James Horan interview: Ruthless perhaps, fearless certainly

The Mayo manager has a belief in his county that goes beyond logic and reason

Aidan O’Shea describes his manager as ruthless. Photograph: Inpho

Aidan O’Shea describes his manager as ruthless. Photograph: Inpho

 

The first time James Horan played senior football for his county, the green and red tradition was in the doldrums but as ever in Davitt country, the darkest hour is always before dawn.

Maughan - they never use his first name in the heartland - was in charge of the county team. It was December 1995: hundreds would land into Knock airport for the Christmas time flights from JFK. In the casual way of these things, Horan was told to be in Cavan town for some class of a challenge game on a maudlin Sunday. Like every post-graduate student in Ireland back then, Horan was flat broke.

“The bus got in four hours before the game. I had no money to get food or lunch beforehand. It was crazy stuff.”

He whiled the hours away until it was time to make his way to Breffni Park. Horan had featured on underage Mayo teams but in his early twenties football was not at the epicentre of his life. Making it for Mayo was not a burning ambition. In Breffni Park, he found his way to the dressing room where he was waved on by someone commandeering the door.

“One of the Mayo officials put me into the Cavan dressing room. Didn’t know who I was,” he tells you laughing on a busy lunchtime near his work place at the Coca Cola plant in Ballina. It’s deep winter in Mayo: the Moy swollen, the roads leaf-strewn and the new football season upon us. Photos of the electoral candidates, including Alan Dillon, decorate the countryside.

When he tells the story of his debut, it’s obvious that Horan delights in the absurdity of the moment. There are few entities on this planet as capable of raising a soul up and tearing it down as completely and regularly as Mayo football. For four years, Horan starred as a thoroughbred half-forward on a county team stacked with personality and talent that somehow failed to win All-Ireland titles which seemed fated to be theirs.

In action during the Connacht championship of 1999, a younger James Horan.
In action during the Connacht championship of 1999, a younger James Horan.

He finished playing at 28, promptly returned to regular life only to sort of resurrect the Mayo mythology when he emerged from the leftfield to take over as senior manager in late 2010. For nine full years and under three different leadership teams - Horan, then Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, then Stephen Rochford and, since last year, Horan again - Mayo teams have enthralled the country. It’s as though the team is addicted to danger - witness last Saturday night’s thrilling, ridiculous 76rd-minute equalising goal up in Donegal by James Durcan.

It may have been an unconscious thing but the revolutionary change that occurred within Mayo over the past decade was instigated by Horan. He showed his county that the hyper-dramatic football moments which engulf the county summer after summer need not also be psychic traumas. Things both brilliant and calamitous have happened to Mayo football teams in the last decade. But from the beginning, Horan treated them equally: just another step along the journey.

Think of Mayo’s championship exit last summer in that All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin. The season had already brought them to New York, Newry and Limerick, where they defeated neighbours Galway, before they eliminated a fancied young Donegal team on a wild night in Castlebar. They were rank outsiders against Dublin and so, in the show of the usual perversity, were brilliant in the first half. Then came that infamous 12-minute spell where they coughed up two goals and six points without reply.

I think the primary reason that I do what I do - which is bordering on madness - is that I genuinely love working with guys

It was pretty much the last thing anyone expected. Horan gives a low laugh at the suggestion that that period simply shouldn’t have been allowed - that someone should have gone down injured or the ball should have been hoofed to touch from the restart. Anything to break the mounting Dublin spell.

“Well. We took a look at that and took the learning from it. And we moved on. But it happened very quickly. When the first goal went in, we made a few basic mistakes, guys slipping and that. We were still in a strong position but we began to do things differently. So we didn’t do things the right way. The pressure came on and the crowd were on top and that whole thing. But, again, this year we have looked at a lot of things and we have quite a lot of focus on different areas to previous years. We are looking at different scenarios that do pop up so players are comfortable when those occur. And as long as I’ve been involved in Gaelic football, crazy scenarios do happen.”

It’s arguable that no GAA supporter - including the habitual winners from Kerry, Kilkenny and, of late, Dublin - gets as much bang for his/her buck as the Mayoites. That’s why Ciaran McDonald, the Crossmolina sun king, was to be seen laughing and shaking his head in disbelief in Ballybofey after the final whistle last Saturday night. The Mayo game has the capacity to bamboozle the expectations of everyone, even its favourite son.

