I could have bluffed it this week. This column could have been on the All-Ireland hurling final, or Donegal’s tactical masterclass last Sunday, or at a stretch, Man United’s scattergun buying policy or Caroline W’s big W over Sharapova and how she too has marched on after that break-up.
But I can’t fake it. The last few days it’s been hard to register events from Flushing Meadows or Old Trafford or even the more familiar turf of Croke Park when my mind is still in Limerick and the heart still in Mayo.
For the last three years I’ve had the privilege of a lifetime of being part of James Horan’s backroom team. Last Saturday night, a little bit after 9.15 in a room in the Radisson Blu Hotel on the Ennis Road, James gathered the whole group around to thank us and announce he was stepping down.
Like so much else over his four years in charge, he did it the right way. He resisted telling the press in the Gaelic Grounds. He didn’t tell us in the dressing room either. We literally needed more space and time so instead he waited until we ate some food and had dried our tears before we’d shed some more. In the dressing room we merely had to come to terms with the fact our year was over. In the hotel room we had to face the brutal reality that so was our journey as a group.
I’m fortunate that my two parents, two siblings and two kids as well as my wife are still alive, so I can safely say that last Saturday night was the nearest thing to a family funeral I’ve known, probably because for the last few years this group had become family. We thanked each other, embraced each other, and I won’t lie, wept with one another. It was rough, but it was right.
Rather than reveal his decision “in the cool light of day” through mail or text during the week, James knew that we needed to simultaneously treasure each other and grieve together to help us all move on with our lives.
The irony of it all is that only a few hours earlier from that quasi-wake we’d all never before felt more alive. In the Gaelic Grounds, in extra-time, in the arena, in a battle with a worthy opponent; as James would have grinned to the group “Where else would you rather be?!”
This team have been in some games and places through the years – All-Ireland finals, beating Cork in 2011 and 2014, the Dubs in 2012, Donegal in 2013, Croker just the week before – but Limerick was as good and as heightened as any match or occasion we’ve known.
You have to hand it to Kerry. They are without probably the greatest player ever in Colm Cooper. You think of the injuries the Tralee tandem of David Moran and Kieran Donaghy have had to endure in recent years and how they performed the last two weekends and you can only admire their persistence as well as talent. They would not have deserved to lose last Saturday.
What I also know is that our lads didn’t deserve Cormac Reilly. When I think of Colm Boyle, probably the most honest and bravest football warrior in the country and how three calls on him alone were so costly and poorly adjudicated, it doesn’t seem right that he’s not playing into September.
To credit James, he refrained from criticising Cormac afterwards, just as he did with Maurice Deegan after both the 2012 league and All-Ireland finals that you could argue swung on a couple of non-calls that seconds later resulted in goals for our opponents. He had the sense and grace to accept that ultimately the other side was still that bit better on those days and the referee is largely out of your control while a lot of other things are within it.
That’s one of his greatest legacies. It’s now instilled into the lads’ psyche the importance of looking in the mirror and trying to be the best you can be because it’ll take you to great heights, if not the ultimate spot. Even three years ago Keith Higgins was still a bit casual with his talent; now he is a killer, the supreme defender in the country and a certain All Star for a third straight year. Three years ago Colm Boyle was in the intercounty wilderness, finished; look at him now.
They all grew under James.
Much of the credit for that has to go the players. They were certainly the most open-minded and tough-minded group of people I’ve ever worked with, in any environment. There’ll be other opportunities to wax lyrical about some of the side’s household names but when I think of the honesty of the group I think of men like David Clarke and Kenneth O’Malley, our back-up goalkeepers this year, working with such focus and intensity at the top end of the pitch with Rob Hennelly and goalkeeping coach Peter Burke.
We had a lad called Shane McHale who would burst himself and everyone around him in training. As long as I live I’ll see him collapsing past the finishing line of an indoor hall in Claremorris having emptied himself in a gruelling fitness test; the pool of sweat he left like a chalked outline of a dead body at a crime scene. Even this summer when he was recovering from a shoulder injury he’d be there at the side of the pitch with an eye patch catching a tennis ball working on his hand-eye co-ordination.
Another one of our warriors was Enda Varley. In some quarters of the Mayo public he was maligned, especially after the quarter-final against Cork last month didn’t run so well for him, but the stats show he’s been one of the highest-scoring impact subs in the country in recent years and in his penultimate start for the county he scored 1-3 in Salthill last year. When I think of the dedication of this group I picture Enda on his foam roller before training and then out on the pitch kicking ball after ball before the ever-enthusiastic Donie Buckley whistles the boys in; Enda was a pro on a team of a pros, the kind who needs to be retained when the uninformed eye could have him discounted.
That is going to be the trick and the challenge for the new manager. To get the right blend of continuity and change. There will inevitably be four or five changes to the playing panel but it would be a mistake to make a cull of nine or ten. The medical team being the best in the country should be retained en masse. Ed Coughlan may be Munster-based but there isn’t a better S&C coach and he could even have his expertise as a skills acquisition coach unleashed; certainly the new management should meet with him for a handover session at the least.
Who will that manager be? It comes down to what the side and county needs. Back in 2010 Mayo needed a transformational leader and James with his vision, organisation, strength and suitable stubbornness provided just that. Although there will always be the odd pop from the odd buffoon or cold timid soul about Mayo’s fortitude or temperament until they deliver the big one, under James and his faithful assistant Tom Prendergast Mayo dismissed virtually every negative stereotype relating to the county. His footballers became winners. With the right appointment they will become outright champions. Maintain the culture James established and throw into the mix a little more flexibility and sophistication in how the side sets up and the lads will close the deal either next year or the year after, if not both seasons.
In these eyes the two men best fitted for that job are recent All-Ireland club winning managers.
Tony McEntee is one of the best football brains in the country and both a suitable admirer and critic of the Horan project. But he’s based in Armagh and, combined with having a young family, that probably rules him out. The other outstanding candidate is Kevin McStay. With St Brigid’s he underlined impressive tactical acumen while he would provide a level of communication and organisation that the players have come to expect from their time with James. The big call for McStay will be whether to include his wingman Liam McHale on the ticket. Liam has so much to offer with his coaching and sideline insights but the players would need to know he has left any House of Pain complex outside the gates of MacHale Park.
Because that’s the thing with these group of players. As the constantly-smiling Lee Keegan noted, they are less burdened by past defeats as empowered and sustained by all the games they’ve won, even if there hasn’t been a summer yet that they’ve won them all. Under James these players came to love playing in Croke Park. And more so they relished coming every night to MacHale Park. When you’ve jokers like Mickey Conroy and Barry Moran in the ranks you didn’t exist in a House of Pain but a House of Fun, Joy. Aidan O’Shea said it in that teary-eyed hotel room in Limerick, the lads loved going in there every night; the craic, the training, the ball, the honesty, camaraderie and company.
So did we, kid. Loved it. Love ye. Forever.