James Horan an exceptional leader of men
Making the players believe what you say is part of being a good manager in GAA
Mayo’s Aidan Walsh rises to a ball during the All Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Croke Park. Photograph: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer
“Last year they mastered many new skills and brought football to a different level on many fronts… particularly in the area around physicality. They really ratcheted that up last year and put a lot of teams to the sword based on their strength, power and tackling. I don’t know if any of ye have been at the end of a Michael Murphy tackle recently, but there’s serious, serious physicality in that team” - James Horan, before the Mayo v Donegal 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final.
“Our character was challenged in the lead up to this game by the Cork management, which I think is unprecedented in Gaelic football where a management team name players… I just think it’s a new low when you have opposition management naming specific players and taking their integrity and their good name” - James Horan, after the Mayo v Cork 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final.
James Horan is a very, very good manager and rather than focusing on the apparent hypocrisy of the two paragraphs above, it’s probably as well to say that this showcases one of the key tenets of being a successful coach - the ability to convince a group of adults that you truly believe what you’re saying, when you patently don’t.
If James Horan (or Malachy O’Rourke, or Jason Ryan, or Mickey Harte) has 30 players at training, and he picks the team for their upcoming match that night, he has just told half of the men in his charge that he doesn’t rate them. Sorry, you’re good and all… but you’re not what I’m looking for right now. But he doesn’t say that, of course. When those men hear their name not being announced, they’re happy enough to sit there and accept that, yes, you’re not starting, ‘but how you react to this news is the key to us winning and losing the game’.
A normal person would say that, with respect, Mr Manager, I think the people actually playing the game will decide the final result - but sportspeople aren’t normal people. There is an ego associated with performing your hobby in front of 80,000 people, and their ego demands that they can still contribute. Your manager tells you something, you’re already pre-disposed to believing him.
And if James Horan said to his team last week that the Cork management had taken Cillian O’Connor’s ‘good name’ by suggesting that he fouls a few times a game, maybe the Mayo panel were pre-disposed to hearing that too (I can see Cillian O’Connor now as a John Proctor type, brought low by the GAA media version of the Salem Witch Trials - “leave me my name, Brian Cuthbert”).
Of course the fact is that James Horan has been talking to this Mayo team for quite a while now. In 2011, Mayo played Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. 19 players saw action for Mayo that day - and last Sunday against Cork, 15 of those 19 players were in action again. It’s the same team. Four years ago they had to contend with a crippling history of defeats in All-Ireland finals, and a public that desperately wanted an end to their wait - four years on, despite some of the best performances in the history of Mayo football, despite four Connacht titles, and despite Horan proving himself to be a really exceptional leader of men, all that is still there.
For Brian Cody, Mickey Harte, Jim McGuinness, Pat Gilroy - the story changed from year to year. They won a few, they lost a few, they fell out with people, and they wielded the axe when they had to… the narrative changed. What’s changed for Mayo in the last 4 years? They’ve certainly improved as a team since that 2011 semi-final, and selectors have come and gone… but Horan is still looking at many of the same faces. And they’re still looking back at him, hoping to hear something new.
In that context the Gavin Duffy experiment makes a lot of sense. Everyone in the Mayo set-up for the last 3 years has been unfailing in their dedication, and their application. Their remorseless drive for self-improvement makes them a very easy team to like. But if everyone did everything right last year, how do you close that 1-point (and it was just one point, remember) gap that separated them from Dublin last year? You take a punt on a recently-retired rugby player - you hope his presence there annoys someone, that he asks awkward questions, that he learns quickly enough to contribute on the field… you take a chance. You throw him into the mix and let something unexpected happen.
The question remains whether we’ve seen enough that’s new from Mayo to suggest their rate of improvement has been quicker than Dublin’s in the last 11 months. That’s a hard argument to make. Aidan O’Shea has gone to centre-forward, Keith Higgins has moved back to corner-back. They showed against Cork that they can be nasty when they want to be, but we had seen that last year against Tyrone in the Al-Ireland semi-final. If Eamon Fitzmaurice breaks the habit of a lifetime and offers up a hostage to fortune in the next three weeks, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see James Horan take a pop or two back. He might need all the help he can get.