James Horan's Mayo masterplan will be under scrutiny more than any other

Not one for watching recorded sport, especially if the result is known in advance, but an exception was made for this year’s Division One football league final between Mayo and Kerry.

James Horan's Mayo masterplan will be under scrutiny more than any other

Not one for watching recorded sport, especially if the result is known in advance, but an exception was made for this year’s Division One football league final between Mayo and Kerry.

Of course, it is easy to say that it was only the league, but there was more to it than that. This Mayo team finally raised silverware in the Hogan stand and their bus will have left Croke Park buzzing for more and the opportunity to return to do it again.

More poignant was how they celebrated afterwards, there was no restrain in their joy and neither should there have been. Sidelined players like Seamus O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor enjoyed the moment as much as those who did the heavy lifting throughout the campaign.

Cillian O'Connor
Cillian O'Connor

New faces on the scene like Matthew Ruane and James Carr appeared to share in the overwhelming sense of relief that seasoned campaigners like Andy Moran and Keith Higgins must have felt to their core. There was also a sense that departed warriors like Alan Dillon and Barry Moran were going to be mentioned throughout the weeks that followed for their contributions along the way.

But for those of us not from Mayo, there was a sense of excitement about what the championship will have in store as the men from the west appear to be on the way back after a dismal season last year.

No disrespect to the other counties involved but with Mayo back on the rise, for where the game is at right now with excessive defensive systems, they are guaranteed to make it a box office summer.

Which will no doubt be music to the ears of the beancounters in Croke Park as well, as no county can boast as good a set of supporters as Mayo can. Unlike other more decorated counties whose support only kicks in on finals' weekend, Mayo has a following that will guarantee an atmosphere wherever and whenever they play.

Of course Kerry will be a genuine threat when August rolls around as they have clearly moved on and progressed under their new management team. They will be helped in no small measure by having arguably the most exciting crop of young players playing senior football in the country.

The smart money is still on Dublin, even with the pressure of history to achieve the five-in-a-row battling hard to distract them. Incidentally, the slump experienced during the league has a familiar smell to it. Akin to what Graham Henry appeared to be able to do at will with the All-Blacks; that is to manufacture adversity within an already successful environment to resharpen the focus and get the wheels moving back in the right direction just in time for when it matters most.

Beyond that it might not matter, teams will come and have a go, and the Super 8s will throw up a couple of great games, but it will likely only serve to decide who will join Dublin, Mayo and Kerry in the final four.

And that’s okay. Dublin’s rise and recent dominance has improved the standards of the game off the field in many a county and as soon as the on-field coaching catches up, there will continue to be such a divide between the best and the rest.

Even between the final four teams, it will be the coaching the players experience that will decide the winner on any given day. Nothing finds a team’s level more brutally than knockout football when Sam Maguire is within touching distance.

Scorelines never matter, the simple fact is that the winner found a way to be the last one standing however messy and fortuitous it may have seemed along the way.

This may provide the most fruitful narrative of the summer. With Mayo back in the fold, under the guidance of their prodigal son, James Horan, his masterplan will be under scrutiny more than any other manager across the four provinces. His fingerprints are already evident in the dispatches we’ve seen and heard from his players in the media.

Lee Keegan spoke of how he stamped his authority on all things standards-related during his time as coach at his club in Westport, suggesting that in addition to his organisational qualities, he is back now as a coach. Chris Barrett was heard talking down the geographical challenges they face during the league, dismissing the cumulative effects over time. Whether there is any merit to what he says doesn’t matter, the message is loud and clear, standards have been returned to where they once were back in 2014 and they’re announcing it to anyone interested in listening.

There’s no doubting that Stephen Rochford’s final year damaged the aura that had been built up over time within the championship, most likely started by the humbling experiences closer to home with unacceptable losses in Connacht every year of his tenure.

James Horan’s return has a symmetry to it that resembles his first foray in the hot seat. Mayo were at a low ebb at the end of the 2010 season when he came in to steady the ship and redefine what was an acceptable season back then. This time around there is again low- hanging fruit to pick from following last season’s slump to ensure a gentle reintroduction to the scene. Winning the league, in a year that some have suggested was a soft one, is a good start. Next on the to-do list will be to win the Nestor Cup, putting an end to Galway’s provincial dominance and another step in the right direction.

But the ultimate goal for a returning manager with unfinished business in any sport is to make amends for shortcomings in their previous tenure. Contrary to popular belief that you should never return to the scene of a crime, for a truly growth mindset coach, an opportunity to re-engage with a familiar setting should be seen as a genuine opportunity to show that growth and newly acquired knowledge, if indeed there is any.

A good example might be Declan Kidney, who returned to Munster Rugby with a fresh outlook on empowering the players and building accountability for their actions into the environment as he led them to the summit of European rugby in 2006.

A bad example might be Kenny Dalglish’s return to Anfield in 2011 where his outdated view of the modern game was exposed and ultimately ended his brief spell at Liverpool.

A future possible success story for the returning manager might be Stuart Lancaster returning to England rugby after what has been a sensational period of regrowth during his time with Leinster.

But for the here and now, the return of James Horan to the sidelines wearing a Mayo bainisteoir bib is as interesting a story as there’ll be this summer. What has he learned in the four years since his departure from the inter-county scene? The last time we saw him was at devastating end of the two-game semi-final thriller against Kerry in Gaelic Grounds in Limerick in 2014. Mayo had the winning of the tie in their hands in both matches but for the lacking of a plan B. Only time will tell if the alphabet has been expanded since.

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