SIXTEEN years ago James Horan was a Mayo star and Aidan O’Shea was an awestruck six-year-old at an open training session in the lead-up to the 1996 All-Ireland senior final.
Fast forward to last Friday, and O’Shea and his Mayo team-mates were the centre of attention as hundreds of young supporters mingled with them on the field at McHale Park at the Mayo GAA ‘Open Evening’.
Meanwhile, James Horan is known to all of the kids present as the Mayo manager now; most of them weren’t born when he was collecting his All Stars.
Horan and selector, Tom Prendergast, watched on as Mayo captain Andy Moran signed what seemed like every jersey in the place while Peadar Gardiner supervised the penalty kicks on sub-goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly.
Music from Dizzie Rascal, Sia and David Guetta, and The Killers blasted out on the PA, and there was a real sense of carnival about the place.
“I think this is a great initiative tonight to be honest,” a relaxed-looking Horan told The Mayo News.
“I think it could have been promoted even a bit better. There were a lot of people asking me today around the county what exactly was it. But it’s a great initiative, and it’s a great chance for the players to meet some of the young kids who are supporting them and vice-versa.
“I think there should be more of it,” he added at the press conference he attended with Andy Moran and Aidan O’Shea on the night.
However, it was back to business for the Mayo squad later on that evening. As the kids and their parents departed, a full training session began and preparations for Mayo’s Connacht championship semi-final on June 24 continued.
The eight week gap from the NFL final to the clash against London or Leitrim is seen as far from ideal by many. But James Horan isn’t one of them.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to use the seven weeks as well as we can. If we plan it out and use it well, we’ve a lot of stuff that we can work on.
“Seven to eight weeks is a full cycle in terms of strength and conditioning so we’re looking forward to using it as well as we can,” he added. “Obviously we need to sprinkle it with challenge games and monitor the clubs games as well. It is a great chance for us to improve as a team.”
So, where exactly do Mayo need to improve after the league campaign?
“If you take the last game against Cork, which is probably the best example, we didn’t win enough primary possession in the middle of the field, got hammered on breaking ball, and didn’t get the score return we should have on the possession we had in the first half,” he began.
“So key areas like that, key fundamentals of the game, are things we need to work on.”
When asked about Mayo’s level of intensity in the Cork game, James Horan conceded that his team need to play at a high tempo if they’re to be successful.
“Playing the game at a high tempo suits us and suits the type of players that we have and that’s what we try to do. When we do that, we’re dangerous and competitive.
“We didn’t do that as well as we can against Cork and that’s because, possibly, they didn’t let us. They rattled us a little bit and we were turning back as opposed to driving forward. They’re key things we can work on.”
The 40 year-old Breaffy resident also has plenty of reasons to be optimistic; for one, he feels Mayo have brought a greater consistency to their play.
“The league last year was a complete roller-coaster, just getting to know the players and their systems and what we were trying to do. This year, we had a bit of a dip against Donegal but, overall, the standard of performance was a lot higher and a lot more consistent than it was last year.
“The amount of goals we conceded last year was significant, over ten. This year we conceded very few. Last year we started very poorly in every game, this year we started very well in every game. So a lot of the stuff that we needed to address, we have.
“We’ve a huge amount of work to do though but bit by bit we’re plugging holes and improving things that we need to improve.”