Can Horanball redefine the meaning of Mayoness?

COMPLEX CHARACTER: An engaging and articulate pundit when out of inter-county management, when James Horan is on the sideline he retreats under the peak of a baseball cap from under which no soundbite useful to a mischief-making journalist will escape. Picture: INPHO/Evan Logan

Wow, that whole Corkness thing really escalated.

I mean, GAA strategic plans aren’t usually a rich seam for controversy, but the reference to some mythical, quintessential characteristic of Cork people seemed to provoke wildly divergent views, as if it were a matter of great theological importance.

Some believed Corkness was the road to salvation, others to eternal damnation, and still others said it didn’t exist at all, that we are all just cosmic stardust, even Billy Morgan.

Many in the pages of this newspaper — the pre-eminent forum for the study of Corkness — sought to define its true meaning, like Orthodox rabbis debating the Torah.

Further afield it was decried as heresy and suggested its proponents should be burned at the stake (this motion was ruled out by county committee on a technicality).

Some reasoned that finding some selectors for the county team was a more urgent priority, but they were quickly shouted down.

It was watching Limerick hurlers hammer Kilkenny at Nowlan Park on Sunday that brought home why the Corkness debate got so heated.

Limerick, it is clear, have shed all signs of what might once have been called Limerickness.

In fact, in the physical domination of their opponents, the ability to dominate individual battles and the rat-a-tat scoring blitz that ended the game as a contest, Limerick showed more of what we might once have called Kilkennyness than any particular Limerickness.

Logic follows that if there is no true Limerickness, or Kilkennyness for that matter, then can there be a Corkness?

We’ll leave that one to the bearded elders of the Irish Examiner sportsdesk for now.

But the point is that in these intensely rationalist, systemised times, the agnostics say that stuff like underage development squads, strength and conditioning programmes, and intensive coaching tends to render hokey, quasi-spiritual talk about a county’s innate character redundant.

It is your classic religion versus reason argument (which, on reflection, elevates Corkness to a grander philosophical level, thereby proving its own very existence).

Of course, there is always Mayoness. Everyone agrees on that, right?

To define Mayoness, we turn to the pages of the Mayo News, and their report of the Cáirde Mhaigh Eo Christmas Lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin from November 27 last.

“There was no doubt about the standout moment last Friday,” Mike Finnerty’s piece opens. “You only had to listen to the audible gasp among the 250 people in the room when Mayo manager James Horan uttered the words: ‘I came back to win the All-Ireland.’ Sure, it was what all Mayo supporters suspected (or knew full well) anyway, but to hear him say the words out loud certainly caught us all by surprise!”

There you have it. Mayoness: A deep yearning that is almost too powerful to even say out loud.

It is indeed surprising to hear Horan reported as having done so, even if, as Finnerty suggests, it is blatantly obvious why he has come back.

Horan is taking charge of one of the county’s top teams who have lost four of the last seven All-Ireland finals, two under his previous charge. He’s not back in management because it gets him out of the house.

But this is James Horan, not Eddie Jones. An engaging and articulate pundit when out of inter-county management, when he’s on the job he retreats under the peak of a baseball cap from under which no soundbite useful to a mischief-making journalist will escape.

He draws the curtain around his squad to shield it from craving locals and interested wider public alike. In that tight circle were formed the bonds that have survived his absence from the job.

There are those who would argue that, although four seasons have passed since the end of Horan’s first spell, it has remained, in some sense, his team.

The suggestion is that through the ructions with the subsequent management and the tumults of the Rochford era, Horan was still the team’s spiritual lodestar, like a Jacobite princeling across the water awaiting his moment to rally to the cause.

Horan’s low-key approach to media means there is little so far in the way of a manifesto for his second coming.

A clutch of local media interviews on his appointment talk of an open-minded view to trials and taking the FBD League seriously.

There is one nugget from a chat with Rob Murphy and John Gunnigan of the Mayo News Football Podcast worth repeating.

“I’ve got a fascination with all things coaching,” said Horan when asked why he came back.

“In looking at what’s good out there and what can make me a better coach and a better manager, so I’ve spent a bit of time in the past few years trying to do that.”

You can just picture Horan in exile, plotting his return and how he might add that extra few inches that have kept Sam Maguire out of Mayo’s grasp; tooling up on the latest coaching armoury, like Tony Stark building a new and improved, green and red Iron Man suit.

It is this combination — the unspeakable yearning, the renewed hope, the return of the king — that makes the story of Horan 2.0 one of the most compelling in Irish sport this year, not that Mayo are less than compelling on any other given year.

It might not quite feel like that right now, with Horan saying nothing and the wider accepted view that Mayo’s time has probably gone, no matter who is in charge.

But Mayo have started the league well, have dug up and dusted off a few new players and have old reliables kept in cold storage for when the time comes.

On Saturday they meet up with Dublin and an opposing manager who changed what people once thought was innate about his county’s teams.

Former player Billy Joe Padden mischievously referred to the return of Horanball after the recent win over Cavan put Mayo top of Division 1; can Horanball redefine the very meaning Mayoness?

Hey, let’s keep religion out of this.

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