James Horan’s use of Aidan O’Shea against Donegal is the key to Mayo’s ruthless streak
They’re a different prospect this year and could do a real number on Tyrone in Sunday’s semi-final showdown
Donegal’s Rory Kavanagh and Frank McGlynn find Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea a real handful.
Whenever I thought about Mayo over the years, one of the things I would always have said about them is that they were confident and flash. When the white boots came in, you could always be sure that one of the Mayo lads would be wearing them. There’d be a few bleached heads in there as well.
I used to look at them and kind of be amazed that they were let away with it. Not out of some big traditional stand I was taking or anything like that. I just couldn’t work out why a manager would let them basically paint a big target on their back. After they’d gone through a couple of tough experiences in Croke Park, you’d have thought they might change tack a small bit.
If you had a lot of success, then I could maybe see it. You’d be projecting confidence, you’d be puffing your chest out and showing the world that you knew you belonged. But when you hadn’t won anything outside of Connacht, it was tough for people to take you all that seriously. It just gave the opposition something to focus on. You think you’re a big shot? Well, we’ll see about that.
They always had good footballers; that was never in question. They always had really good scoring forwards like Ciarán McDonald who was as top-class a forward as ever came out of Connacht. Kevin O’Neill always played well when I saw him, Conor and Trevor Mortimer were fine forwards. James Horan himself was a serious player.
But somewhere along the way, Mayo just found themselves with an image problem. They were football mad, just clean football mad. They were the prime candidates for Up For The Match, full of craic and stories and songs. And the more the supporters got into it, the higher the expectations rose and the harder it was for the players to live up to them.
Short of taking the whole panel away to Iona island and only coming back to turn up for the games, it was always hard to see how Mayo’s players could deal with the madness that built up around them the closer they got to an All-Ireland. You could only build so strong a bubble to protect them. Players still had to go to work, they still had to walk down the street, they still had to go to Mass if that’s what they were into. They would never be able to totally escape the razzmatazz.
The big thing that has changed under Horan is their attitude. You can absolutely see it in their demeanour and in the way they carry themselves. Generations of Mayo teams and managers would always try to play down the madness. They’d make sure people saw them as underdogs and they’d try to come in under the radar. It’s no accident that their biggest wins over the years came when nobody fancied them. That’s how they liked it. That’s when they saw themselves as dangerous.
It’s so different now. When Horan was asked in the build-up to the Galway game this year whether Mayo minded being favourites, he just shrugged his shoulders and said it was about right. He expected to win, not because of over-confidence or anything flash. Just because he knew his team was better than Galway’s.