James Horan on his time at the helm of Mayo
‘I knew, maybe subconsciously, that I had put in four years that were as much as I could give. Each year, the tank was a little emptier’
Mayo players, with Liam Horan and his backroom staff in the background, before the All-Ireland football final in 2012, which they lost to Donegal by 2-11 to 0-13. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.
A dejected looking Mayo manager Liam Horan during the final minutes of the 2013 All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Horan’s side lost to Dublin by 2-12 to 1-14. photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho.
KD: You managed Ballintubber to the Mayo intermediate championship before the senior final in 2007. Do you remember that day?
JH: Yeah. Against Kiltimagh. It was Kevin McGuinness who kicked the winning point. We won it straight from a kick out. Yeah, a tough, dour, wet day. We hadn’t won it since 1991 so it was a big day for us. Ballintubber had good teams in between those years but didn’t win anything so thankfully the club has driven forward since. We won the league the year after and then got to the quarter-finals and won our first senior title in 2010. KD: What has happened in Ballintubber?
JH: One of the main reasons, I would have to say, would be Alan Dillon. What helped us in 2010 was that when Mayo were knocked out early, he returned to training early and his presence in every session really brought the club and squad on. I’d have no problem in saying that for 12 or 13 years, Alan has been the best club footballer in the country. From challenge games through, he has been phenomenal. KD: Is he a ferocious trainer?
JH: Yeah . . . he is just a hard guy. Just very hard. He has taken knocks, belts, kicks, injuries and just gets up and plays. He is a fantastic role model. Then you had Cillian [O’Connor] learning from Alan and as a player, he is only starting. But as a leader, even at the age of 19, he was phenomenal. So then you had really good senior players like John Feeney, Michael Hoban, Tom Earley. real solid guys. The management structure was solid and before you know it, you had a group of guys on a cause. KD: How did you get involved?
JH: I went in with Tony Duffy. The real buzz – joint management. I was just asked would I be interested and it went from there. I never thought too much about management but, when I look back on it, I was always challenging what we did as a player. You know: why are we doing this drill? These laps? Does it make sense? Surely there is something better we could be doing to improve our football?
KD: Did you have an underlying aim with Ballintubber and Mayo as to how you wanted to shape a team?
JH: Sure. You have a vision as to how you see a team playing and key principles and then you try and match your vision with the skill sets of the players. Fast, attacking football in which we move the ball quickly and when we don’t have it, we try and win it back high up the field. It was a simple approach and I always had a clear idea of how I wanted them to play.
KD: You will be in the crowd on Sunday. You are not involved with Ballintubber or Mayo now. How is that? Is it strange?
JH: It feels very strange, yeah. When you are an intercounty manager, your head is in it 24/7. Even when it shouldn’t be. There are so many things involved – 34 to 36 guys, 14 to 16 of a management team and a county board that you interact with. It is a huge juggernaut that you are one of the focal points of. You are always trying to plot and plan. I have two phones – my own phone and the football phone. And that is one of the big things . . . it is down to four or five calls a day now from maybe . . . 30 to 40 calls a day. Consistently. Trying to do a job, having dinner with the family. But I can switch off now. You just don’t when you are manager.
KD: You lost just four championship games in four years: two All-Ireland semi-finals, two finals. Of the wins, what stands out?
JH: Mmm . . . the one in London. Someone sent me a photograph of that recently. We were across the field and there were two minutes to go and we were two points down and just the expression on our faces. But that was the start . . . it forged a strong mentality in the group. Four down against Galway, six against Roscommon and we came back and won them all. So that and beating Cork in 2011, again coming from behind, was memorable just because fellas threw all inhibitions and just went for it.
KD: Is part of the legacy that you left behind that losing for Mayo need not be as traumatic as has been the case?
JH: Yes. I know this idea of the process – it is something Jim McGuinness has spoken about as well . . . there are a lot of things that you look for in a game. Things you want to achieve in each game. Obviously, you do want to win but if you lose and do a lot of things right, it is a help. You are looking for more than the win. You are probably sick of me saying this but you take things from every game and you learn. That is how it is. I am coaching my daughter’s school football team at the moment.
KD: Are they a tougher mob than the Mayo seniors?
