The legend goes that, upon his release from 27 years imprisonment, the first words Nelson Mandela uttered as he shielded his eyes from the hot South African sun were “Is Martin Carney still playing for Mayo?” Lord knows, if Madiba had yesterday returned from another three decades in exile, his next question he might have been “Did Andy Moran get his All-Ireland?’
Andy Moran — Mayo’s very own Madiba — the man who played in six All-Ireland finals, and in doing so launched a thousand minibuses east — finally announced his retirement after 84 championship games in 17 seasons.
The tributes and accolades broke first like a subtle wave — then crashed hard like a tsunami — and even in thissocial media-dominated age of hyperbolic extremes, you’d have to have a heart of cold stone to deny him his final walk to the Gaelic footballing version of the Swilken Bridge, to stop and look back with a wave, and receive theadulation he has deservedly received.
In the week of an All-Ireland football final, it’s telling so many column inches have been dedicated to a player who is not involved on Sunday. This is, of course, in part due to a sense of resignation amongst neutral supporters that Sunday’s outcome will be inevitably blue.
Be that as it may, there are few others playing the game outside of Dublin right now whose departure would command such attention and respect.
Truthfully, if the GAA marketing department could design a model superstar, it would’ve been he. Moran lived most of his life in Mayo. He married and started a young family, just as his footballing life was probably at its most physically and emotionally demanding. He worked for a while on the road — and sobecame known personally to literally hundreds of people across the West of Ireland,all of whom would attest to his decency as a human being.
Later, he opened his own business in Castlebar, a town in which football talk is oxygen. Far from being in the shadows of that business, he was front and centre. Not a man to suffer fools, he still had a word for everybody, undoubtedly listening to many wise words from the locals as to why Mayo had got it so wrong the autumn before, all the while grinning his knowing grin.
Yep, every county needs an Andy Moran, even if it doesn’t deserve one. How many young lads and girls were brought into his gym these last few years — their dads nearly more excited than they — just to get a handshake and a word to keep kicking with the left, keep doing your pushups. And he would know.
The defining characteristic of Moran’s stellar career was that of reinvention. He never stood still, not literally and not figuratively. Despite what many of the Mayo clairvoyants might tell you, his greatness was never guaranteed.
Moran made his league debut under John Maughan in 2003 and his championship debut a year later. His contribution to epic 2006semi-final versus Dublin may have been enough to forever etch himself into the memories of Mayo fans — but there was little to suggest what heights beckoned.
He had to wait, and he had to suffer. The four years that followed the 2006 semi-final win and subsequent dismantling by Kerry were dark, dark days, culminating in a 2010 All-Ireland qualifier loss to Longford in which Moran played wing-forward. A seven-season veteran at that point, he could have fallen foul of a cull by James Horan who was just about to put in his trust in youth.
Had Horan cut him, it may have gone unnoticed; his 2006 cameo aside — there was little to alert the casual observer of the epic chapters to come.
In the nine seasons that followed, he was the guy who played FBD matches in December, when he could have been nursing aching limbs. He hit 50s off dead winter ground. He suffered a potentially devastating cruciate injury and returned to have his best years. His footwork improved immeasurably.
He worked ceaselessly on his kicking from the hand,refusing to accept like almost everybody else that time meant degradation. He went from being a feckless wing-back in 2006 to one of the craftiest inside forwards in the game a decade later,culminating in a Footballer of the Year award in 2017.
As the testimonials of this week will point out, he was pure torture for corner-backs — perpetual movement and vision. And like all the greats, many a pretender came for his geansai, but when Mayo needed wins this season and the many before, it was still he who they turned to.
The game that perhaps best defined him was the Kerry replay in 2017. This was a season which saw him substituted regularly, yet his influence on the team grew as the year went on. His body language was the epitome of selflessness — not always the most Mayo of traits. Even as he was dragged off in the 2017 final against Dublin, he immediately pointed to where a Dublin player was unmarked. His leadership was not for show.
Andy Moran did not possess the otherworldly, often infuriating talent Ciarán McDonald did. He didn’t leap like Willie Joe, nor was he a protégé ‘sure thing’ like Cillian O’Connor. No, Moran possessed an everyman, almost ordinary quality that made him somehow relatable to the ordinary bloke on the Castlebar mall. He was neither physically imposing in street clothes, nor arrogant and aloof as county footballers sometimes (justifiably) can be.
What was certainly not ordinary about him was his application to his craft — a dedication to excellence, that saw him transcend the pack, and become one of the best footballers his county has ever produced — and they have produced quite a few. What next for him?
Maybe he will run workshops for young forwards on how to point at vacant spaces after kicking scores. Maybe will start a band, but he has earned his time at stud. Let’s hope his legacy of perpetual self-improvement inspires those that follow him.