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Darragh Ó Sé: Mayo’s rapid transition a testament to James Horan’s management

Dublin might prove a step too far on Saturday but this Mayo side are here to stay

When I look at Mayo now, my first thought is that you have to hand it to James Horan. When he came back on board as manager at the end of 2018, everybody could see that the best days were over for that great Mayo team. That was the Newbridge Or Nowhere year, where they went out to Kildare before the championship was even in July.

Look at the platoon of good soldiers who have walked out the door since then. David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan, Tom Parsons, Séamie O'Shea, Andy Moran. Look at the injuries that have taken out Jason Doherty and Brendan Harrison for the last two championships and Cillian O'Connor for this one. That's more or less two thirds of the team that started the 2017 All-Ireland final.

And then look at Horan’s record in his second stint – All-Ireland semi-final in his first year, All-Ireland final in his second and now another All-Ireland semi-final in his third. Everybody – and I include myself in this – had written them off for a while. I didn’t see how you could turn over that many players in such a short time and still stay at the top of the game.

Transition is hard. It’s a delicate process for a manager to handle. I don’t believe for a second that every one of those players decided by themselves that it was time to walk away. I presume Horan made up a few of their minds for them. That’s how these things work.

My last year was 2009 and over that winter, I made up my mind that the time had come. I was happy enough with it. You have to call a spade a spade eventually and I wasn’t going to fool myself. I was going to be 35 when the next championship rolled around and knew the reality. So I went to meet Jack O’Connor and his selectors to tell them the news.

On the way there, I was thinking of a famous incident in Tralee one time where there was a fella playing for one of the clubs who, let’s say, wasn’t the most popular man to have around the place. He was a divisive sort of a character, always getting in rows and annoying people.

When he suddenly announced one day that he was moving to America, there were mixed feelings around the place. On the one hand, nobody was sad to see him go. On the other, they knew they’d have to throw him a going away party or it would only cause more grievance and strife.

They had obviously come to the same conclusion as I had over that winter. Time's up, Darragh. Next!

So that’s what they did. They threw him a party and made a fuss of him and wished him all the best on his travels. Gave him a great send-off altogether. Such a great send-off, in fact, that halfway through the night, so touched by all the love and affection was he that he stood up on his stool and declared that he had decided not to go at all!

I was laughing thinking of this on the way to see Jack and the lads. I was anticipating all the nice things they were going to say to me. I knew right well that somewhere along the way, the prospect of giving it one more year would come up. We were All-Ireland champions, there were new lads who needed to be brought along, all that stuff.

I had my bit prepared in my head -– “Ah, that’s very good of ye to say so, lads. Very good of ye. But my mind is made up. Ye can try all ye like but you won’t be changing it. The time comes for everyone and this is my time.” I wasn’t going to be like the man in Tralee. I was going to move on, regardless of how nice they were to me.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. I told them what I was thinking and they wished me all the best and that was that. They had no more a notion of asking me to stay on than they had of sending me to the moon. They had obviously come to the same conclusion as I had over that winter. Time’s up, Darragh. Next!

That’s what transition involves. Jack O’Connor knew where he wanted to go with his team and Horan, you can be sure, came into his second stint with Mayo knowing the same. He made sure that the original agreement was for four years. When you look at the way they dismantled Galway in the second half of the Connacht final, there’s no doubt they can be delighted with where they are in Year Three.

He was basically saying, 'There's a job going here – either you get yourself into the shape to do it or someone else will'

I predicted that Galway would beat them that day. And although it looked that way at half-time, you could only be impressed by how relentless Mayo were from the minute the second half started. Time and time again, they ran at Galway and powered through them. They looked like the Mayo team of old.

That’s why I tip my hat to Horan. Transition periods are supposed to last a lot longer than this. It’s a very rare thing to be able to bring about a massive turnover in players like that and get back to the same rung of the ladder in the same shape. All those young lads are fit and strong and athletic enough to survive at this level already. That’s a massive tribute to those players, first and foremost. But it’s some sign of Horan’s management too.

It tells you a few things. It tells you his standards are sky high and his expectations are sky high too. He wasn’t giving young lads a chance just for the sake of it or to get experience. He was basically saying, ‘There’s a job going here – either you get yourself into the shape to do it or someone else will.’

When you look at lads like Oisín Mullen, Pádraig O'Hora, Tommy Conroy and Ryan O'Donoghue, that's what has got them to this point. Outside of Mayo, nobody knew any of these guys three years ago. Horan has them in the physical shape to play at the top level but also the mental shape.

Conroy had a poor first half against Galway. He had to be very close to seeing the curly finger at half-time. Mayo were five points down and couldn’t afford to be carrying any passengers at that stage. And what did he do? The first chance he got in the second half, he went off on a run and scored a brilliant point. Take someone else off, boss. I’m doing fine here.

O’Donoghue has had to take over the free-taking from Cillian O’Connor. That’s some job to land on a young lad in his second season. But it hasn’t taken a hair out of him. He has missed one free in three games and that was at the end of the Leitrim match when they were a long way away out the gap. He buried his penalty the last day as well and scores plenty from play. The Dubs are the biggest test but he has passed everything with flying colours so far.

Transition is hard for a manager but it’s a tricky thing for the players too. It isn’t a simple job coming in after one of the best Mayo teams there has ever been. That list of players I had at the start includes some of the most popular footballers that ever played in red and green. You’re talking about players that are loved in Mayo.

So there’s no two ways about it – if you’re coming in after them, you are going to be compared to them and judged by the standards they reached and the success they had. Your mistakes are going to be scrutinised in a way that actually has nothing to do with you.

Mayo haven't beaten Dublin in league or championship since 2012 – hardly any of these Dublin players have any idea what it's like to lose to them

A defender who gets taken for 1-2 in the first half straight away has people longing for Keith Higgins. An inside forward who can’t make the ball stick makes an instant hero of Andy Moran. It’s not fair but it’s just how things go. It happens in the aftermath of all great teams when they fall away. Plenty of the Dublin team are getting it these days too.

I do think those Mayo young lads have one advantage though. For all the great things achieved by the team they’re replacing, they still left room for this generation to do what they couldn’t. There’s still that All-Ireland to win.

That always gives Horan a carrot to hold in front of them. You think you’re up there? Why not go further? Living up to the standards of the previous team is only a stepping stone. The job Horan has given them is to surpass everything that went before.

Plenty of people think they will take Dublin this weekend but I have my doubts. Mayo haven’t beaten Dublin in league or championship since 2012 – hardly any of these Dublin players have any idea what it’s like to lose to them. I don’t think there’s much in it but until the Dubs show some bit of wobble with a game on the line, they’re always going to be the safe bet.

Mayo have handled their transition well and they are a coming force. Anyone can see it. But they still have a bit to go to beat Dublin. I don’t see it happening. Not yet.