Christy O’Connor: James Horan’s youthful Mayo project is purpose-built for Croke Park

In the last three years, Horan has introduced 38 new players to league football, with 23 making their championship debuts. Some may have only got minimal game-time but most have formed the central planks of the reconstruction
Christy O’Connor: James Horan’s youthful Mayo project is purpose-built for Croke Park

Tommy Conroy, among the new cohort in Mayo colours, battles with Dublin’s David Byrne in the All-Ireland semi-final. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The day when Dublin were finally beaten was always going to be a seminal moment, a seismic event, but the manner of Mayo’s victory five weeks ago added to the history of the occasion and the purity of the sensation.

The atmosphere was incredible. Ecstasy and elation were soaking and drenching the ground like the incessant rain falling from the sky. The emotional pitch had risen to a crescendo by the time Lee Keegan was being interviewed on the sideline by Shane Dawson for Sky Sports. But Keegan was still measured and composed above the din and delirium raging all around him.

Keegan pointed to Mayo’s workrate, faith in the gameplan, and trust in their S&C levels to keep them going for 90-plus minutes. Yet when Dawson asked if there was any one particular reason why Mayo had finally taken Dublin down, Keegan was firm in his response.

“Youth,” he said. “You see the transition of the group we have. There is very little of the team which played in the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals.”

Many of those new players didn’t have the past historical baggage with Dublin but the scale of the numbers also highlighted how this is a completely new team.

Only four of the players which featured in the one-point final defeat to Dublin in 2017 started five weeks ago. Of the 33 players listed in the match programme for the 2016 All-Ireland final replay, 21 are no longer around, while Cillian O’Connor — one of their absolute leaders — is injured.

The mass exodus in the meantime, especially over the last nine months, contained some of the greatest players Mayo have ever produced. Yet James Horan has still torn down the squad, rebuilt the group, and driven them to within touching distance of that elusive All-Ireland.

The manner of how Mayo fell away when Dublin ramped up the pace in the second half of the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final was a turning point in how Horan felt the team needed to be redeveloped.

A group of promising U20s were coming on stream, but Horan has still shown the same desire for regeneration in his second coming that he routinely displayed in his first stint as manager between 2011 and 2014.

In the last three years, Horan has introduced 38 new players to league football, with 23 making their championship debuts. Some may have only got minimal game-time but most have formed the central planks of the reconstruction — 11 of the players which featured against Dublin made their championship debut under Horan in the last three seasons.

When he first returned in 2019, Horan couldn’t afford to take a wrecking ball to the structure of the house. Yet Horan was still steadily starting the rebuild that summer, handing championship debuts to eight players. But he ramped it up even more in 2020, and with far more intent towards constructing the future.

The championship team named for last year’s Connacht quarter-final against Leitrim contained seven championship debutantes: Jordan Flynn, Rory Brickenden, Ryan O’Donoghue, Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Tommy Conroy, and Bryan Walsh. Brickenden didn’t start but he came on, as did Darren McHale. By the end of the season, Padraig O’Hora and Mark Moran increased that list of debutantes to 10.

Enda Hession and Paul Towey made their championship debuts in June against Sligo while a Covid-19 situation against Leitrim, which necessitated a host of players having to sit out the match, allowed Horan the opportunity to road-test Rory Byrne, Jack Coyne, and Andrew Orme.

The huge volume and rate of turnover in personnel have been all the more impressive again considering the conveyor belt hasn’t been producing the same level of underage success that it did earlier in the last decade; Mayo have only won one Connacht minor and one Connacht U20 title in the last five seasons.

That’s testament to good coaching and management, along with progressive talent identification and development. Some of the new players are brilliant footballers, but Mayo have also been producing their players with the athletic profile designed for taking on the big teams in Croke Park.

Horan has fitted them into that hard-pressing, hard-running, and attacking game that he first patented10 years ago. The squad is full of the prototype players ideally calibrated for the driving athleticism Horan seeks to carry out his style, loaded with exciting young talent continuously developing in a high-performance culture designed to improve everyone’s standards.

That process didn’t happen overnight. Stephen Rochford went closer than anyone in trying to land that All-Ireland Mayo so desperately crave. But one of Rochford’s greatest legacies was how he had already begun identifying new talent, and had got Conor Finn — Mayo’s S&C coach — physically developing them before they were ready to prosper under Horan.

There were times when Rochford maybe didn’t feel that enough of those young players were ready. The Mayo panel was thinner than it needed to be in 2016, 2017, and 2018, but many on the periphery of those squads were physically ready to flourish under Horan when he returned.

Horan was never afraid to throw players into the deep end. He invariably trusted youth over experience in hard selection calls but he expedited that process after 2019. Leaving a plethora of experienced and quality players on the line for a winter knockout championship was a risk but the team’s new path was set by the time the campaign began last November.

There was no turning back. In January, some of the county’s greatest servants walked away — David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Donie Vaughan, Seamus O’Shea, and Tom Parsons. Clarke was the only starter last season. He had already given 20 years of incredible service, but the writing was more clearly smeared across the wall for the others. The new players represented the new direction.

The reconstruction last winter carried echoes of when Horan first dropped the blade on a handful of senior players just before the beginning of his first championship season as manager in 2011. Eight players were given their championship debuts that summer, which included Keegan and Cillian O’Connor.

Horan’s great achievement in the years which followed was honing and shaping that talent into some of Mayo’s greatest players. He turned Mayo into a perennial All-Ireland force. And that process has started all over again now with a new crew.

They are the future. But the future is now.

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