James Waldron was in a tight spot.
As Mayo chairman, he had watched John O’Mahony’s second coming end disastrously in Pearse Park with an All-Ireland qualifier defeat to Longford.
The board’s flagship team had become a toxic brand and the elusive All-Ireland never seemed as far away. Morale within Mayo football had plummeted.
“That was the worst day I ever experienced with Mayo. There was a black hole in front of us and every player who played that day was finished,” recalled retired midfielder Ronan McGarrity recently.
It was worse for Waldron. He received a four-week suspension for comments made to the referee following the Longford loss and his term was drawing to a close. His last act was to find a new manager.
And so on a dark September night he sat on an interview panel with Padraic Walsh, Declan O’Boyle, John Farragher and JP Lambe to find a man to succeed O’Mahony.
Tommy Lyons was favourite. He had managed Dublin and was up against two inter-county novices in Anthony McGarry and James Horan.
But there was a surprise in store.
“When we interviewed him, we found James was top of the class,” said Waldron. “He had great views and plans to bring Mayo to where it is.
“It could’ve been any of the three. Tommy Lyons had inter-county managerial experience and Anthony McGarry performed very well. But we went with James because we liked his presentation. He laid out his vision.”
Each member of the interview panel received a dossier from Horan outlining his plans. That vision remains a closely-guarded secret but we an assume the prophecy is unfulfilled. However it was the analysis he gave the five men sitting across from him on how he would, statistically speaking, improve the county team that put him in pole position. “He handed us sheets of information which showed his in-depth knowledge of Mayo football. We were very happy recommending him to go forward. It was my last act as chairman. My last job was to appoint him. Let’s hope it will be the big one.”
Since then Horan has enjoyed a better winning record than any manager who’s been in charge for at least 10 games in the qualifier era.
The championship statistics are impressive: three seasons, 15 games, two losses and a 87% success rate.
The secret? Organisation. A Process Quality Assurance Manager with Coca-Cola, he has been exposed to the corporate management structures of a multinational corporation. It’s a world where opinions mean nothing without the findings to back them up. And those findings require expertise.
Add in his fascination with successful teams from the All Blacks to the Miami Heat and you can see why he found himself excelling in the world of GAA management.
It started from humble beginnings with Ballintubber’s U16 side and from there to Castlebar Mitchells backroom team. When Ballintubber offered him the senior job, he started to make a name for himself.
They won a county intermediate title in 2007, his first year, and entered the senior grade looking for a first crown. A month after, he was made Mayo manager; he delivered the title in Ballintubber’s centenary year.
“James brought a new level of organisation to the job,” said Sean Hallinan, club chairman of Ballintubber at the time.
“He brought huge commitment as well and improved all facets of team management. We were in a different place from then onwards.”
It was in that role he first imported the lessons from the day job and surrounded himself with expertise to replace opinions with fact-based findings. Boyhood friend Tom Prendergast became a selector, club player and senior software analyst Ruaidhrí Hallinan crunched the stats, and Kieran Shannon became their psychologist. All were retained for the move to the Mayo job.
Those early days with Ballintubber provided a template for his inter-county approach and the club knew the county hierarchy had made the correct choice.
“Definitely,” said Hallinan, “I was chairman when we won the first county and had a good relationship with James. He was very straight. He would approach you and tell you what he wanted and we’d move mountains to achieve that. He was never out of order in anything. He requested rather than demanded. He knew what he wanted, knew what it took and delivered. He has the inherent knowledge and wisdom to surround himself with the proper personnel to achieve it.”
Team meetings became regular, one-on-one sessions were organised for players and stats became relevant to performance.
Horan’s ability to identify weaknesses in his team’s structure and find a solution was his biggest strength. Hallinan said: “James has a huge knowledge of the game and is extremely well read and studied. His approach to management is that of a sports scientist. When James required something it was based on factual research he had done that would have been of huge assistance to the cause. So you knew right off this guy knew what he was talking about and that was it.”
It wasn’t always like that. When Horan was lining out for Mayo, his colleagues sometimes doubted his readiness for battle.
Former team mate David Brady remembers Horan’s appearance on the morning of the 1996 All-Ireland final.
“We’d meet up for a meeting, or breakfast or mass but he virtually sleep-walked into the room. There’d be no brushing the hair or washing the teeth. The longer he could spend in bed, the better. You’d say to yourself when you saw him ‘is that fella going to wake up at all today?’ but come the match he’d always perform.”
His 10 points in three All-Ireland finals makes Horan Mayo’s all-time leading scorer from play in appearances in deciders. Brady only ever doubted Horan once again, the day he took over Ballintubber. A conversation with Alan Dillon cleared that up.
“He told me: ‘DB, you think he’s relaxed but he’s not. You think he’s laid back but he’s not. He’s a driver.’ Now you can see that he knew the way he wanted Ballintubber to go. He didn’t make it up as he went along. He knows where he wants Mayo to go. It was interesting after his first year (with Mayo) that his two selectors left (Martin Connolly and Paul Jordan). I don’t know the exact reasons but it wasn’t easy for two people to leave at the same time. But he went out and replaced them with people he thought would bring Mayo closer to an All-Ireland and he’s done that consistently right up to Donie Buckley coming in for Cian O’Neill.”
That compulsion to improve has been his driving force. It’s imparted to his players and backroom team. At the press event before the final, Andy Moran, Colm Boyle, Donie Vaughan and Tom Prendergast were paraded for the print media. Over 90 minutes the word ‘improve’ was used 27 times.
An All-Ireland semi-final in 2011, All-Ireland final in 2012… the next step is all part of his masterplan.
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