Horan’s edge has come as godsend to Mayo

The question is this: what have Donegal, Joe Brolly, the general GAA media, the Mortimer family, Brian Cuthbert, RTÉ, Mayo County Board and Jim Gavin all got in common?

Horan’s edge has come as godsend to Mayo

We won’t ask you to look to bottom of the page for the answer. You know it already.

Often, James Horan has been provoked into revealing his prickly side. Other times, he’s launched premeditated blasts such as those against RTÉ/Brolly. Darragh Ó Sé called it during the week when he said Horan’s default setting is war footing — “James Horan always seems to be ready for a fight about something — and I say ‘good for him’. That’s the way he rocks”.

Before Horan, Mayo never went looking to pick a scrap. But the 42-year-old is different (which other leading manager openly admits to reading Twitter?). He’s made them different. When Brian Cuthbert and Ronan McCarthy threw a couple of grenades Mayo’s way before their quarter-final, he flung them back harder. The Cork men may have played a game he had dabbled in before but he wasn’t going to entertain it.

Cuthbert was within his rights, just as Eamonn Fitzmaurice was earlier this week, to reference the physical force Mayo now bring to their game. And, like all top teams, they also indulge in what they view as necessary evils.

In 2012 when it was put to Jim McGuinness that Aidan O’Shea had said Donegal cynically stopped Mayo taking quick frees he incredulously responded: “He felt we were cynical?”

Sean Hallinan appointed Horan as Ballintubber manager in 2007. He’s seen just what he’s had to change to transform Mayo from being everybody’s pitiful second favourite team to genuinely regular All-Ireland challengers.

“He knows what they’ve put in and the sacrifices they have made and those he’s made himself,” said Hallinan. “To have that cohesion between management and players, you need to deflect all criticism and more or less set yourselves up as untouchable. It’s what’s needed when you have been a team known as nice footballers but with a soft centre. We did produce skilful players quite frequently but we couldn’t stand up to what was physically put up to us.

“We were pretty naive down through the decades any time we went to Croke Park. We relied on just our confidence in our ability and skills. We didn’t realise the finer points, the need to play with the little bit of edge. Until James came along, that didn’t happen and he looked at things from the sports science angle too — getting lads’ heads right before games.”

Had Horan stepped down last year, so too would have a couple of the older players such as his club-mate Alan Dillon. Like McGuinness in Donegal, they had entwined their inter-county careers with the manager’s.

Former Limerick boss and Ballinrobe native Maurice Horan, now living in Tralee, is a second cousin of Horan’s.

He said: “He’s definitely a guy lads look up to. There’s no doubt who’s boss but when has he ever let them down? Other managers get easily animated after games but he’s the same in defeat as in victory.

“Under no circumstances does he accept any criticism of his team. He might talk about a mixed performance but he’s been a great leader for them. Nobody’s hung out to dry. He’s a spiky edge to him but that’s the hallmark of any good manager.”

There are shortcomings and ones more pronounced because he has yet to be a saviour brandishing silverware.

Primarily, it is his use of substitutes. From the strange call to withdraw Seamus O’Shea in last year’s final when Aidan was the poorer of the two, to Andy Moran’s removal against Cork last month at a time where he was showing no let-up in effort or influence.

“Mayo people are very passionate about football and it is the main criticism of James,” says Maurice Horan. “Not bringing Richie Feeney on in the All-Ireland final, taking Alan Freeman off so early. There’s no exact science to it. Subs that work for you one day mightn’t the next.

“Mayo lost by just a point to a good Dublin team. Had Alan stayed on and Richie been brought on, would it have made the difference? You could be critical but then he brought on Andy Moran against Roscommon this year and look how that worked out.”

Tactical oversights or not, Horan’s namesake will travel to Croke Park tomorrow anticipating a win. It may be Kerry, it may be Kerry in Croke Park but this is not the Mayo of old.

“Mayo in the past would be seen as pushovers once you got them into Croke Park where they would be miscuing shorts and whatever. Nobody wants to play Mayo in a match anymore.”

So long as it’s a James Horan Mayo team at least.

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