As managerial mentors go in Gaelic football, you couldn’t ask for many better than two–time All-Ireland-winning coach, John O’Mahony.
The former Mayo boss, who led Galway to glory in 1998 and 2001, lives just over the road in Ballaghaderreen from Michael Solan.
Solan, 33, is the upwardly mobile young manager attempting to guide Mayo to their first All–Ireland U21 football title in ten years against Cork tomorrow.
The fact O’Mahony managed Mayo to victory in this competition as a fresh–faced 30-year-old himself back in 1983 is just one of many things the duo have in common.
A relationship that began with Michael Solan and his brother Barry (the current Arsenal FC and Mayo GAA S&C coach) travelling to Mayo training as waterboys with O’Mahony back in 1989 has flourished over the years.
Solan is the first to admit he has learned an awful lot from O’Mahony as a teacher, football coach, neighbour, and family friend.
Those learnings include focus ing on the game, not the occasion, and keeping everything in perspective.
“We’re enjoying every second of this journey, and it’s a point I’d make to the players regularly. These are very enjoyable days, days to be embraced, not to be fearful of,” says Solan.
“We’d always have a big emphasis on the boys enjoying themselves and expressing themselves. Saturday will be no different.”
This current Mayo U21 squad were tipped for great things before the start of the championship due to their All–Ireland-winning exploits as minor footballers back in 2013. However, despite making a solid start with a big win against Leitrim, they looked dead and buried at various stages against both Roscommon and Dublin.
True to their form three years ago though, Mayo found a way to win those games, and snatched dramatic victories in the dying moments in both the Connacht final and the All–Ireland semi–final.
Solan says there’s no big mystery to why Mayo are still standing.
“Hard work is probably what won those games for us,” he says.
“It’s something we focused on since the North West Cup in January; the next play, the next ten seconds, get yourself through the game that way.
“Mistakes are in the past, you look forward.
“They went to the bottom of the well in those games and we’dexpect no less from them.
“They’re at their best when the pressure’s on them and their backs are to the wall.”
Most observers feel that Cork are well-equipped to heap pressure on the Connacht champions in Ennis.
They are favourites to avenge their 2006 final defeat to Mayo at the same venue, and Solan says he was impressed with what he saw of the Rebels against Monaghan.
“They’re very physically impressive. To look at them they’re very athletic, very well put together as a team.
“They’ve got good structure, good balance, and the statistic from the semi–final of them scoring all 2–15 from play speaks volumes.
“They put up 3–9 against Kerry in the Munster final, and could have scored more, they’ve got a few guys with senior experience as well, so we’re under no illusions about the challenge in front of us,” he says.
As for any perceived pressure on many of these Mayo players to win an historic All–Ireland ‘double’ as minors and U21s, Solan sounds a lot like John O’Mahony when he dismisses that notion.
“Pressure is very much a perception. We wouldn’t feel any pressure within the group, we’ve got a good group dynamic going.
“Our focus has been very narrow on each game we’ve played throughout the championship, and that narrow focus will be on Cork until next Saturday.”
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