Inscrutable is the only word for him. A decade after concocting, out of nothing, the Mayo fireball which has hurtled through summer after summer, James Horan returns to Croke Park looking and sounding much the same as when he first appeared as the county’s senior manager in 2011. You know him well: eyes darting under a peaked cap, expression passive and his emotions almost impossible to read.
If you check back to the provincial final last month, when Mayo looked to be falling apart against Galway, and compare Horan’s expression to the distant day in 2013 when Mayo were tearing through All-Ireland champions Donegal, there is almost no visible difference. Arms folded, pensive, slightly impatient, like a man waiting on a bus. When Mayo lost the All-Ireland final last December - their fifth in nine years - he stood in the chill echoes of an empty Croke Park and spoke matter-of-factly about how a few possessions cost his team, all rationality and no emotion revealed, making it clear that this was the end of nothing.
When Cillian O’Connor was ruled out for this year with a serious knee injury, the national view was that Mayo’s year was done: that they could not thrive without their totemic figure. Horan praised his player to the hilt and hasn’t really mentioned the matter in public since. It’s a funny thing. The Mayo story is such a perpetual cliff-hanger that it sucks the public in season after season but its chief architect keeps the emotion at arm’s length. He may be the least fatalistic or superstitious person ever born to a county that borders the supernatural. But then, Horan was not born in Mayo: he was New Zealand-born. Either way, when you look at the sweep of the Mayo story over the past decade, it would not - could not - have happened without Horan.
“No. I don’t think so,” agrees Tony Duffy, his former team-mate with Ballintubber.
“I can’t see how it could. See, James’s approach to all this would be: let’s see where we are at and let’s get better. Let’s put the best people in place all singing from the same hymn sheet. And everybody is looking to get better, get better, get better. Win, lose or draw: where can we improve? Analyse, improve and get better. If that lands you an All-Ireland, brilliant. If it doesn’t it was still the correct philosophy to follow, in James’s eyes. It is hard to disagree with that. The players don’t get knocked by those big defeats. They seem to bounce back: okay that happened last year. We can come back better this year. They duly do come back better. They may not win the All-Ireland but they do come back better. And that is what James is about: improve, improve, improve.”
Duffy is the person who persuaded Horan into management in the first place. In 2007, Horan was settling into the afterlife of a Mayo footballer, finessing his golf swing and applying himself to a busy professional life with Coca-Cola. Duffy grew up near him and played club football with him for years. In the mid-00s he was managing a Ballintubber side that, he felt, was drifting: in intermediate, an aging first team and conspicuous talents like Alan Dillon in the juvenile sector. They made it to the intermediate final in 2006. Sometime after that, Duffy met with Horan.
“I took a shot in the dark. James was concentrating on his career and his golf handicap. He wasn’t doing much in football. And I just had a chat with him, it was probably over a pint, and asked him to come out to Ballintubber in a coaching role. I told him about this young group and the ethos in the club to try and get up to senior. I thought he would run a mile but he bought into it straight away. Straight away you could see his love of being out on a pitch with a bunch of lads who are ambitious and willing and eager to learn. He really related to them. The improvement was huge. To such an extent that we won that intermediate in 2007.”
The GAA is full of these wonderful incidental meetings that have transformative effects. And: what if? What if Horan says no and instead has another few pints with Duffy, chats about the old days and heads on? Within four years, Duffy was Mayo minor manager - he had been coaching county development squads while managing the senior side. Horan managed Ballintubber to a historic senior title in 2010. It coincided with a disappointing exit by Mayo in that year’s championship and the last bow of a genuine folk hero, John O’Mahony. The county was at an impasse. A quiet few years beckoned. It felt like a moment for bravery and the appointment of Horan, after just four years, was that.
“It was because he is not a ‘yes man’,” says Duffy.
“He would be cute enough to say the right things but would have a different approach to a lot of people in the county board. He wouldn’t be afraid to throw resources at things - which you have to do. But traditionally the Mayo county board may not have been willing to do that. So it was a radical choice in that sense. And it almost went belly up in the first game they played, against London in Ruislip. But that is what he does: he learned from that and they actually beat Cork in the All-Ireland quarter final.”
Between 2011 and 2014, Mayo became something different as a football force. Duffy and Horan were in constant conference as minor and senior managers. Duffy noticed a change: more professional, completely absorbed in the idea of winning a senior All-Ireland. He brought his professional qualities to the task of managing a big sports entity in a sprawling county.
“You never see him getting overly excited or dejected. That rubs off on the players too and as a consequence they come back stronger. And as for having a professional life and sporting life … the reason he can do that is that he hardly ever sleeps. He doesn’t seem to need it. You can get an email from James at any time of the morning or night. But yeah, he is very analytical. He would see weaknesses in himself and has no problem in seeking expertise and getting people who can advise him.”
Mayo appeared in the All-Ireland finals of 2012 and 2013. Horan bowed out after an extraordinary semi-final loss to Kerry in the heat and dust of Limerick. Twenty-four hours later, Dublin would be defeated, by Donegal, for the last time in the 2010s. In four years, Horan lost four championship games: two finals and two semi-finals. In three consecutive summers, his teams toppled the reigning All-Ireland champions: Cork, Dublin and Donegal. But that autumn, when he sat down for an interview with The Irish Times, his mind travelled back to London when asked which of the wins was the most memorable.
“Hmm … 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 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.”
Anyone who had been in the kitchen area on the muggy Saturday night in Limerick when he stepped down might have wondered if he’d be back. The man looked spent that night. The players persevered with his attitude of dauntless pursuit of betterment. The drama never ceased: it continued through the turbulent season when Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly took charge and through the All-Ireland finals of 2016 and 2017 when Stephen Rochford was in charge. In those years, Horan appeared on Sky’s GAA coverage: an amicable, easy-going analyst even when his county was involved. But there was always a sense of unfinished business about James Horan and Mayo.
But then, Mayo’s unfinished business dates back to the second DeValera Government. What Horan brought with him was the urgency of completion. In 2011, the team changed dramatically in both personnel and attitude. It has been the same since his return in 2018.
“There was quite a big turnover of players,” Duffy says.
“But those that stayed on, he has convinced them to buy into what he was doing. He got something out of them. And as he evolved, more and more came in and those players who are coming in tick the boxes he wants. Lots of people would probably say to you there are lots of good players in Mayo who should be involved but aren’t. For James you have to tick certain boxes. That wouldn’t just be about ability on the football pitch. It is about the character you are, how hard you are willing to work, how ambitious you are, how you are willing to buy into the team ethic. If you tick those boxes you will get an opportunity. But a big part of it all is that you have to be very athletic, obviously.”
Duffy laughs when asked if stubbornness is a core trait of his Ballintubber co-conspirator. He feels it might just be the key reason as to why Mayo keep coming back.
“He is so stubborn that he doesn’t admit it was a bad defeat, it was just a couple of things they got wrong and they will work on those for the next day.”
It’s the Horan mantra: always another year, always another game for Mayo to work towards, always a splendid place to drive towards. So tonight, the Mayo audience will tune into the latest episode in a good place. There is a strong sense that the rapidity with which he has composed this latest Mayo team may be James Horan’s finest hour. And there is no pressure.
“It’s fantastic,” says Duffy.
“The mood in the county is that we can have a right go and even if it doesn’t go our way, the future is very bright.”