Vastly different challenge awaits James Horan as he returns for second act in Mayo

JAMES HORAN’S RETURN as Mayo manager places him back in charge of a group he formed a strong emotional bond with during his first spell. 

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In his four-year stint at the helm betweelon 2011 and 2014, Horan led Mayo to All-Ireland finals in 2012 and 2013, where they lost to Donegal and Dublin respectively. He departed in August 2014, after the Westerners went down in the semi-final replay to Kerry in heartbreaking circumstances in Limerick.

Later that night in the Radisson Blu Hotel just outside the city, Horan informed the group of his decision to step down. Rob Hennelly later described the moment as “very emotional. It was like parents splitting up or something.” 

“James was gone, it was the end of an era and it was hard to take,” he added. 

Kieran Shannon, who was part of Horan’s backroom team for three seasons, wrote in his Examiner column that it was “nearest thing to a family funeral” he’d known, “probably because for the last few years this group had become family.” 

Now the parents have reunited, but the challenge Horan awaiting is a very different one to eight years ago.

When he replaced John O’Mahony in October 2010, they were coming off the back of a disastrous championship campaign where their season was ended by Longford in the qualifiers. The night he was first appointed, he drove over to MacHale Park and gave a speech to the delegates about his plans.

“Mayo is full of good footballers and I think our management set-up can bring something,” Horan said. “I think we can set an environment where players, if they want, if they have the right attitude, and the right character, can flourish. That’s what we’re about.

“We want to bring some sense and some structure and, I know it’s an overused phrase, but we want to restore a bit of pride into the whole thing.”

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The two-time All-Star managed to create a player-driven culture in the Mayo dressing room that remained long after his departure. He left a legacy in other departments too.

In the winter of 2013, he had a swipe at the Mayo support for the eerie silence that emanated from the Croke Park stands during the crucial closing stages of that year’s final loss to Dublin. 

“When I was thinking back through the game it was interesting about how deathly silent it was. That’s something that stuck out for me at the time. With eight minutes to go, we were two points down. It was like someone was dead in the stadium.”

From those comments, Mayo Club 51 was born. The supporters group was created to rally the troops and bring the required levels of noise at big games. Anyone who has attended a championship game involving county in the intervening years will recall the “Mayo-Mayo-Mayo” chants that frequently roll down from the terraces.

And after his resignation four years ago, Horan criticised the county board for failing to back the team properly, in terms of spending and other areas. 

“Is it possible that the county board and the structures could be better aligned to give the team a better chance of success?” he asked. “The answer to that would be, ‘Yes’. That’s something that needs to be looked at. We don’t have the resources of other teams and there were many debates to ensure that the team had everything that they needed.”

Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Since then, Mayo have become one of the best-funded sides in the country. Their 2017 inter-county costs amounted to over €1.5m, leaving them only behind dual counties Cork and Dublin as the country’s biggest spenders.

The challenge now for Horan is to find the one or two per cent that will get Mayo over the line and deliver the big prize. The law of diminishing returns suggests that the final, minuscule pieces of the puzzle are often the most difficult to achieve.

The length of his deal, a four-year term, is interesting. The amateur nature of the GAA means that no contract is signed and managerial terms are generally reviewed on a yearly basis. But it would seem to suggest that Horan will be looking to build for the future, while he’ll undoubtedly be expected to compete for the All-Ireland too.

That’s a tricky balance to find. The majority of Horan’s core group from 2011-14 remains in place.

The older crew of Andy Moran, David Clarke (both 34), Keith Higgins (33), Colm Boyle (32), Seamus O’Shea, Chris Barrett (both 31) and Tom Parsons (30) are not getting any younger, but Dublin have been successful with plenty of players on the wrong side of 30 too. 

What’s clear is an infusion of youth is required to breathe some life into the team. Back in 2010, Horan had an ambitious young group featuring Aidan O’Shea and Lee Keegan, who were both 20 at the time, plus an 18-year-old Cillian O’Connor.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Those players are now grizzled veterans, hardened by the trauma of four All-Ireland final defeats.

Stephen Rochford brought Mayo to the brink of glory in 2016 and 2017 and while this season’s qualifier defeat to Kildare was disappointing, injuries played a huge part in their early exit.

Horan has promised to cast the net wide and he stated that all clubs in the county will be asked to put forward players that “may have the potential technical/tactical/physical/mental attributes required for the inter-county game.”

“There has been a coaching movement in Mayo over the last number of years that has been staggering in its progression,” he added.

Rochford shipped some criticism last year for failing to blood more youngsters during the league. Horan is unlikely to make the same mistake and is expected to mine the All-Ireland winning U21 side of 2016 and this year’s U20 All-Ireland finalists for potential talent.

Ryan O’Donoghue in action for Mayo U20s

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Cian Hanley, James Durcan and Eoin O’Donoghue will be looking to kick on after breaking through last year, while former underage champion boxer Ryan O’Donoghue is one of the most exciting attacking prospects to emerge in the county in recent times. 

O’Donoghue gave several stellar performances as Mike Solan’s U20s made it to the All-Ireland final and was nominated for EirGrid U20 Player of the Year last month. 

Westport forward Colm Moran, Ballaghderreen defender Shairoze Akram and Breaffy midfielder Matthew Ruane are other youngsters who may emerge over the coming season as Horan looks to bolster his squad. 

Tactically, the game has moved on in the last four years but Horan has been involved in coaching at club level and in other codes. His punditry work with Sky Sports means he’ll be well aware of the latest tactical trends, but he’ll have his own new ideas to bring to the table as well.

Horan’s fondness for fast, attacking football is unlikely to have diminished in the intervening years.

His backroom team has yet to be fully finalised, with Ciaran McDonald being mooted as a possible addition as coach.

Mayo legend Ciaran McDonald is tipped to join Horan’s backroom team

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It was announced that Ballymun wing-back James Burke, who played underage football with Mayo, will take the midweek sessions with players based in Dublin.

They had about 18 players based in the capital during the 2018 campaign and therein lies Mayo’s biggest handicap in competing with the likes of Dublin and Kerry. Being forewarned is forearmed and Horan will have plans drawn up to deal with that particular challenge. 

It’s a massive ask for Horan to go one better this time around. Memories are short in the social media age and by stepping back into the arena, he risks tarnishing the legacy he built up during his first spell – not that it would matter to him.

But the prize at stake is a monumental one. Become the team that denies Dublin the five-in-a-row and this Mayo team would go down in folklore.

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