JH: Well, the first game I was involved it was 13-15 to 0-2. We got beaten. So there is a lot of opportunity to improve! But at under-16 girls, they are so preoccupied with winning the game. For me, that is the smallest part of where they are in their cycle. Skills and understanding . . . worry about the winning later. I do strongly believe in that.
KD: So what did you as a group improve at most over four years?
JH: I think our skill level is very high. We have maybe one of the highest percentage of players who can hand-pass both sides, peripheral vision both sides and can kick with both feet. We concentrated on that for obvious reasons – it gets you out of trouble, makes you a more rounded player. I suppose our understanding of the game improved. Our tackling as a unit definitely improved.
KD: Do you remember the 2013 final against Dublin just after Andy Moran scored the goal? It seemed that Mayo were right where they wanted to be then: it was game on. It was the time for all hell to break loose in Croke Park but instead there was a definite hush in the crowd
JH: I remember it. Distinctly. It was there to be taken. Look, the players on the pitch are the ones who have the direct influence. But the supporting cast, the crowd, does have a sway on things. Listen to home and away games in the Premier League . . . why does that make a difference? Because of the support and the noise. Would it have changed things that day? I dunno . . . but there was a sense of anxiety, that day, that came as opposed to taking the moment. I felt that a little bit, yeah.
KD: Still, the Mayo fans were loud in Limerick but it didn’t make a difference to the outcome?
JH: Limerick was the craziest game . . . we have been involved in crazy games before but it was . . . with different scenarios from collisions to doctors.
KD: When Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea clashed heads, you must have figured it was not your day?
JH: Well, two guys who had really been taking the game to Kerry and it was just an unbelievable clash. But those things can happen and we still had chances that day. But this, that and what-if . . . you think of Tipp in the hurling and that point going inches wide. Now, Kilkenny go from strength to strength and have another All-Ireland. But if they had lost that final, would there have been retirements or what not? So it is that close.
KD: Is it harder to beat Kerry than it is to beat other good football teams because they are Kerry?
JH: You hear this word tradition bandied about. But it does impact . . . maybe in the lead up to a game more so than anything else. I always remember about Kerry, if they are in a big match, how every ex-player, how every journalist, from Eoin Liston to Darragh Ó Sé to Tom Ó Sé to Dara Ó Cinnéide and whoever else, what you hear is positivity and alignment of everyone about how things are great in Kerry. I think that helps them and feeds into the tradition and confidence and belief that they have. There are various little things that give them a little pep up. And I believe that there is a whole science around the influence that kind of positivity can have. I am not talking about referees or decisions but that positivity: it definitely gives Kerry a bounce.
KD: But wasn’t that something you are trying to address over the four years in Mayo – the emotional swing from high to low? Remember, for instance, the reaction when you were well beaten in Ballyshannon?
JH: Yeah. That is right. I will never forget Ballyshannon that day. We had two league defeats in a row and the wheels nearly came off the Mayo bandwagon. It was shock horror. It was March! This was the outside perception . . . the meetings and discussions needed just to keep things calm outside the team was something to behold. Look, we have great supporters in Mayo. And their connection with the team is something I was very proud of. How could you not want to support that team with their commitment and effort? But I think the team got better and the crowd got better as things went along.
KD: And Mayo is a dramatic county? Mayo fans do wear their hearts on the sleeves – like the fan on the pitch in Limerick who ended up in Supermacs?
JH: I think that is fair, yeah. I think Mayo people can be like that. It is a great, honest trait to have, I feel. We are getting more experienced as football supporters, though, Hopefully we can continue that trend.
KD: Conor Mortimer was on the radio talking about his time with Mayo. He seemed to have a few regrets about the way things finished up. Do you?
JH: No, none. I think Conor is a great guy. Never had any issues with Conor. He made a decision to leave the panel at a really important time of the year for the team and that was it. I wish he didn’t make that decision. But he did. We had a discussion and we said: “If you make the decision, we will stick by it. So just be clear.” And it was as simple as that. So I wish Conor well. I wish him well with the book – I haven’t read it yet.
KD: Were the four years enjoyable?
