Year four looms. You don't have to tell James Horan that by twice bringing Mayo to the threshold of that elusive – that prayed for – All-Ireland title, the scrutiny becomes more intense and the question mark magnified. It is a question that any Mayo person not yet of pensionable age has been hearing all of their lives. Is this the year?
On a draughty night in late May, James Horan wandered through a deserted MacHale Park, sat at a table and, as he talked comfortably about past disappointments and immediate hopes, his answer to that eternal question became clear. He simply doesn’t know. The questions were fast and Horan answered them all considerately and laced with a deadpan humour which rarely emerges in his post-match interviews.
Horan’s record is both glittering and telling: three Connacht championships in a row, two All-Ireland defeats in a row. Its form line illuminates that the one promise which Horan made when he took the Mayo job – that the team would be “consistently competitive” – has been kept.
But those two September losses have brought into sharp focus once more Mayo’s unhappy All-Ireland final history and has made Horan’s role and his every move subject to intense interest. The irony is if Mayo were merely average, losing Connacht finals and exiting the championship in the last 12, nobody would notice.
“Some of the stuff in the media is so ridiculous it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to anyone I would say,” he said of the stories that have emanated down the years. “You have people trying to generate something where there isn’t anything. What it does is give us a great laugh . . . we bring in stuff and have a look at it in the team room and it does generate novelty in the team room.
“Mayo is a county that has the highest number of Twitter followers and Facebook followers combined. So we are mad anyway! So I am very privileged to be where I am and working with a fantastic bunch of players. All they want to do is play football at their absolute best. So there is always going to be flak.
“Any Mayo man that has ever been here . . . has always taken heat. But we are comfortable. The players are very happy and are very excited about this year. As am I. When I took this job I said we would be consistently competitive. When I started, I don’t think Mayo was mentioned by anyone as a realistic option for the All-Ireland. Now we are always mentioned in the first two or three. We are doing something right and making progress. And we are very, very comfortable with how we are improving.”
He has constantly counselled against extremes of emotion. The difference in Mayo was made clear to him a few years ago when he took a team to Ballyshannon to play Donegal in the league. The first 20 minutes were so-so and low scoring but then Donegal got a run and it turned into one of those spring nightmares for the visitors.
“By the time we got back to Mayo the world had almost ended. So again, as I say, we overdo the highs and overdo the lows as well. So sometimes a consistent steady line . . . that is what we have always tried to have.”
Horan sets the tone. He kept it low key after Mayo’s thorough dismantling of Donegal in last summer’s All-Ireland quarter-final, a performance so complete that the westerners had heavy backing to go on and win the All-Ireland. He kept it equally balanced after they fell short by a single point to Dublin, proving again that there is no good way to lose in September.
There was no collapse in morale or visible desolation of expressions of despair. The Mayo minors won the All-Ireland and at the homecoming Andy Moran promised the seniors would redouble their efforts.
John Evans of Roscommon and Alan Mulholland of Galway have acknowledged that Mayo's dominance in Connacht is startling. They are strong favourites to win their fourth on the trot. "That hasn't been done since 1951 so it would be a milestone," Horan pointed out.
There is a pressure to keep on winning when you are expected to, Horan’s teams have excelled at that. It is almost forgotten how hairy his first provincial outing was: an extra-time win against London in Ruislip. He laughed when he said Mulholland was on his mind on the weekend when Galway went to play the exiles.
“It was a Champions League final weekend when we played there. That always stuck in my mind. It can be a tough place to go and Galway did well.”
Galway won comfortably and Roscommon are gunning for a chance to down Mayo too.
Horan knows the motivation is high on the other side of the Mayo borders. “I don’t think it would be human nature if there wasn’t. John in his own special way will circle the wagons and really motivate the Roscommon team and their chests will be out coming into their own patch and after the comprehensive beating we gave them last year, I am sure they will be pumped up. That is fine . . . they will be doing their thing but we will certainly be doing ours. We have great confidence in how we prepare for games and over the past three years in Connacht we have only got stronger and we are looking to do that again.”
After Mayo’s tepid league semi-final defeat by Derry, there was the usual rush of analysis and grave concerns. Horan said he was happy with the league and got what he wanted out of it. On the first day of the league, they took a bus to Newbridge and engaged in a fantastic, if somewhat unreal, shoot-out against Kildare. The Mayo defence was unusually gallant in the space it afforded attackers. The score was absurdly high. Mayo’s defence had been their chief calling card but it wasn’t a big feature of their play in the league.
Horan believes the black card influenced defensive performances throughout the league and at least partially contributed to Mayo’s defensive effort through the spring.
“That went out the window. It wasn’t solely down to the black card. We were trying out a few things. But it did bring in a little bit of doubt or tentativeness into players. And if players are tentative, they are history. I would say if you look down to the years as well, rightly or wrongly there is nearly one rule for league and another for championship. It definitely feels like that.
“Pat McEnaney might disagree with me but sometimes it takes a while for players to settle down. We played our first game up in Kildare, we were just back training and Aidan O’Shea made what I thought was a very good tackle and bang, black card. That actually shook us for a few games and it was hands off and trying to shadow until we got the hang of it again. It has had an impact. But we are very clear now and hope the referees are.”
That is about it. They are ready for another tilt at this. Roscommon in Hyde Park is about as tricky as it gets in the west. When Horan is asked about the gulf between Division One and Division Three, from which Roscommon have just emerged, he doesn’t try to disguise it.
“Division One this year was played at a championship pace. I have never seen anything like it in the league. So being exposed to that is a huge plus. But Roscommon have emerged from Division Three and are going well. They have a bit of momentum from their under-21s. It didn’t go so well in the final for them but I am sure they will try and use that momentum to drive them on.”
There are places for up for grabs on the Mayo team. The players know that. It is healthy and it ties up with the broad vision to improve each summer. Some year, it may just all fall into place. This is year four and Horan knows the squad like the back of his hand and has a fairly strong read on their form. No Mayo team has won four Connacht titles in a row since 1951 – the year of their last All-Ireland title. Not a bad omen but, again, no promises.
“You never know for sure,” James Horan said cheerfully as the players gathered for another session at a ghostly MacHale Park. “You have general ideas and markers but you are never quite sure until game day of how you have progressed.”
Year four, then, and they are not blinking.