Change for the good
James Horan’s approach has brought real progress
ON September 29 last year, James Horan walked through the gates of McHale Park for the first time as the new Mayo manager.
He had been appointed earlier that Wednesday evening and, after receiving a phone call from Mayo GAA Chairman James Waldron to tell him the news, Horan put the youngest of his four daughters to bed, before arriving to address club delegates at the county ground.
He then made his way into an adjoining room and spoke to local journalists about his hopes for the future. Just like he has been since, Horan was calm and collected.
“Mayo is full of good footballers and I think our management set-up can bring something,” he explained that night. “I think we can set an environment where players, if they want, if they have the right attitude, and the right character, can flourish.
“We want to bring some sense and some structure… and we want to restore a bit of pride back into the whole thing.”
Over the last 11 months, James Horan has been true to his word.
Last Tuesday evening the Mayo manager strolled into that same McHale Park meeting room to meet members of the media ahead of next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.
As always, he was measured and pragmatic with his interrogators, dealing with each question in his own analytical way, and ensuring that no hostages would be left to fortune.
He calmly explained that the kind of hype that suffocated Mayo teams in the past would not be an issue this time around; he stated quietly that history had very little to do with next Sunday’s game, and he smiled that football had changed quite a lot since he scored a goal against Kerry in the ‘96 championship.
Each loose end was meticulously tied up.
“It took a while to know where we were and where we could go,” he said in response to a question about his initial impressions of life in the Mayo hotseat. “After a few league games we sat down and plotted out a few things that we’d like to achieve this year.
“So far, so good. Connacht was a big milestone, we achieved that, and now we’re looking to be as competitive as we can be in Croke Park for as long as we can be.”
In essence, that has been James Horan’s mantra since he took the job; that Mayo would be ‘competitive’ and ‘hard-working’ when they hit the field under his watch. Results would take care of themselves.
How that has been achieved, and the fact that Mayo are on the cusp of an All-Ireland final appearance just ten months after rolling over and playing dead against Longford, is one of the stories of the summer.
LAST weekend’s Mayo training schedule was a prime example of how James Horan has shaped the squad’s preparation and mindset since his appointment.
The panel trained on Friday night in Castlebar, putting into practice a session that had been choreographed by the manager, in conjunction with his selectors Paul Jordan and Martin Connolly.
However, while the structure of the session was their work, Mayo’s training regime has been designed and co-ordinated this year by Ed Coughlan, a Cork-born, Liverpool-based sports science graduate who specialises in game-conditioned training methods.
“Strength and fitness and conditioning was something that you wouldn’t necessarily associate as being very high in the pecking order with Mayo teams,” Horan said last week.
“So we looked to address that and put in a good training programme that will have you strong when you need to be strong, and fit and powerful when you need to be fit and powerful.”
On Saturday evening the Mayo panel assembled again in a Westport hotel to discuss their approach to next Sunday’s game. Using power-point displays, video clips, and empirical evidence of their past achievements, the Mayo manager reminded his players why they had no reason to fear Kerry.
Sweeping, general statements about Mayo’s perceived weaknesses and Kerry’s assumed strengths were dissected and parsed. Positive messages were reinforced. Any issues outside of a player’s control were deemed as being unimportant.
During his time as manager of Ballintubber, James Horan introduced his players to Kieran Shannon, a sports psychologist and sports journalist.
Shannon worked with Ballintubber on numerous occasions during the build-up to their historic county title win, and has also been a significant influence on Horan’s approach to Mayo’s mental preparation this season.
Last weekend, the Mayo players were reminded again, and again, of the need for intensity, of the importance of tackling and constant communication. And, of course, of how work-rate underpins everything that Team Mayo does.
All year each player has been guided by the team’s agreed (individual and collective) ‘targets’ and ‘goals’. These cover areas like holding the opposition to a certain number of scores; the percentage of breaking balls that needs to be won in each half; the percentage of frees that are conceded in certain areas of the field; winning the restart throw-ins; and frees awarded against Mayo for things like dissent.
Against Cork, all of those targets were met.
After staying together in Westport on Saturday night, the Mayo squad returned to McHale Park on Sunday morning for an ‘A’ v ‘B’ game where they could put into practice what had been discussed.
Selectors James Nallen and Tom Prendergast, who have flanked the manager constantly during league and championship games, were by his side again during the trial match.
Nallen, Mayo’s most capped player and a close personal friend of the manager, has been monitoring Mayo’s defensive shape, in particular, and quietly giving players the benefit of his experience.
Meanwhile, Prendergast, the team’s statistician and selector, and a former team-mate of Horan in Ballintubber, scrutinises facts, figures and data that could be used to give players and management invaluable feedback.
And, all the while, Mayo’s medical team, which was painstakingly put together by James Horan last Autumn, work on injured players and pool their resources to try and ensure that the likes of Trevor Mortimer and Peadar Gardiner will be ready to play by next weekend.
Horan head-hunted Dr Sean Moffatt last year, and also managed to secure the services of two physios, Mayo-based Caroline Brennan, and Liam Moffatt, who works with both Dublin-based players and those closer to home. Joe Dawson, a sports massage therapist, was also signed up and Mayo’s medical team is described as ‘second-to-none’ by close observers.
NEXT Sunday, regardless of the outcome, James Horan’s professional approach to Mayo’s preparation will inform everything that he, his management team, and his players do from beginning to end.
In the pre-match meeting at Mayo’s hotel, and in the dressing-room at Croke Park, anything he says will not be based on emotions, but on fact. His message will be methodical, matter-of-fact, and result-orientated.
It will be calm and to the point. It will be simple and straightforward. There will be no table-thumping or histrionics.
Even at half-time in Ruislip back in May, with London leading by three points, and Mayo struggling to get going, the manager stayed calm and took stock. He believes in empowering his players and so the likes of Alan Dillon and Andy Moran took the floor initially.
Likewise, at half-time in last year’s county final, Horan sat back and instead it was 18-years-old Cillian O’Connor who delivered some stirring words.
His choice of Mayo’s ‘Maoranna Uisce’ this summer also reveals the new manager’s attention-to-detail and intention to ensure that no message gets lost in translation.
He has hand-picked men that he knew he could trust to get the job done — his brother, John, well-known referee Denis Harrington (who also officiates at Mayo’s ‘A’ v ‘B’ games), and Ballintubber footballers Noel Gibbons and Paul Earley.
Horan’s philosophy, as he said on the night he was appointed, is to create an environment where Mayo players can be the best they want to be. There is no magic or mystery; just an organised and structured approach, on and off the field.
So far, regardless of next Sunday’s outcome, it has served them well.
Club: Process Quality Assurance Manager with Coca Cola, Ballina.
Did you know? He is also a talented golfer with an 8 handicap.