The Ballymun footballer turned Mayo coach plotting the downfall of 6 Dublin clubmates

BALLYMUN KICKHAMS HAVE seven players involved in today’s All-Ireland football final.

Six of them – James McCarthy, Dean Rock, Philly McMahon, John Small, Paddy Small, and Evan Comerford – will be wearing blue. The seventh is James Burke, who works as coach with Mayo under James Horan. 

Burke is a native of Ardnaree, just outside Ballina, but has lived in Dublin since he moved there to study in 2005. He currently works as a teacher in Howth primary school Scoil Mhuire and regularly commutes back to attend Mayo training. 

It will be an unusual experience for Burke to be plotting the downfall of the clubmates he’s enjoyed several highs and lows with over the years. Just three months ago, they were celebrating together in Parnell Park as Ballymun delivered their first Dublin SFC title since 2012.

Burke has already experienced the club-county conflict in Mayo’s semi-final win over Tipperary. On the Premier sideline that afternoon was Ballymun stalwart turned Tipperary coach Paddy Christie.

The former Dublin captain was heavily involved in introducing Burke to the club as a teenager over a decade ago. 

Had things worked out differently, Burke might have spent the last 15 seasons lining out with their north city rivals St Vincent’s.

Shortly after representing Mayo alongside Chris Barrett, Tom Parsons, Seamie O’Shea, Pearce Hanley and Ger Cafferkey in the 2005 All-Ireland minor final, which they lost to Marty Clarke’s Down, Burke moved to Dublin to begin his teaching studies at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra.

The Mayo minor panel before the 2005 All-Ireland final.

Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Keen to sign up with a club in the capital, he initially showed interest in Marino outfit St Vincent’s. Hearing they had a decent minor team, with Diarmuid Connolly their star man, Burke arrived up to the club to watch a game and enquired about joining them.

A modest youngster, he didn’t mention the fact he’d just played a minor decider at Croke Park. The minor manager showed little interest, informing him “the junior team are training down there”.

It wasn’t exactly the welcome he was after. 

A couple of weeks later, on the way back from a game with the St Pat’s freshers team, he found himself sitting on the team bus beside Ballymun minor Eoin Dolan. 

“We got chatting and he was asking me where I was from, because my mam is originally from a few miles out the road from where James is from,” Dolan tells The42.

“James was on the senior team as well as the freshers in Pat’s and they had played a challenge game up in Ballymun. He goes, ‘That’s your pitch up there the artificial one is it? Jeez it must be amazing to have that facility.’

“I had known he was a Mayo minor and we were chatting away. He said, ‘I’m looking to play up in Dublin.’ I asked him if he had a club and he said, ‘I kinda went went down to Vincent’s and they didn’t [want me].

“He said he’d love to come up and play with Ballymun. I thought all our Christmasses had come at once,” laughs Dolan. 

Despite being based in the capital, Ballymun are a relatively small club. But thanks to Christie’s involvement, something special was stirring. 

Dolan’s minor team, which included McMahon, were preparing for a Dublin minor final at the time. He invited Burke up to training on Tuesday night and put in a call to Christie to inform him he had a potential recruit. 

“We thought what was the catch here? He just came up then and got involved in the club straight away.”

Burke leads Ballymun into the 2017 Dublin SFC semi-final against Kilmacud Croke.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Because he’d already played minor championship at home that season, Burke was ineligible to play in the decider with Ballymun. But he did go straight into the senior team, lining out at centre-back as they avoided relegation to Division 2.

“That match kept us out of a relegation final. They were playing the league game on the Saturday and we had the minor A final on the Sunday. So all of our team were ruled out, but James was still eligible and he was playing that day.

“We won by a couple of points and he played centre-back and made a good difference. It managed to keep us out of the relegation playoffs that year.”

Burke and Dolan quickly became close friends. The Mayo man even bunked in with Dolan’s family so he could play with Ballymun during the summer months.

“Because he obviously staying in college he used to be on nine-month rents and stuff like that so he used to stay with us during the summer then. From that then James was involved with everything.

“We won a couple of U21s, a C1 and then we won two A1s and he was involved with the seniors and just became an ever-present then. He did summer camps with us and different things like that. 

“We were lucky that we wouldn’t have the luxury of big numbers either. Anybody who comes up and plays with us would always be looked after and made sure they’d be brought up to the seniors or intermediates first and see how they were and gauge from there if they needed to go down or up a grade.

