On the wall of a diner on Derrylin’s main street, hangs a picture of two men, tracksuited and beaming.
When Mickey Moran and the late John Morrison were managing Leitrim, the café was their pitstop along the journey. They would put chat on the girls working and struck up a warm relationship. Within weeks, the word spread that this odd couple were there regularly and football obsessives around that corner of Fermanagh were always welcome to draw up a seat and take part in the football debate. One day, somebody took a camera and captured them and the gaiety they brought. It still hangs on the same spot.
A few months before he passed to his eternal reward, Morrison was on the phone to this writer recounting those adventures.
“We used to go down and the feeds they used to set up! You didn’t know whether to eat it or climb it,” he bellowed in laughter.
That ability to draw people in is Moran’s strength and has found fertile ground since he joined up with Down’s Kilcoo last winter.
In club captain Conor Laverty, he has found a kindred soul. After Kilcoo beat Derrygonnelly Harps a fortnight ago to give themselves a third attempt this Sunday to win an Ulster club Championship against Naomh Conaill, Laverty told Brian Carthy of RTÉ Radio: “He’s an absolute gentleman and players love playing for him and we would die for him.”
He’d hate this being said, but Laverty is something of a phenomenon. The GAA Development Officer of Trinity College, he was an integral part of the coaching team that delivered a MacRory and Hogan Cup to St Michael’s College in Enniskillen earlier this year.
He then took Derry for some sessions leading into them giving Tyrone a scare in the Ulster Championship and is an eye-catching addition to Seamus McEnaney’s backroom team for Monaghan.
A quick anecdote. The evening that Kilcoo won the Down Championship on October 13th, Laverty and joint-captain Aidan Branagan lifted the trophy with a stony demeanour.
By the time the team bus rolled into their grounds that evening in party mode, Laverty was already on their pitch putting out cones to conduct a training session with the club minors, whom he felt hadn’t got the best of him in the week leading up to the senior final.
That kind of obsession is mirrored in Moran. At the last count, the 66-year-old has managed Derry, Sligo, Mayo, Leitrim and Donegal at county level. In clubs; Omagh, Kilrea, Faughanvale, Urris, Creggan, Slaughtneil and now Kilcoo. He had a brief spell with his home club Glen, in Maghera, and University Ulster Jordanstown.
Through all that, the football is all that matters. When he became Donegal manager, he was given a tour of their training venue, a rough bit of land in Drumboe outside Stranorlor. He was firm in telling the county board there was no chance of him taking a session on such a surface, long before anyone in Ireland had even heard the word ‘Saipan.’
His composure was what struck Donegal’s key forward at the time, Brendan Devenney.
“The training was brilliant so when it came to the match times, it wasn’t the time to shout and roar. John Morrison would give the main team talk before games,” he recalls.
“They worked very well together because they were both interesting characters. You often find in the GAA that one man has to be the man and has the big ego, they weren’t like that at all.
“Mickey brought a bit of calmness, he never had to rattle people, that was never mentioned by anyone. It was all about us, playing football, using the ball. Never once did we hear of people being targeted in matches.
“You look at now with all the sledging and all that goes on, that was completely alien to him. Mickey Moran is one of the nicest men I have ever met and carried that into his sport. You see Slaughtneil talking about their extra father or grandfather that they had, Mickey had that father or grandfather type of thing.”
Further evidence came from that chat with Morrison.
“Mickey is very good at all times, but especially in the dressing room and especially before matches. Using affirmations with players. He says, ‘Today, goalkeeper, you will be stopping shots brilliantly. Your kickouts will be finding men,’” explained Morrison.
“He is great with attention to detail. He is excellent — and there are very few of their ilk such as Mickey Harte, Dessie Ryan and that — who are as good at spotting players. And not only that, but where they play best.
