Horan’s Mayo ready to take ‘calculated risks’ in search of final glory

‘We know what we’re about, where we’re strong and we’ll go after that’ vows boss

James Horan emphasises that the team he has led to Saturday’s All-Ireland final is “different” in many respects.

That’s not a surprising perspective, as the county has failed to win any of five finals in the past nine years – two of which were on his previous watch, as the manager who kickstarted the county’s resurgence in the 2010s.

After all there is that definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

But Mayo have been a revelation since the resumption of intercounty action in October. Just one defeat – although it was enough to bring about relegation such had been the sluggishness of form early in the year – in the six matches to date has seen them recapture Connacht for the first time in five seasons and no harm in the absence of qualifiers.


Under three previous managements, Mayo have consistently put it up to Dublin and, during Horan’s previous tour of duty, they defeated the champions in what was Pat Gilroy’s last match in charge in 2012.

There is the problem that the outlier 10-point defeat happened last year but Mayo have rejuvenated the team this year. Part of their constant challenge to Dublin has been a refusal to complicate the task and instead to play them man-on-man and see where the cards fall.

At the county’s All-Ireland press call, Horan is asked about the apparently steep risk-reward ratios evident in putting up a record score for an All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary but also conceding a record score for the same stage of the championship.

“I think the way we play, we take calculated risks,” he says. “We think that’s how we play best and it’s our best chance of winning games and that’s what we’ll do. You see a lot of teams that don’t take risks and play it safe, I don’t know if they have a chance of winning with that mindset.

“We know what we’re about, where we’re strong and we’ll go after that. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot additionally that we’re trying to add to our game as well and bit by bit that’s coming together as well.

“We’ve our style of playing football and when we do it well it’s a challenge for anyone. We’ve a lot of threats, a lot of danger in our team and we try to utilise that. So we’re in good shape physically – we’re an athletic team, there’s power there. When you get all that into the mix and get the ratio right we’re a seriously strong team. So we’ll be looking to play like that again.”

Inevitably the subject of the 2019 semi-final arises. Mayo were feisty in the first half and left the field at half-time actually leading by two points but they were at the epicentre of a seven-minute blast in the shape of an unanswered 1-5, which sent the match hurtling down its expected path.

Key things

“We’ll look at a couple of key things and there was a lot in that game last year that we did quite strongly. So there’s some good elements in it but there’s some things that we got caught at so you learn from that as well.”

A third of the team are new or at least in fresh positions and there have been some eyecatching performances from the rookies but this has been supplemented by the form of the experienced core of the side, whether it’s captain Aidan O’Shea’s impact on the full-forward line or especially the revived displays of Cillian O’Connor, who last week picked up a Player of the Month award after scoring a record championship total of 4-9, 4-3 from play in the semi-final.

Asked if the extensive shutdown had helped the older players regenerate with some much needed rest, Horan’s answer is emphatic.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that. A lot of players play through niggles and bangs; it’s not too often you’re fully 100 per cent right. I think the break allowed a lot of guys that might have had little niggles time to get those right.

“It also allowed some of the younger guys to get into the gym programme and get a bit stronger. I think all those things did definitely help us, as I’m sure they helped other teams.”

One aspect of the big semi-final win was the aggression of the forwards, a trait that became associated with the team when Kerry’s Donie Buckley was coach during Horan’s first spell in charge.

The tackling abilities of the forwards made it very difficult for opposing defenders to get time on the ball. Against Tipperary, Mayo made an astonishing 26 turnovers after their opponents had won nearly two-thirds of the restarts.

“Turnovers are something we always go after,” he says; “they are great fuel for a team and they have an impact on the opposition, so that’s something. But planning for the opposition to have that many kick-outs isn’t something we planned for either.

“We press all the time as hard as we can on opposition kick-outs but Tipp had a lot of big guys, a lot of very good fielders that came from their half forward line and midfield and their half backs as well, so they did very well particularly in the second half when momentum was against us. Obviously very happy with the turnover count but very unhappy with our return from the opposition kick-out.”

It’s good to have some reasons for disgruntlement after an historic victory.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times