JH: There are elements that are unbelievable. Situations you would never find yourself in in any other walk of life. On the sideline, working with the players, seeing guys improve and becoming what they can be. There is huge satisfaction in that. There are so many strands to it now and so many people directly involved that it is a real management challenge. The time you want to spend with the players gets compromised. But some of the kicks you get are unbelievable. It is a privileged place to be. And it helps that the group of guys – you will not beat a better group.
KD: So does it hurt all the more when you don’t see them get there? For instance, after your last game in Limerick?
JH: It is tough when it is so close and when you see how the year pans out. We know we didn’t play as well as we could against Kerry. But we had chances. Lee [Keegan] was through on goal in the first half of extra-time and if we took that . . . it is that close. It makes it harder but you also know what you have to do.
KD: Have you time to watch rugby now?
JH: Yeah, I watched the All Blacks play Scotland last week. I watched Richie McCaw win his 135th cap or whatever . . . just insane. A crap game, actually, but still even in that game, the All Blacks had their third team out, but what fascinates me is that they played a different game to what New Zealand played last year. They are really trying to offload, number four and number five going on to the backrow, they were offloading before contact even in open play whereas all other teams are still bashing through. So that is what is fascinating about them: they are constantly evolving their game ahead of the rest of the world. And that is what keeps them in front. But yeah, I have gone to a couple of Connacht games. Saw them play Cardiff last. The Sportsground in Galway on a Friday night is just cracking. Headed down town afterwards. So it was good, yeah.
KD: You were born in New Zealand, have you many relatives there?
JH: Yeah, a lot of first cousins. Auntie. Uncle in Australia . . . all on my mother’s side. She is an out and out Kiwi. My father, in the late 1950s, got a ticket for, I think, 10 pounds and got on a boat in Dublin and ended up in Invercargill, at the bottom of the south island. Farming. He came out of the train station and there was nobody else there. It was dark. So from going from Ballintubber to Invercargill was a fair journey. And he was out there for years. My mother’s father would have played for Auckland and for the New Zealand police force. Then my mother had a cousin who baby-sat for Frank Oliver, Anton’s father. So he would have been over in the house. There was that connection there with rugby and the All Blacks.
KD: Would you be interested in playing rugby now if you were 15?
JH: Absolutely. I ended up playing Gaelic . . . it would be a difficult choice now. I really think the IRFU are a top-rung organisation, just really polished and you can see rugby in Ireland getting stronger and stronger.
KD: Do you think the notion of Ireland winning the World Cup is realistic?
JH: I do. Joe Schmidt is walking on water now but he will be the most level headed about that now and in the World Cup too. So it is exciting times for Irish rugby.
KD: And for you, it is the under-16 girls team in Ballintubber . . .
JH: Yes. And the senior girls. So I will be putting everything into that.
KD: Are you looking forward to next season and Mayo? Had you time to realise what you were letting go in Limerick?
JH: I knew, maybe subconsciously, that I had put in four years that were as much as I could give. Each year, the tank was a little emptier. There comes a time that is the right time. It was in my head for a few months that when the year finished, that would be it.
KD: The critical thing, it seems now, is that Mayo do not let the respect in which they are held slip. You did an interview with Michael Gallagher in the Western People and you spoke about the county board and how they responded to the GAA’s decision to hold the replay in Limerick: wasn’t that about Mayo as an entity not being respected?
JH: Yes. That is a huge thing. I think the team, over the four years, have earned and built a huge respect. They are seen as being, and are, a serious outfit. But Mayo needs to be seen as a serious outfit. Mayo GAA Inc needs to be seen as a serious outfit and I am not sure we are at the moment. I am talking about the team, the county board, the Mayo set-up: the juggernaut itself.
KD: The way Kilkenny hurling is?
JH: The way Kilkenny hurling is. I always go back to Clive Woodward’s book when he took over England when rugby was turning professional and it is about what he was trying to do to bring all the blazers with him, the people who didn’t know what professionalism was. And it was fascinating to see how he tried to get them all facing the right way. So with Mayo: I think the team has a clear vision of what is needed to work in a high-performance environment. But I am not sure that everything else around it has. That is as nice a way as I can possibly put it. And it is critical. The team needs to relentlessly improve and always will do. Every team does. But when you are up in the top four in the country and we are talking about the width of a post or the bounce of a ball being the difference, the tiny, tiny little things that are around the team can be something that can make that difference. So that awareness and understanding is needed.