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Reeling in the Horan years

Sport

IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN James Horan and James Burke celebrate after the final whistle in the 2019 National League Division 1 Final after Mayo beat Kerry at Croke Park. Pic: Conor McKeown

The reaction to James Horan’s departure shows how much he changed Mayo football

Analysis
Edwin McGreal

IF you had been told at the outset of James Horan’s two terms as Mayo manager that they would lead where they led, this week you’d expect an outpouring of emotion, sadness and regret from Mayo fans akin to that afforded players who retired in recent seasons.
And while there have been plenty of tributes, there’s a noticeable ambivalence among many Mayo supporters at the end of ‘Horan II’.
It stands in marked contrast to the rawness felt after his departure in 2014 post the Kerry replay defeat in the Gaelic Grounds.
Why is the mood so for the departure of Mayo’s greatest ever manager?
It’s worth recapping his achievements.
In the wake of losing to Sligo and Longford in 2010, Horan came in and brought Mayo to four successive All-Ireland semi-finals, finals in 2012 and 2013, and they were arguably the best team in the land in 2014, where one of the most shocking refereeing displays of modern times played a seismic role in their extra-time defeat to Kerry.
In late 2018, he came in after Mayo’s Qualifier loss to Newbridge when there was quite a broad consensus that Mayo were on the slide after four All-Ireland final defeats from 2012 to 2017.
Yet in 2019 he led them to a celebrated National League title and an All-Ireland semi-final.
A team that were expected to be ‘in transition’ reached the following two All-Ireland finals.
His term ended like his first, in an All-Ireland series defeat to Kerry, but in a far meeker manner than that battle in Limerick.
History will be kind to James Horan, many have said.
Why isn’t the present kinder?
There are a few reasons. We can start with the obvious.
As good as so many of his seasons were: (six Connacht titles and All-Ireland semi-finals in seven out of eight seasons), the failure to win an All-Ireland is impossible to shrug off.
As Séamie O’Shea said when he retired last year, if you had said you were going to be in as many finals as Mayo were the past decade and won one of them, you’d have considered it a bad return.
For Mayo to stand at zero wins from 13 attempts since 1989, and having to go back 71 years for our last success is simply incredible.
And while there was a romanticism about the journey for much of the last decade among many Mayo fans, that has made way for a deep frustration, a weariness, particularly in the aftermath of the defeat to Tyrone.
Most people are sick of the journey now; they just want to arrive at the destination.
The hand of history has weighed heavily on Mayo and that’s certainly not James Horan’s fault. But he will know that four finals under his watch and no wins is a bad return.
And while expectations might have been much lower in 2010, they certainly are not now. That’s because of James Horan’s success at making Mayo so consistently competitive and is also what has, in part, cursed him now.
He did everything but win an All-Ireland and in the modern world of black or white, there’s no room for nuance by far too many people.
It’s why Jim McGuinness is rated higher than Horan despite Mayo’s enduring consistency.
As blogger An Spailpín Fánach observed this week:  “In the Michael Murphy era, Mayo have dominated Donegal but Donegal won the one game that matters above any of the others. You may think it unfair, but that’s the competition and if you don’t like it go play something else.”
But the lack of an All-Ireland is not the only reason for the current mood.

Tactics and media
WHOLE books could be written on the discussion of James Horan’s tactics over the years. He has always had a pretty singular vision for how his Mayo teams have played. ‘Horanball’ relies on athleticism, hard running and wearing teams into submission.
While there have been subtle variances on this, the overarching approach has been quite constant.
It’s not necessarily his only philosophy – at club level he set up Westport defensively.
And his Ballintubber team won their first county senior final in 2010 on an 0-8 to 0-5 scoreline, not out of kilter with their games en route to the final.
He sees ‘Horanball’ as the best way to get the most out of the talents he has. Others disagree. Former Cavan manager Terry Hyland once quipped about having 10,000 selectors. Horan had more. Some knew what they were talking about, many more did not.
And while you can argue that Horan needed to take different approaches in different games, we must not forget that Mayo have lacked enough top-level forwards, ergo the need for frequent raids from defenders and gaps left in their wake; we can’t forget that Mayo’s game intelligence and amount of smart footballers are more limited than other top teams (oh for an Alan Dillon these past three seasons) therefore patient, probing football has proven difficult, so high octane, running games are often better suited.
How much of these issues are ones Horan could have improved and how much are just the cards he was dealt is hard to say.
But Mayo certainly did need to be more flexible in games, something they achieved more in the Stephen Rochford era than in Horan’s second coming.
What certainly did not help Horan in his second term was how he communicated to the outside world.
We found him increasingly difficult to deal with from a media point of view, compared to his first term. We could throw our toys out of the pram but, while critical of his approach, we must know that this is but one colour in the kaleidoscope of inter-county management, if one of the more public facets of the role.  
That being said, when you are under attack, as Horan frequently was, he could have been far more proactive about getting his message out, changing the narrative.
Too often he stayed quiet or demurred questions that were huge talking points and in the modern cauldron of social media, the barking grew louder and louder.
In the fog of anger, egos and agendas that came from some of his critics (though not all, we hasten to add), his achievements have almost become sidelined.
Right now, never mind in the fullness of time, there can be no doubt about how much better he has left Mayo football than where he found it.
He has changed the culture from a yo-yoing of fortunes to consistent excellence. He has cultivated an interest in the game never seen before in a county that was quite rabid to begin with.
The minors that will take to Hyde Park in the All-Ireland Final on Friday grew up following Mayo as they dined at the top table year in, year out. Their outlook on Mayo football is vastly more positive and confident than those of us who grew up in earlier decades.
That’s some legacy James Horan can lay claim to.
If Mayo fall down from where we are now, it will not be his fault but the fault of those for whom the custodianship has been passed onto that they cannot continue the legacy.
If Mayo go on and reached the promised land in the coming years, James Horan’s role in that will be seismic.

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