Horan manages Mayo’s expectations
Focus fixed on All-Ireland football quarter-final challenge of Cork and no further
Mayo manager James Horan with Aidan O’Shea after Mayo defeated Galway in this year’s Connacht senior football final. Mayo now face Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at Croke Park on Sunday. Photograph: Donall Farmer
There is managerial pressure and then there is managing Mayo. By rights, James Horan should cut an ashen figure, having guided Mayo to the past two All-Ireland finals only to see his side lose narrowly and cruelly to Donegal and Dublin.
They are close to cracking the code but in Mayo, the want for a senior championship within the county is as fierce as ever.
But as Horan sets out for a fourth consecutive All-Ireland quarter-final series, he looks much the same, sitting in front of an audience in a desolate hospitality room in MacHale Park and sounding as he has always sounded: calm, optimistic and grounded. Sunday brings Mayo back to where it started.
Three years ago, his team ransacked Cork by 1-13 to 2-6 in the quarter-final when the Leesiders were champions. Only 22,000 people were in Croke Park: Mayo winning was considered a shock. It was a statement that they were back and they haven’t really gone away since.
Hairstyles“There have been some changes since that game in terms of hairstyles and weight,” Horan laughs. “We were just watching it the last day and it was gas to watch. That was obviously a huge game for us, a huge game for this team the way that we drove on that day and went toe to toe.
“That really spring-boarded us and gave this team confidence and was one of the huge catalysts in this team performance. It was a significant day for us which we remember very fondly. We gained a lot of experience since then and we are looking to push on all the time.”
That last line has been the constant refrain of the Horan era. They play and move on, figure out what they did right and wrong and work on both of those.
They are an unusual team now: physically imposing and almost traditional in one sense but completely cavalier and instinctive in the way they attack from the back.
Play-anywhere has been a feature of Horan’s Mayo and it has carried through to club games. A few weeks ago, he watched his nominal wing back Donal Vaughan play full forward for Ballinrobe in the local championship.
“Yeah, I was lucky enough to be there at that game. Yeah, if they let the ball into him a lot more he would have scored more. He is very powerful, scoring off both feet and that was one of the pleasing things.
“Donal’s skill development has been massive over the last couple of years, from solo technique to hand-passing, to both sides, he was very competent as a full forward.”
Horan has been so immersed in the Connacht campaign until now he has hardly seen much of the championship beyond that. He has heard the rumblings of summer thunder emanating from the capital and heard Dublin are playing darkly beautiful attacking football this season. But he hasn’t watched the Leinster final.
“No, no . . . I’ll watch it when and if I need to.” He pauseswhen asked about the theory that the Dubs are regarded as champions-elect. Years of experience have taught him about the excitability of media and public reaction. It isn’t exactly an unknown force in Mayo.
“Dublin are a great team, playing with a lot of energy and a lot of pace and have a lot of stuff going for them,” he says evenly.
“But they have a couple of seriously tough games ahead of them so the media would be in a better position after some of those games to call it then.
“That side of the draw, there’s a couple of good teams there so, for me, it’s wide open.”
There is no secret to what Mayo do now. Horan admits the vast majority of team preparation is about what he calls “tweaking our own game.”
Asked what he learned during their fourth and most recent provincial success, he checks the emergence of Kevin McLoughlin and Jason Doherty as leaders in the half-forward line – perhaps the most problematic unit for Mayo in Horan’s time – and then the stats roll of his tongue.
Ball retention“Our ball retention inside was over 65 per cent, which is big for us, and our return rate from shots was very high, between 55 and 60 per cent. They are the key things we have been working on for a while and it was very pleasing to see that aspect of it.”
What that boils down do is creating and converting scoring opportunities. Strip away the decades, the longest wait and the unlucky Septembers and this Mayo team have just been a few scores here and there from winning the whole shebang.
For Horan, this year has been about doing everything humanly possible to ensure they try and make those count. The prayers and superstitions can be left to the supporters. He nods when it is suggested playing a Cork team still smarting from their Munster final defeat could be dangerous. Horan expects every big championship game to be dangerous and for every team to carry umpteen private motivations with them into every game.
“Yeah, I am sure they have a lot of stuff and if they are wounded and they are looking for motivation it will be easy to find based on the history they have had. Even the last few encounters we have had with them since 2011 on, I am sure that if it is Cork they will be keen.”
All he can do is to keep sending Mayo teams out in a strong frame of mind. Just like in 2011.
“The Cork game in 2011 was a big day and an exciting one for us. Any day you go to Croker, it is. We have had a couple of great wins there, it is a place we really like playing in, the open spaces really suit our game.
“We are really looking forward to going up there again and improve on when we were there the last time and that is what we are looking to do.”