“We’d always have a few country players but we tend to only get a country player for a couple of years and then they’d go away.”

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Burke during this year’s Dublin title winning season.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Burke, however, has remained an ever-present. After winning a pair of Dublin U21 crowns, Dolan, McMahon, Davy Byrne, Ted Furman, James McCarthy and Dean Rock all graduated to senior level where they delivered the Dublin SFC title in 2012 – the club’s first since 1985.

The following March, they made it to the All-Ireland club final where they lost to Rosocmmon kingpins St Brigid’s in Croke Park. Dolan has been a permanent fixture at full-back ever since, with Burke playing ahead of him at half-back for years.  

“He’s like an energiser bunny. Funnily enough, the year we got to the All-Ireland final in 2013 and ever since we were kind of warm-up buddies, we’d warm-up alongside each other.

“I wouldn’t really like to do a whole pile in the warm-up whereas he’s the complete opposite. He’s buzzing, full of enthusiasm, he’d go around talking to lads, gee them up and gee himself up.”

Ballymun’s Leinster success and run to St Patrick’s Day helped Burke earn a recall to the Mayo panel. He was initially part of Horan’s plans in 2011 and played two league games but didn’t see any game-time that summer. 

He made his championship debut for the Westerners in the Connacht quarter-final against Galway in 2013 and was on the panel for that year’s All-Ireland final loss to Dublin.

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“I remember times when James was playing with Mayo and he might have been training in the morning on a Saturday and he’d come back and togged out for us on a league game on the Sunday,” says Dolan.

“You’d never have thought it by him. He must have been wrecked but he never let anyone see he was tired. He never complained. James never complains about anything, bar refereeing decisions!

“Even now, James is a selector with Mayo and still playing with the seniors. It’s tough enough being involved with a senior team and doing that by itself. But he never, never gives out. That’s the thing about James, you’ll never hear it. 

“He’s so positive about people. Even when you’d be giving out about people he never gives out about anyone. Everything with him is positive. Once you’re on his team he’ll back you to the hilt.

“Even now when I ring or text him during the week and ask him if he’s wrecked, he’d say, ‘no no I’m fine’. Never complains.”

Ballymun Kickhams celebrate with the 2020 county title.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

When Horan returned to the Mayo hotseat in 2019, he phoned up Burke and asked him to conduct training sessions with their Dublin-based players. 

But Burke has become an ever more important figure in the Mayo set-up this season. He’s a visible presence on the sideline, acting as their runner – the man tasked with getting tactical information into the players during games. 

This year saw the club season run off before county and Dolan admits there was “a fair bit of slagging” between the Dublin contingent and Mayo coach at training. Burke remained a key part of the Ballymun squad, arriving off the bench in their quarter-final and semi-final victories.  

“We would have had five [on the Dublin panel] at the time and now we’ve six.

“We’d be joking sometimes that he only comes up to training to see the Dublin lads and stuff like that. But on both sides, and particularly this year because other years they’d have met back up moreso after the All-Ireland had finished so it was kind of done.

“But I presume it was more difficult this year for both of them in the sense that they knew what was coming ahead of them. But on both sides you’d never get any semblance that…when they’re back with Ballymun, they’re back with Ballymun and that’s it.

“James just reassumes his player role with Ballymun, he never tries to be a selector with Ballymun or tries to impose that sort of thing. If he’s asked his opinion he’ll give it but he just came back and it was like having him back as a player – there’s no difference really bar the bit of slagging.”

Burke on the Mayo sideline.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Because of his lengthy involvement with the ‘Mun on and off the pitch, Burke is more familiar with some of the Dublin players than his own Mayo men.

“Even though James and Dean were on younger underage teams they were on our U21 team,” explains Dolan.

“So again he played 10 or 12 years with them two, the two Smalls obviously with their dad [the late Declan Small] being chairman James would have been very close to the whole family. Evan [Comerford] as well coming up as a youngster.

“So it must be incredibly strange because obviously Mayo are plotting their downfall in a sense. But knowing James, if Mayo lose he’s the most gracious person you’d ever meet.

“As it he’d wish well on them. If they were playing anybody else he’d want Dublin to win I’d say, he mightn’t admit that though.”

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