Horan understands the mythology of Mayo football and gets that the huge lurching emotion, from elation to emptiness and back again, often within the same game (sometimes within the same half) is part of what makes Mayo Mayo. It’s just that his way of navigating the jungle of emotions and setbacks has always been informed by his approach to work and to life. It stands to reason that his day job in Coca-Cola, where he has a senior role, would inform his thinking on how to best run a serious inter-county football team in a county where Gaelic football is both hearth and fire.

“I would say a lot of that comes into it. Where I work is very process driven. I am lucky enough to be in a position where I get exposure to a huge amount of leadership material, courses, initiatives, operational excellence. Wherever you look there are nuggets. And a lot of the information would be applicable to leadership regardless of coaching, yeah.”

“Leadership” has never been a more fluid concept. Right now, there are a group of people vying for the political leadership of this country. But the old understanding of leadership - patrician and authoritarian - has become outdated. Every year, the concept of what is to lead a team comes under revision and adaptation. It is changing all the time.

“Absolutely. Funny there was a course on in GMIT last night that I was presenting at. That very topic came up. That, if you are coaching a team now, a lot of the players will be 21 and 22 and very well educated. A lot of these guys are very respectful. They know how to talk. They are socially aware. They are very self-regulating. They reflect through mindfulness or whatever it is. All of those concepts or tools are out there and a lot of this generation is aware of those. And I think there is a much greater culture of respect among the guys involved now. So if you come in with the traditional direct leadership style, I think that is short-lived with young people now. It is more collaboration and shared expectations and the question of how we can improve this.”

In other words, the dressing-room that Horan made his way into back in December 1995 no longer exists: the hierarchical structures where the just-in-the-door boys shut their mouths and paid their respects to the garrulous veterans of many winters and summers. The idea is that they are a squad. They are a unit. Everyone should be entitled to their voice, irrespective of how long they have been in the dressing-room. The trick lies in preserving character. The pathway to elite Gaelic sport has become streamlined. The danger is that the same kinds of personality will come through.

Mayo football manager James Horan is excited by his team’s prospects for the 2020 season. Photograph: Inpho
Mayo football manager James Horan is excited by his team’s prospects for the 2020 season. Photograph: Inpho

“We talk a lot about this. The physical and mental requirements to play the game at the highest level now are serious. But there are still messers. You need your eagles and your peacocks and your doves and your owls because if you go group-think, it is not healthy. But if you have 35 or 40 guys on a panel, you will have different characters and interests. There will be a mix.

“The difference is the commitment now that you need to give. Just to make it into a county panel now is way above what it used to be. And that may be a natural weeding out process. You won’t get dropped off a panel for telling bad jokes! You need that.”

Anyone who hung around MacHale Park on the July night last summer when Mayo eclipsed Donegal in the Super 8s would have seen Horan leaving the stadium late. The summer rain was still falling hard, it was getting dark, and the line of traffic out of Castlebar was still at a crawl. Downtown, the party had started. It was funny to see the man who was essentially the conductor of this mad, exhilarating opera just packing up the car and heading home with the family, same as all the supporters.

He agrees that those evenings are a trip. But the front of house stuff is not the main reason he came back for a second term. When you think about it, the big championship moments account for only a fraction of the time any manager gives. In a way, they are almost escapism because at some point, you have to just stand back and let the event happen.

“I think the primary reason that I do what I do - which is bordering on madness - is that I genuinely love working with guys that are so ambitious and keen that they would do anything to try and develop and grow. And I get a kick out of that.”

For that reason, he testifies that he has absolutely loved these harsh nights of January, under lights, in snow, his feet numb with cold. “Driving there is worse than being out in it. You just keep training, moving and once you are in it, you forget about the cold.”

He has James Burke and McDonald working alongside him and it's clear when he speaks of them, he is thrilled with the work. McDonald played for Mayo for 13 years and was quite simply a streak of phosphorescence across the sky. Throughout, his public profile makes Stephen Cluxton appear like a chatterbox in comparison. But it turns out that McDonald is a terrific communicator and a natural coach.

