Take a quick look through the internet to see where Ciarán McDonald stands in the hearts and minds of GAA fans throughout Ireland.
On Facebook there’s the CiaránMcDonald — the Lionel Messi of Gaelic Football page and The Ciarán McDonald Appreciation Club. There’s a website homage called the Ciarán McDonald fan site. There’s far more too but you get the picture.
All this and he hasn’t kicked a ball outside Mayo club football for four years. This is the fifth interview he has granted in a life that shies away from the outside world.
Given how fast everything moves now he should have been forgotten. But there was always something about McDonald that set him apart from the rest.
Most will remember his late point against Dublin in a Croke Park classic six years ago. After an exhibition in scoring he sunk the winner on the run down Hogan Stand side to break Pillar Caffrey.
That’s not the moment he holds up highest from a 14-year inter-county career, however.
“You have to score and I missed a lot,” he said, recalling the incident at the Vodafone GAA All-Ireland football semi-final conference.
“It would have stood out a lot more if they had equalised from the bad ball I gave away than the point I scored. It was the chance to get back into an All-Ireland final and redeem ourselves after what happened in 2004. It isn’t until afterwards until you see clippings of papers about what a great game it was. But it wasn’t about that. It was about trying to redeem ourselves after 2004. And yet again we didn’t.”
The one that did?
“With Mayo it was a great day, but my best days in Croke Park were undoubtedly my club days — club All-Ireland finals.
“Winning an All-Ireland medal was my best day, of course it was. With Mayo, was it a good day? Of course it was. Winning, coming back and proving that we could come back from seven points down. But yet our ultimate goal wasn’t reached. We went on, three weeks later and didn’t perform again.”
And that’s the thing that haunts him most. Still recognised everywhere he goes, for a man uncomfortable with the limelight his ultimate failure with Mayo is the legacy he thinks he’s left behind.
The displays in 2004 and ’06 against Kerry in particular. It’s something he hopes the current squad never experience and with James Horan’s new system, he can’t see a Mayo team getting as heavily beaten again.
“They are playing a brand of football like Donegal. They’re playing with seven or eight defenders, they are countering on the break and they are hoping not to get run over,” he said.
“People say Tyrone started the defensive football in ’03, but it was still man-on-man marking. That’s gone out of the way now. There are nine defenders marking six forwards. It’s a safe-guard.
“You take your break, you attack in twos or threes, the next defenders step back and take your break, you attack again. It’s covering. Teams don’t get run over anymore. Once upon a time you had six backs on six forwards and if Kerry or Dublin got a run on you, anyone got a run on you, they railroaded you and they got six or seven points.
“You got taken off and a new fella came on and tried to match-up. It was all match-ups. They’re playing a structured zonal defence. It’s about trying to counteract it. You won’t get bullied anymore. You won’t get a fella one-on-one getting absolutely screwed any more.”
It’s a style which has drawbacks though. The Ciarán McDonald-type players cannot be afforded on a team of athletes anymore. From Kerry to Donegal it’s all about getting your defence right first.
You’d expect that to annoy an artist like McDonald. But he just sees differentpositions coming to the fore and moving the game on.
“Some games I do enjoy. Corner backs are handling the ball as much as anybody,” he said.
“Once upon a time a corner-back would be teak tough and getting the hand in to win possession. Now he’s thinking how can I attack. It’s changed. It’s still enjoyable. It’ll evolve again inside 12 months and someone else will come up with something new. There’s still skilful players.
“I wouldn’t [find it frustrating to play in now]. Even when I was playing, I didn’t play orthodox in six v six. I did what the manager Mickey Moran or John Maughan told me to do.
“They never sent me to stay in forward. I was still going deep. Members of the press or other public thought I was doing my own thing but that was the way I was told to play.
“There’s still flair players in football. It’ll always be a moment of magic or skill that will win a game.”
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