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Farewell to a Gaelic hero

John Mooney, who has retired from international cricket, was an indefatigable and inspirational competitor

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
John Mooney reacts after taking the wicket of Sikandar Raza, Ireland v Zimbabwe, World Cup 2015, Group B, Hobart, March 7, 2015

The green-sweatband guy: Mooney was a strident promoter of the Ireland (and Associate) cause  •  Getty Images

"I don't care if we never win another f****n match in our lives as long as we beat these bastards!"
John Mooney was next man in and padded up when he uttered these words to Cricket Ireland's media manager Barry Chambers in Bangalore in 2011. No Irishman wanted to defeat England more.
With 55 runs left, Alex Cusack was run out, and out strode Mooney at No. 8. "I couldn't wait to get out to bat. I was nearly out in the middle before Cusack had got off the wicket," he said.
England normally liked to consider themselves above sledging a side like Ireland. Not this time. "They were really riled up. You could tell that they knew they were in big trouble."
In the middle, one thought kept returning to Mooney: "'Jeez, I wish it was the last over,' I kept on saying to myself. 'Bring it down to the end.'"
Finally England had found a way to halt Kevin O'Brien. They had come to an uneasy truce, limiting him to a single every ball. Their plan was simple: keep O'Brien off strike, and allow Ireland's tail to self-destruct.
Mooney was not about to. Several times England amassed consecutive dot balls. Each time Mooney remained calm and provided the ultimate retort, carving two boundaries through third man, thrashing another through the covers, giving himself room to launch through point and then clearing his front leg to smite James Anderson through midwicket.
O'Brien was run out in the penultimate over, but the final over dawned with Mooney still there, just as he had intended. Ireland needed three to secure the most memorable win in their cricket history. It took him one ball, serenely clipping James Anderson to the midwicket boundary. "Best f*****g day ever!" Mooney exclaimed to his team-mates, fully audible on the TV feed. For Irish cricket, indeed it was.
Mooney had surprised England, who did not imagine that Ireland's No. 8 would be so clinical when history beckoned. He had already spent his whole career surprising Ireland. They had once imagined that people like him - men of working-class stock from Fingal, who played Gaelic football for Man O'War - did not play cricket.
"The English thing was a big stigma over in Ireland, especially where I was from. I'm from a real GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] background. Cricket would have been frowned upon," he later said. "I didn't tell anybody that I played cricket. If I was meeting someone for the first time when I was younger, I'd never tell them that I played cricket."
"The biggest thing that broke down the idea of cricket being an English sport was the Irish people witnessing an Irish team beat England at what they call their own sport"
How fortunate Ireland were that he did. When he made his debut in 2001, Ireland were an all-amateur team; a few months earlier they had enlisted a journalist reporting on their games to act as a substitute fielder as they vainly attempted to qualify for the 2003 World Cup. Now when Mooney retires, Ireland are a fully professional team who have beaten Test nations in three consecutive World Cups.
This journey, with Mooney at its core, was about more than merely winning cricket matches. It was also about more than showing the world that Ireland could play cricket. It was about showing Ireland that cricket was a sport for all.
"We are changing public opinion on cricket within the country," Mooney has said. "The biggest thing that broke down the idea of cricket being an English sport was the Irish people witnessing an Irish team beat England at what they call their own sport."
No one ever called Mooney a West Brit, the derogatory name used to denigrate Anglophiles in the Republic of Ireland. Staunchly Republican, Mooney and his brother held up a match against Italy in Belfast in 2002 for an hour until the Union Jack flag was taken down. When Margaret Thatcher died, he tweeted that he hoped it was "slow and painful". It was impulsive and stupid, and no proper reflection on the man. "Cricket doesn't create problems, it helps to solve them," he later said. "Hopefully it will continue to break down the barriers between North and South, and continue to integrate young Catholics and young Protestants together."
Cricket Ireland was always keen to thrust him into public promotion campaigns, knowing that he was a cricketer who defied stereotypes of those who played the sport. They knew, too, that Mooney was an easy cricketer to relate to on the pitch.
To see Mooney on the cricket field was to see a man hurling everything of himself at the opposition. With bat in hand he was a skilful and clean striker of the ball, excelling in finishing games off from No. 8. When he was bowling, batsmen did not merely confront a fast-medium bowler with abundant cutters and slower balls. They confronted the full force of his personality: his snarling, his beard, his tattoos, and, in the World Cup this year, his green sweatbands too. They also confronted his sense of personal injustice at Ireland's treatment by the ICC. In July the ICC warned him that he would be charged with violating the code of conduct if he followed through on plans to wear a black armband commemorating the death of Associate cricket.
Mooney was a brave cricketer, and not merely in being able to withstand physical pain or relishing pressure moments on the field, although he had those qualities too.
Throughout his career, he battled mental health problems. He later attributed his struggles with depression and alcohol to repressed pain from seeing his father drop dead in front of him at the age of 11.
On a tour of the Caribbean in February 2014, it all got too much for Mooney. He was left feeling so depressed that he was unable to leave his bed. It was a mercy when he returned home early to be reunited with his wife and family.
In September 2014, he gave an interview to Irish radio in which he revealed the extent of his struggles with mental health, and that he had even contemplated suicide. It was gutsy, it was brave, and it was Mooney.
The very next day, he strode out in Malahide to bat in an ODI in Scotland. Elevated to No. 6 in the absence of Ireland's county players, Mooney played like a man liberated by having his inner turmoil out in the open. Silky late cuts were mixed with raw power down the ground. He was one blow away from a maiden ODI century when a rasping cut located the hands of point; a few yards either side and he would have had a hundred. There was no fairy tale, but it didn't matter: to be excelling in an Ireland shirt once again was triumph enough.
A few months later, Mooney's family - "about 26" nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles - descended on Nelson for Ireland's World Cup match against West Indies. As William Porterfield led Ireland onto the field, John's older brother Paul, who had played in the 2007 World Cup, embraced him.
Just like in Bangalore, Mooney would score the winning runs as Ireland chased down over 300 against a Test nation. Only this time, no one was surprised. That was the greatest testament to Mooney of all.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts