Horan: Donegal likely to up the physical stakes

Mayo boss James Horan has cranked up the heat ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final with Donegal by claiming their opponents will try ‘anything’ to provide them an advantage.

Days out from the grudge repeat of last year’s All-Ireland final, Horan believes the champions have intensified their focus on the physical aspect of their game.

The former All Star’s comments come in the wake of Jim McGuinness’ assertion about third man tackling and fears for his players’ health and safety following news that four of his players suffered concussion this year.

“Donegal and their back-room team, they’re competitive, they’re All-Ireland champions,” Horan said. “Anything that’ll give them an advantage, they’ll try. Last year they mastered many new skills and brought football to a different level on many fronts, particularly in the area around physicality.

“They really ratcheted that up last year and put a lot of teams to the sword based on their strength, power and tackling. I don’t know if any of ye have been at the end of a Michael Murphy tackle recently, but there’s serious, serious physicality in that team. They’ve been leaders on that front.”

When asked what kind of relationship he had with the Donegal manager and his backroom team and would there be any banter between them Horan responded: “I wouldn’t think so, no. Although maybe we’ve more banter with other teams, that might be a better way to say it. Look it, Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher on the sideline, they do their thing. When I’m on the sideline, I just focus on. What can I do to help the team that’s on the field. That’s all I do. I try and stay as composed as I can.”

It was suggested the body language between the managers was cold and Horan said: “Maybe show me a team that has good body language towards Mr McGuinness on the sideline! Maybe that’s a better question!”

The Ballintubber man believes his team have improved since last year’s All-Ireland final loss and have spent almost ten months working in preparation for this game.

“Oh, I’d definitely say so [in a better place now than going into the All-Ireland final]. I think we’ve a stronger team, a stronger panel. I think we’ve a better understanding of our game, and what’s needed to play at the top level. We’ve a lot more experience under our belt. And since the All-Ireland final last year, as we’ve done in every game we’ve ever played, we sat down after it, had a look at it, what worked, what didn’t work, what do we need to do better. We identified those areas. They were mainly the areas around skills and skill execution. We’ve targeted those and gone after relentless improvement.

“We didn’t want to be relegated I don’t think anyone wants to be relegated from Division 1. So they were tight games, which we came through, and it helped us build and improve. The opposition is the opposition. I suppose you could look at it as a positive in that we’ve a lot of information on them from having played them before! No, it’s not a problem.”

But he is not quite so sure if the Tír Chonaill men are a better outfit this time even if their physical approach has become more fierce.

“It’s hard to say. I know Donegal, last year is well chronicled, they brought a new dimension to football last year, I think, in many ways, and particularly in the area of physicality. They really brought that to a new level. But I suppose a number of counties are trying to catch up with that. But have they improved on last year? It’s hard to say. I know they’re suffering from a number of key injuries, but I’ve yet to see a top-level inter-county team that hasn’t suffered from injuries. If you look at us, over the course of this year, it’s been phenomenal. We lost eight players off our match-day 26 in the first round of the club championship, and a number of key players have been out for a number of months.”

The New Zealand born manager admitted he knows what to expect from Donegal. “Ah, I think it’s fairly clear how Donegal play. If you look at Saturday’s game, for the first ten minutes they go ultra-defensive. What you see is what you get with Donegal. You know what you’re going to get. So they’ll play their game and we’ll play ours, and we’re very happy with the way we are and how we’re developing and meeting each challenge that comes our way. We can’t wait to get cracking.”

One area he hopes to have an advantage is the tackle area where his team have spent countless hours on the training ground honing as long as it is refereed with consistency.

“Yeah, I suppose this year since Donie Buckley’s been involved we’ve looked at the whole area of skills, and to us, tackling is a skill area. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.

“So we’ve put a huge amount of time, effort and focus into getting all our basic skills right, including the tackle and hopefully ye’ll see that on Sunday.

“Left hand, both hands, both feet, pick-ups, turning both ways … the fundamentals we’ve put a lot of work into, and the tackle.

“We’ve put huge work in there so we’re comfortable that we tackle to the letter of the law. We’ve just got to trust the refs that are there”.


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