about it. By now we’re barely drinking. The two boys are totally engrossed. And something just comes over me. “I think I’m in the wrong place here.” I went home that night, woke up the next morning and said, “I’m 25. I’m young enough to get back at it.”

His mother didn’t recognise him when she showed up at their door in Ballindine with his jowly chin, but the real transformation was about to begin. In 2011, Conroy actively sought out the club captaincy. Any player who missed training could
expect to hear from him. The morning of the intermediate county final, team manager Pete Warren asked him how was he feeling. Conroy rubbed his hands. “Pete, I was born to play today!”

When James Horan rang that autumn, Conroy accepted the invitation and issued a declaration. “James, I’m looking forward to putting major pressure on Cillian O’Connor for that number 15 jersey!”

The following September, when Mayo ran out in front of 82,000 against both Dublin and Donegal, O’Connor was wearing number 14. At 15? One Michael Conroy.

Although he clicked with Horan from the start, they did have the occasional
disagreement. Best that he explains this one himself.

STINT TWO: RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON

“First game back with Mayo was the
famous league game in Ballyshannon. We got a fair clipping up there. Horan brought me on for three minutes. Scored a point. Big huddle afterwards. Horan wasn’t happy. Not happy with the lads who had started, wasn’t happy with what he saw on the bench, that no-one was putting their hand up in training.

I made a joke of it on the bus home. “Jesus Christ, I scored a f***n’ point! I’m a point a minute! If I had started what would I have scored?!”

It was a bank holiday weekend so a good few of us went drinking that Sunday. And of course then some of us said ‘feckit, we’ll have a rattle at it again on the Monday’. It was one of the best bits of craic we ever had.

Tuesday, woke up a little shook. Training that night, Horan had it decked that we’d been drinking. “Lads, I know you were drinking Sunday night.” Now, that meant he hadn’t heard about the Monday Club which had been in full swing; if he had, he wouldn’t have had much of a Mayo panel left. But anyways, he says, “Lookit, I don’t mind if you were drinking on Sunday. I just want you to admit it.” So at the end of training lads started going up in ones. I said, “I was there, James. Look, I was just pissed off, getting three minutes when I’m out six nights a week training.”

He said, ‘That’s fair enough.” He respected me for that.

But then Richie Feeney made an awful mistake. He said, “Yeah, I was there on the Sunday and the Monday.’

Horan: “What?! What happened
Monday?”

Amateur mistake! I thought I’d schooled Richie better than that! Never admit to the double day! Never admit to the doublespill!

The Monday Club pretty much wound up after that. Feeney was kept a month in Horan’s cooler before he was let out to kick the winning point in a league semi-final against Kerry in Croker. In the meantime, Conroy had lit Cork for three points in his first inter-county start in five years and then the following week scorched Dublin for four points on a night when Mayo trimmed the reigning All Ireland champions by 12 points.

Five months later he’d torment Dublin and Michael Fitzsimmons again in the All Ireland semi-final, atoning for the underperformance of 2006. In the final against Donegal, he’d kick a massive point on
half-time to bring Mayo back to within three points. Mayo would still lose but you could tell there was something different about them this time and that there was something different about Conroy.

The following league, he was by a distance Mayo’s best player, their primary go-to-man. An injury a month out from the championship opener though disrupted his summer and he’d only make it back onto the field for the last 20 minutes of the All Ireland semi-final. He was so electric that day and in training that only 27 minutes into the final against Dublin, James Horan threw him in for Alan Freeman. But it didn’t work out.

By his own admission Conroy wasn’t clinical enough, that day or in general, and the following season he’d to reinvent himself as a wing forward to earn back Horan’s trust.

It was a role he was perfect for and a role that was perfect for him. Coming off the bench, darting away with the ball, giving a little dink pass, being able to take a score without having to be a scorer.

In the famous semi-final against Kerry down in Limerick, it was Conroy who kicked the point which brought Mayo back to within a point heading into injury-time before he then set up Donie Vaughan’s point which brought the game into extra-time.

“Limerick was unreal. Epic. Every bit of training you ever done was worth it to be in that cauldron. I remember the lights coming on at half-time in extra-time and I said to Cillian, ‘Hey, would you prefer to be anywhere else?’ And he said, ‘Nowhere else on this world.’”

And that’s what he thinks people miss. They think of all the big games Mayo have lost and wonder how they come back. But even after those defeats, those All Ireland banquets, those “funerals” as Conroy describes them, they’re still together.

“I was trying to describe it to my girlfriend [Derbhla] one time. If you had 32 best friends and you were able to meet up with them every Tuesday, Thursday, go away for a weekend at camp, then have a night out after a big win, don’t you think you’d love that? Okay, the training is tough but boys love the game.

"There’s a buzz to playing well, training hard, being out on the fresh grass. And there’s a burning desire in there that won’t ever leave this group. James Horan and his management team made you feel part of something revolutionary that was going on. And that sense is still there.”

He isn’t. In 2015 he took Kerry for five points in the opening game of the league, but his Achilles acted up.

When he got back onto the match-day 26 for the All Ireland quarter-final, he then he injured his shoulder in a club game. He tried everything to get back. Driving to Santry for shockwave therapy.

Ninety-minute rehab sessions with Martin McIntyre, working on the Achilles for half the session, then the shoulder. When Stephen Rochford rang to say he hadn’t made the championship panel, Conroy’s primary emotion was relief. “I’d say it was the easiest call he ever made.”

These days Conroy’s barely playing club football. The injuries still restrict him while work has him down in Tralee, of
all places, at the moment, as a regional network manager for the courier company, DPD.

Mayo’s still home though. He helps out as a mentor to the county U14s while most Saturday mornings he’ll meet up for breakfast with his band of brothers. Aidan O’Shea, Barry Moran, Alan Dillon, Donie Vaughan, Rob Hennelly. The New York City Raiders, he calls them, after one escapade they went on out there a few autumns ago.

And there they gather around him,
another captive audience, just gagging for Mickey C and his cue. “Wait and I’ll tell you now...”


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