James Horan maintains the demands placed on players have not increased during the four years he was away from the inter-county scene, with the Mayo manager taking umbrage to the suggestion that players make sacrifices to wear their county shirt.
Last year, an ESRI report highlighted that senior inter-county players can give up to 31 hours a week to county commitments, comprising their family, sleep, and downtime, in the process.
The same report showed that almost 30% of inter-county players surveyed in 2016 did not return the following season, the chief reason being a desire to focus on their professional career, but despite this, Horan doesn’t see inter-county demands as having risen in recent years.
“I don’t think so,” replied Horan when asked if the commitment required to be part of an inter-county set-up at present was more substantial than when he last wore the Mayo bainisteoir bib in 2014.
“I’ve had this debate many times. I know young swimmers in Castlebar that are spending more time in the pool than inter-county players are on the field. I know an amount of crack cyclists, middle-aged men, who are spending more time on their bikes, and no one knows or cares they are doing it.
“[Sacrifice] is the wrong word. You ask any player: they love what they’re doing. Now, it is important their work-life balance integration is right. We’ve done a lot of good work with the GPA to make sure that’s right for players.
Where Horan has noted a difference is the dressing room he walked back into after four years away.
“They have had a couple of years since of ups and downs. It was very different [going back in]. Some guys were more vocal than I remember, other guys were less. It is funny how people change during that time. Overall, the commitment and motivation of these guys are phenomenal.”
Another area to experience change, though incremental, is the style of play being employed by other counties. The collective approach is more positive than he remembers. To that end, the experimental rules trialled during this year’s league, the offensive mark, in particular, may well be a factor.
“I remember watching a couple of games and the number of attacks that teams had was not enough to win games. There was containment and trying to win games on 11 and 12 points. I don’t think you are going to win many games that way.
While out of the Mayo hot seat, many of those games he references were watched from the vantage point of the Sky Sports chair. The far easier option would have been to remain as a pundit, rather than return for a second stint with his native county.
“Where I get my kicks is working with guys who are highly motivated and want to improve. I love doing that side of the coaching, just seeing where you can go with guys and seeing what is possible.
“I wasn’t in any particular rush or I didn’t have any action chart of when and where I would get back involved. The way things happened, I was delighted to get the opportunity again to work with these guys and the newer guys coming through. The extra few weeks off last year definitely rejuvenated the guys and they were ready to go when we started up.”
On the injury front, Cillian O’Connor (knee), who missed their successful league campaign, saw game-time for Ballintubber in the Mayo SFC earlier this month and so should feature away to New York in their Connacht SFC opener on May 5. Seamie O’Shea (ankle) may not make that fixture. As for fellow midfielder Tom Parsons, who dislocated his knee and did extensive ligament damage in May of last year, Horan could not say with certainty if Parsons will return before the end of the 2019 inter-county season.
“I know there are other guys who had similar injuries that are back playing at a professional level. Tom has got the best level of medical care going so he is working hard. Every day he is making progress.”