A few days after Mayo's seismic win over Dublin, a media gathering was hastily convened in MacHale Park. The Castlebar stadium has rarely looked so desolate. The grass has been burned off as part of an extensive re-laying of the pitch. The coffee kiosks were bolted. Birdlife habituated the covered stand.
It was among the empty bleachers that James Horan stood contemplating what stands, so far, as his finest managerial hour. And you could tell that the Ballintubber man had already travelled many miles away from that victory since. The great Larry Bird line best reflects Horan's approach to bettering Mayo: 'I never wonder. And I never look back.'
The next step for Horan began not long after Dublin’s long reign had ended.
“You get about 15 or 30 seconds after the game where you enjoy it and your head kind of races forward after that to be honest,” he conceded. “Ah look it was brilliant. We’ve challenged Dublin for a long time so to beat them is important for us and for the development of the group.”
In work or general life it is very rare you get something that is so pure and so honest
Stoicism has been Horan’s guiding light since he became the leftfield choice to manage Mayo in 2011. As the questions flew about the stand, he thought for a second before responding to the idea that you need to be obsessive to take charge of such a big football entity.
“I don’t know if it is an obsession. You definitely need to be a bit mad so borderline obsession is probably fair. But I love what I am doing. It is not too often you have a bunch of guys pulling the same way trying to improve and grow without any major complications.
“In work or general life it is very rare you get something that is so pure and so honest. So delighted to be part of that and try and help in some way to make it happen. There is madness and stubbornness, which are important from a manager’s point of view.”
When Horan was speaking, Mayo’s All-Ireland final opponents had yet to be decided. The controversy over the Covid-enforced delay felt far away from Mayo. It wasn’t something that Horan had given much thought to, other than to say that he believed the GAA had reached the right decision in delaying the game.
“I think probably overall it would be the right thing to do. I just can’t imagine a team getting a bye into an All-Ireland final. I am not sure any team wants that. But it is delicate. What if a team gets one or two cases? Do we kick everything to touch? There is that danger at club level. But I think in the interests of fairness it was the right call.”
Mayo were hit with a Covid outbreak before they played Leitrim in the Connacht championship so Horan could empathise with the logistical nightmare it imposes.
“It’s very tough. The training beforehand . . . the weekend of the Leitrim game we were tested the Friday, the Saturday. We were tested Sunday morning and we had split the team into three different groups so they couldn’t inter-mingle before the game until the results came back. And all that kind of stuff. That is crazy compared to normal preparation. Then there is obviously how healthy and strong the players are feeling. So it is far from ideal for sure.”
The concern has lessened now that the entire Mayo squad have gone through the vaccination process. The voracious energy behind Tyrone’s extra-time win over Kerry last Saturday has produced a tantalising All-Ireland final that promises to be less a match than a head-on collision. Horan smiled when asked if, in this whole project, winning an All-Ireland title is the be all and end all.
“It would certainly be nice. We’ll stick to what we are doing. Absolutely, looking forward to winning games. But for two years we have been growing and developing every week and that is our focus and what we will keep on doing. Obviously we have plans to win as much as we can but growth and development is a huge focus in the day to day.”
Horan’s even disposition has acted as a calming device through a mad football decade for the county. The big wins have been kept in context - as have the epic, hyper-dramatic defeats the county has endured. Covid obviously kept the squad at a remove last winter. But throughout this summer they have gone about the business of showing up again in a low key manner.
“We have a lot of well wishers in Mayo but the sessions we have are great reference points for us all,” he says about absorbing the latest welling of expectation.
“It is just the group together and we can manage our stuff from there. There is great goodwill out there and we appreciate it and are very aware of it but it’s important that we just keep on doing our thing.”
Perhaps it helps, too, that they have been on the road, moving from pitch to pitch around the county for their weekly training sessions, relying on the kindness of strangers and all that. Setting up an inter-county session is a huge operation - unpacking all the equipment, the gear, the food, the water.
“We have a big van,” Horan explains with a touch of mischief when asked how they manage to do it on a touring basis. “ So we can fill a lot of stuff in that. Liam Ludden is in charge of that and is in two or three hours before us and has it everything set up. It is a fairly slick operation at this stage. So it doesn’t matter where we train.”
That's been the mantra always. Get on with it. Get better. By mid-afternoon, the interviews were over and the only sign of life in MacHale Park - beating heart of Mayo football and all that - was a big digger up at the Bacon Factory End. The Mayo football team had gone underground again.