James Horan using past defeats as a motivation

With Mayo looking to bridge a 62-year gap manager feels no pressure

It may well be his single most conspicuous managerial trait is patience, which is a good thing, because the next person who asks James Horan about Mayo’s troubled past in All-Ireland football finals will be testing it to the hilt.

How heavily does history weigh in, James? The 62-year wait and all that? Is Mayo’s losing record another psychological battle to overcome? What are your memories of 1997, and losing that second All-Ireland final in a row? Is this team better prepared than last year? (And that was just for starters.)

That Horan has so far answered this line of questioning not just with patience but with courtesy too clearly suggests he has both the insight, and the foresight, to look beyond it: if Mayo are to lose to Dublin it won’t come down to anything that happened in the long distant past, or at least presumably not.

That's not saying Mayo's history doesn't form an inevitable backdrop to Sunday's showdown in Croke Park, and Horan himself is the first to admit it. He is, however, more concerned about Mayo's recent history, such as winning a third Connacht title in succession (for the first time, incidentally, since Mayo's All-Ireland winning run of 1951), or for taking out, for the third year in succession, the reigning All-Ireland champions (Cork in 2011, Dublin in 2012, and Donegal in 2013).

Improving all the time
Because this Mayo team, as Horan repeats, almost as many times as he's asked the question about Mayo's past, is improving all the time.


“You obviously pick up experiences each year you’re involved,” he says, with a nod to the three years he’s now been in charge. “So you use some of that to make it a more effective preparation this year. And as regards football, we’ve been relentlessly working on improving our game for three years, so, you know, we’re a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, and our skill set a little bit better this year.

“So I think we’ve got better at everything we do. We are much more effective now with the ball in hand than maybe we were. Our strike rates, maybe not so much in the Tyrone game, but in all the other games, have been to a high standard. When you have the ball you want to score and that is an area we certainly improved on.

"But on big game days, for me, it's your skill and technique and sticking to the process that will see you through. That's something we have been very strong on all year. We have just kept plugging away, whether we were up or down, whatever the score was, and that is what we will be looking to continue to do, trying to drive on for 70 minutes."

Delve into the past
This is what will win the game for Mayo on Sunday, provided they are indeed good enough. When he does delve into the past, or at least looks at last year's final defeat to Donegal, Horan is perfectly content to admit his team didn't play well enough on the day, not that they weren't good enough.

“Even after the way we started,” he said at the time (referring to the seven-point advantage that Donegal stole early on, “we still had opportunities to win it, and I certainly thought we were good enough to win it . . . But we didn’t take them.”

If anything, history for Moran truly begins one year ago, the morning after the All-Ireland defeat to Donegal. He took that defeat on its own terms, not as Mayo’s sixth All-Ireland football final defeat in 23 years, or indeed his third personal one, having lost the 1996 and 1997 finals as a player. There is another way of viewing it, naturally, in that if Horan can end Mayo’s 62-year wait then he’ll get a very large part of the credit. Indeed he’s comfortable straddling the present and the past, as long as they’re both pulling in the same direction, or even that bit of wind in their back.

"You don't ignore the past, no. There is obviously a lot of commentary on it. It is not something that particularly bothers me or this team, I can safely say. We lost a final, we didn't play as well as we could have and that is why we lost it. So there are no romantic notions around that.

'Wind at our back'
"As regards the amount of finals, 1951 is the last time we won, it but we genuinely don't see that as a pressure. If anything, it is a bit of wind at our back and that is the way we look at it. It is not something that unduly bothers me.

“We did look at where we were at, when we took over, looked at what we thought was best for Mayo football. We got guys that were interested in working, in putting their heads down, in being as good as they could be and playing for Mayo. I think we are seeing some of the results of that.”

Later, Horan does admit to using some of Mayo’s distant past as motivation for their future, and specifically his back-to-back All-Ireland defeats of 1996 and 1997. He doesn’t go as far as to call it regret, but Horan feels there are lessons to be learned, specifically from the 1997 defeat to Kerry.

“We weren’t prepared as well as we should have been, I think, for that game. You look back at it, and think maybe we could have done things differently. But that can drive you crazy as well. There is nothing you can do about it now but you can use it for sure. And that is certainly something that I take into my management of an intercounty team, that you have got to be the best prepared team there, or as good as you possibly can prepare on that day.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics