For the first time in five years, Mayo are preparing for a Connacht championship match without James Horan in charge.
Instead, when the holders turn up at Pearse Stadium seeking to inflict the same sort of punishment as they did in 2013 — they won by 17 points — Horan will have his pundit’s hat on.
It’s a significant change from life at the coalface with Mayo when for four years he sought, in vain, to mine a rare All-Ireland title.
Following last August’s All-Ireland semi-final replay defeat to Kerry, he recognised that it was time to finally lay down his shovel.
By departing, he bumped Cavan’s Terry Hyland and Tipperary’s Peter Creedon up to joint second place in the list of Irish-based Gaelic football’s longest serving managers.
“Outside of Mickey Harte, it’s Terry Hyland I think who is next on what, four years? That says it all about how tough a gig it is,” said Horan.
“Mickey Harte is an anomaly. It’s a great gig but it’s hard going when you’re trying to hold down a job. I don’t think you’re going to see many more Mickey Hartes.”
It’s not only the workload, it’s the criticism too. Plenty of cutting barbs were thrown at Horan after a brace of All-Ireland final and semi-final defeats in his four years.
Like last September, when during a failed pitch for Kevin McStay to get the Mayo job, former Roscommon player Shane Curran outlined where he felt Horan had erred over the years.
He homed in on the decision to leave Ger Cafferkey on the rampaging Kieran Donaghy for last year’s replay in Limerick. “There have been other mistakes, look at the All-Ireland final against Donegal — the game was over after 17 minutes,” said Curran.
“Look at the Dublin game last year (2013 final), there’s an inability there to stop conceding goals. Tactically, they didn’t have the awareness to defend the space and their goal at critical times and Dublin took advantage.”
Horan could respond with a single gesture towards the 2010 championship, the year before he took over. Mayo lost both their Championship games to Sligo and Longford.
Perhaps with Curran’s defensive criticism in mind, new joint managers Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes have sought to buttress the area this season.
“In a couple of games they had sweepers and men back, Diarmuid O’Connor from wing-forward was playing in the backs for a while as well,” noted Horan, raising an eyebrow.
“You know, one of the things Mayo were very strong at was their support running and that sort of stuff. It’s going to be a balancing act if they go more defensive, that they don’t cut off more of their scoring options as well. It’s trying to get that balance right.”
Horan is unequivocal when asked if Mayo can still win the All-Ireland title they crave with the present players. “Ah of course, I always think Mayo can win it every year.”
He believes they will seek a fast start on Sunday and make a statement of their 2015 championship ambitions by keeping the foot down on Galway.”I think you’re going to see Mayo come out of the blocks fairly quickly this year,” he said. “They’d be very keen to get a good performance down, particularly after the end of the league, when with the last couple of games to go they were in top position and looking to get to the semi-finals but had a couple of indifferent performances.
The great unknown is how Galway will react to what happened 24 months ago. They were beaten 4-16 to 0-11 that day, a result that has the potential to either inspire or intimidate. “That day we were very strong, we won big on the scoreline and we won big physically and in every single way, on their home patch,” recalled Horan.
“There’ll be a lot of the same players who played that day playing again. So I’d say they’d be keen to sort that out. It should be a real motivational factor for Galway.”
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