“The way he talks and explains it and questions and challenges players is a very constructive approach. And, of course, his knowledge of the game. It is really beneficial. Ciaran Mac, it is far to say, just loves football. I’d get early morning calls with different ideas and suggestions. And the players have huge, huge respect. He’s a quiet guy who loves football. And wants to share as much knowledge as he can. It’s great to have him around the place.”

When Horan returned for his second term, Aidan O’Shea said in a radio interview that he was both delighted and nervous. He recalled Horan releasing a number of senior players from the panel in his first term. O’Shea realised that he now fitted that category and said that Horan could be “ruthless” in his approach. It’s not a word Horan shirks from.

“Yeah. Well. Ruthless is something we will be in 2020 as a team. But ruthless for me is a very powerful word. Are we ruthless in our skill execution? In how we think? And then in how we play?”

And it’s those few words that contain the essence of Horan. It’s where you’ll find him in his natural environment: boots on, no crowd, voices carried on a bitter wind, coaching, listening, teaching, learning and always paying as much attention to as possible to the small details. He is built to try and break things down to the elemental.

When conversation comes up about Dublin and the fear and splendour of their five-in-a-row achievement, he talks not about scale or population but about the small, vital things he feels they do better than the others. “Look at how many of their hand-passes land on the sweet spot,” he points out. He’s talking about those passes which sit up as though held by gravity for the on-coming player. “If the runner has to check his stride, the tackler has a chance. Whereas if the ball is on the sweet spot, the tackler almost propels you forward. Dublin are far, far head of other teams in that way. And it’s just an example of the kind of simple things they do well.”

For two years Horan sat in a Sky television studio watching Dublin work their rigorous, unforgiving magic from close range. He is fully confident that he managed to deliver analysis without ever personally criticising a player. In his day, criticism, both positive and negative, was confined to the pages of the Western People or the Telegraph or maybe, in shimmering years, the Sunday Game. Now, it’s all-pervasive.

“It’s hard for players not to hear or see it in today’s society. And some people are better at dealing with it than others. But I often say . . . if people only knew what these guys do for their county.”

Is James Horan ruthless? Certainly, he is fearless. And without question, he has a belief in Mayo that goes beyond logic and reason

By “these guys” you imagine he is referring to the names and faces that have lit up the dark fields. Gaelic football teams are fluid. Andy Moran, one of the greatest, bowed out this winter. Horan happily lays his hat at Moran’s feet but his thoughts turn to less heralded players who toiled in obscurity and who rarely got to experience the bright lights.

“Andy got a lot of credit and was a celebrated Mayo player. We also had Ger Cafferkey leaving, just a phenomenon and a real student of the game. And also Caolan Crowe. AKA Crowbar. He was a guy at training who had the respect of everyone. Everyone! And none of the public knows of the value and effort he brought to training. But his peers do. A fantastic guy.

“He was in for quite a few years and did everything possible. So if you talk to the players they might be talking about Caolan not being there as much as Andy.”

Is James Horan ruthless? Certainly, he is fearless. And without question, he has a belief in Mayo that goes beyond logic and reason: when he speaks of the squad, it is with a kind of faith. He is a believer. But how could he not be? Stand outside the turnstiles at around six o’clock tonight and watch the pilgrims come. Feel the energy. How can you not believe?

He is quietly amused by the idea that Mayo’s best chance of winning an All-Ireland lurks somewhere in the debris of their scattered brilliance of the last decade. He believes that the Mayo story - that any football story - is a continuum. Moran’s departure in 2018 and Horan’s own unpromising arrival all those years ago in Cavan are just part of unbreakable sequence.

“I never understand that idea of a team in transition,” he says. “A team is constantly changing. Has any team ever had its full squad of players? Last year, we were younger than Dublin. But if you saw Colm Boyle last Wednesday night at training. He was back from honeymoon and couldn’t wait to get back training. We are a very competitive team. With a lot of really exciting young players.

“I absolutely feel we are building. I thought we were building last year. And we ran out of steam. No excuses. We won the league without Cillian O’Connor in there. A lot of the new guys are stronger this year - James Carr, Fionn McDonagh, Conor Loftus. And I think some of the really new players are very exciting. And when you see that . . . you know, I think 2020 could be a really exciting year.”

He laughs when you say that that’s the problem with Mayo. Wild excess and limitless excitement is the only way they know.

The Mayo manager nods.

“Well. Yeah. Maybe we will try to keep things boring for ye for a while.”

Fat chance.

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