“He’s also a man who knows when to stop a thing. He would not have a session that he thought had to be completed. We were telepathic like that. He would walk up behind me at a session and I might say, ‘Time to stop them Mickey, isn’t it?’ and he would say, ‘Aye, that’s what I was thinking.’
“There was a limit, and he always knew where the limit was, and to push them past that was counter-productive.”
When he eventually walked away from Slaughtneil, there was an outpouring of affection.
Chrissy McKaigue put it in these terms, “It’s very seldom in football, certainly in terms of a player-manager relationship, that you can say at the end of the journey: ‘There’s a man that I would trust with my life, there’s a man who is one of my best friends.’”
What Moran had achieved in recent times with Slaughtneil, a club that had to share playing resources with the equallysuccessful hurling side, was staggering.
Before he arrived, they had one Championship in 2004 to brag about. That was achieved under another venerated figure, John Brennan, and Brennan had an absolute war approach to football.
For years after, Slaughtneil felt that was their template to win. The word around Derry was that you knew Championship was approaching because Slaughtneil men would be sharpening their elbows off the gable walls of the house. Talented surely, but volatile and prone to lapses of discipline.
oran changed that. He tamed the combative Francis McEldowney and made him captain. McEldowney delivered on his superb footballing ability. His relationship with the club deepened when Moran’s son Anton, who helped out coaching, went on marry McEldowney’s sister, Catriona.
Appointed on Christmas Eve 2013, he promised club chairman Sean McGuigan he could deliver a Derry Championship within three years.
In his four years, they won four Derry Championships and three Ulsters.
For some, the most impressive statistic was that in all their Championship games under Moran, they had just one red card, that coming with tremendous misfortune just prior to half-time of the 2017 All-Ireland club final when Padraig Cassidy flung a half-hearted fist at Dr Croke’s player Kieran O’Leary.
It was the sort of dominance that a player such as McKaigue gave up a career in Australian Rules to aspire towards.
“Mickey has a very quiet way with him but for me it’s his balance in how he conducts his coaching that sets him apart,” says McKaigue now.
“Slaughtneil got our fair share of strong words from Mickey over the years but it’s his understanding of what the specific situation demands that sets him apart.
“He’s so detailed and professional. I think that rubs off on the players. He knows all the players all over the country and what their strengths and weaknesss are. He respects everyone and takes nothing or no one for granted. That’s why he’s a winner.”
Everyone is a paradox, however. When he was coach of Derry in 1993 and Eamonn Coleman was manager, his intervention at half-time of their All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, delivering a speech of the paint-stripping variety, is now central to Derry folklore of their All-Ireland triumph.
If we don’t know Moran’s voice anymore, it stems from a health scare in late 2011. He was already signed up for another year at Leitrim but couldn’t go ahead.
One journalist wrote recently of being seated beside him at a coaching conference and put in a pitch for an interview. Moran shifted uncomfortably as though remembering he had left something in the oven at home.
In recent years he has handed all media engagements over to his selectors, John Joe Kearney with Slaughtneil and now Conleith Gilligan with Kilcoo.
His relationship with the press collapsed. Last year, a book by author Maria McCourt to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Derry’s All-Ireland win, ‘The Boys of ‘93’ contained versions of events that Moran was known to be stung by.
Matters with his home club Glen have always been tricky. His spell in charge with them was brief and at the end of last year, a delegation of players approached him to take over. He declined the opportunity.
Kilcoo have won seven of the last eight Down Championships. They ache around those parts to finally etch their name on the Seamus McFerran Cup. Their pragmatism brought Moran. His own pragmatism has him playing a defensive, counter-attacking style that nobody had seen before from a Moran team.
But his guiding principle does not change. The old maxim is that players do not care what you know, until they know that you care.
A couple of hours after that chat with Morrison, a voicemail popped up on my phone. It was Morrison with one more thought.
“One of the things I always say about Mickey is,” he said with his voice cracking with emotion, “Mickey Moran to me, was like the brother I never had.”