He goes again – Mayo awaits with interest as the second coming of Horan set to begin

TOMORROW IS THE second coming, ten days shy of the eighth anniversary of the first coming.

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James Horan handled the Mayo managerial reins for the first time in a competitive environment on 15 January 2011.

He began on home soil under the Castlebar floodlights, fashioning a 2-8 to 1-5 victory as third-level outfit GMIT provided the pre-season opposition.

Tomorrow he is back in the FBD League arena, a low-key beginning for a second coming as Mayo manager.

He’ll make the trip to face Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon for the first outing of 2019 and while the competition may be the same as that 2011 opener, the interest in how Horan fares stems from how he fared in his four seasons in charge and how Mayo fared in the last four seasons without him.

When Horan took over in September 2010, Mayo were coming off the back of a summer defined a loss to Sligo in Connacht and a loss to Longford in the qualifiers. The outlook was uncertain setting out in 2011 but that opening season would see them win back the Connacht title, take down the then Sam Maguire holders Cork and grace the last four stage of the All-Ireland.

Horan would go on to steer Mayo to four-in-a-row in Connacht, watch his team felled twice in September showpieces and the curtain fall in Limerick in August 2014 after a semi-final replay against Kerry laced with drama.

His exit did not coincide with a slump in Mayo’s fortunes, they pushed Dublin to the wire repeatedly over the next three campaigns before 2018 concluded at a stage that seemed premature given the form they had established.

There have been plenty high points mixed with heartbreak on the pitch while there was turbulence off it with the end of the Holmes-Connelly reign and Stephen Rochford’s decision to opt out over a lack of support from the executive.

That all points to one constant that has remained in the interim since Horan was last at the helm.

Mayo remain one of the most compelling cases to study in Gaelic football.

That theme has not altered in Horan’s time away and he takes over a squad that has not changed significantly either. The fact that Tom Cunniffe, Barry Moran and Alan Dillon are the only absentees now from the starting team in that 2014 thriller in the Gaelic Grounds illustrates that the rate of player turnover is not high.

James Horan during the 2014 semi-final replay against Kerry.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Scan the teamsheet from that first game Horan managed in 2011 and it is the names of goalkeeper David Clarke, full-back Ger Cafferkey, wing-back Chris Barrett, full-forward Andy Moran and corner-forward Cillian O’Connor that jump out.

O’Connor was a teenager fresh from the minor ranks who posted 1-6 that afternoon, his 0-5 tally from frees a precursor to the series of scoring exhibitions he has put on since. The last substitute Horan threw into that action that day was a defender who has gone on to gather up four All-Star awards and the Footballer of the Year honour in 2016. 

Lee Keegan has grown in stature since but he is an example of how this is not an unfamiliar setup for Horan to take charge of.

The links between the past and the present are strong. Horan trawled the county over the winter and held trials to scrutinise what talent was available but the sense remains that the tried and trusted will be at the core of his immediate plans.

The number of players in his squad that are 30 or over will swell to 12 in 2019 – Clarke, Cafferkey, Barrett, Moran and Keegan from that maiden game, along with Colm Boyle, Jason Doherty, Keith Higgins, Kevin McLoughlin, Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons and Donal Vaughan.

That group have been to the fore of Mayo’s pursuit in recent times and still remain important figures. 

And that gets to the heart of the matter as Horan takes over again in Mayo. He may have taken another four-year term, he may have afforded a wide array of players a chance to audition at the end of 2018, he may have honed in on interviews about the focus being placed on regular improvement and he may be thinking about utilising the best products from underage sides like the 2016 U21 winning side and the 2018 U20 finalists.

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But for a core of the Mayo panel, there is an urgency to make their mark this year rather than taking a long-term approach. Those cheering on from the stands will be thinking along similar lines. 

The levels of expectation and anticipation amongst Mayo fans have not dipped during Horan’s time away from the hotseat and it was the rise in the county’s fortunes he oversaw in his first tenure that generated that increased spark in the first place.

It’s just over six months since the sun-splashed evening in Newbridge where Kildare’s supporters spilled onto the pitch in celebration and Mayo considered the end of the road for 2018.

Mayo players in the closing stages of last summer’s loss to Kildare.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They’re back on the trail again for 2019 tomorrow.

And their boss on the sideline will help to ensure the interest in them remains as keen as ever.

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne preview the weekend’s action:

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