WHEN James Horan took the Mayo job, with the county torn apart by ignominy of championship defeats to Sligo and Longford, he promised no All-Ireland titles, and none were expected.
He did promise that Mayo would be “consistently competitive” and those that had been there for the implosion in Pearse Park dreamt that it might be so.
Three and a bit seasons on, Horan has won roughly nine out of every 10 championship games he has overseen. His team stand 70 minutes from winning a fourth Connacht championship running. No Mayo team has achieved that since the 1940s, and in the four years before Horan arrived, Mayo could win only one out of four.
Consistently competitive? Mayo have been much better than that. They have been much better than everyone bar the very best team in Ireland on the very biggest day in football for two seasons now.
There is a rumour that this might be Horan’s last season in the Bainisteoir’s bib. Surely Mayo fans, fearing a return to beatings from second-rate opponents, pray that it is not true?
Well, not exactly. Or at least not all of them. Here’s a sample of some of the comments about Sunday’s victory in Roscommon from the excellent Mayo GAA blog:
“Horan’s tactical nous is now being quite rightly challenged by the Mayo fans that know football.”
“Spillane said at half time that under James Horan he has yet to see a clear attacking strategy in this Mayo team…spot on Pat…”
“Horan must take a huge portion of blame…”
“Disgraceful today. Worst I’ve seen in years. Horan… has a severe inability to read a game… NO GAME PLAN!!!”
It’s a bit of a cheap trick, reprinting such guff, for the internet crazies and phone-in crackpots proliferate in every county where football is taken seriously. It is no surprise to find a nest of them thriving in Mayo, the county with more Twitter followers and Facebook fans than any other, where football is beyond serious. And it is also true that the sensible posts outnumber the demented.
But we do so because this nonsense that Mayo are somehow being held back by their manager’s inability to crack the final puzzle of top-class football is not restricted to the odd myopic supporter. It is gaining currency, and it is the sort of talk that will always be found in the company of empty buzz phrases such as “marquee forward” and “attacking strategy”.
And if you ever find yourself engaged in a debate about Mayo with one of these people, whether they be unhinged keyboard fan number 147 or Pat Spillane, run a mile and then sprint some more. It is an unwinnable argument, for if Mayo don’t win Sam Maguire, they cannot be wrong.
James Horan must get it right every match; the naysayers only have to keep predicting doom and it will eventually arrive, for only he who never plays never loses.
Hammer Donegal, hammer Tyrone, hammer Cork, hammer Galway, hammer Roscommon? Ah sure them boys are no good anyway.
Pick an experienced line-up? Too conservative, James. We’ll never find a marquee forward that way.
Try two new half-forwards in the championship? Naïve, James. Everyone can see it but you.
Lose to Dublin? He’s not training them hard enough. Fail to win the league? They’re burnt out.
Destroy the All-Ireland champions, to the extent that you’re 20 points up early in the second half and finish with a scarcely believable 4-17? Pat has yet to see a clear attacking strategy.
And woe betide you, James, if you fail to shoehorn every highly-rated player into the side, for the man you leave off will always be the best man. This summer, that man is Richie Feeney, a good player no doubt, a stalwart of Castlebar’s success, but with every game he doesn’t play, he goes from a good player to the perfect cross between Trevor Giles and Maurice Fitzgerald in the eyes of the detractors.
Look, there is no question that Sunday’s win in Dr Hyde Park was far from Mayo’s best under Horan. But this was a championship game at the home of Mayo’s fiercest rivals, who have a stack of promising footballers, who put 13 men behind the ball and worked like men possessed on a dodgy pitch that had just been the subject of a downpour.
Does it occur to the pessimists that such games are not easy? Do they think Mayo would have won such a game four years ago? And if there is to be constructive criticism of Mayo’s failings on Sunday, is there any credit to be given for the mental strength shown by Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor and several others? For the notion that such qualities have been nurtured in a highly organised Mayo setup?
Horan is only to blame for the problems, never to be credited for what works. People talk about Mayo’s fine defence as if it was always there, as if it was not Horan who recalled Colm Boyle, who put his faith in Ger Cafferkey and Tom Cunniffe, who has overseen Lee Keegan’s development into perhaps the best half-back in the country, Sunday’s off-day notwithstanding.
The fact is that Mayo are about where they were last week. A fine team that might win the All-Ireland but probably won’t. They will not find another elite forward because one does not exist, and anyway, they have two brilliant ones, Moran and O’Connor, and both have proven it on big days. They will probably win that fourth Connacht title running and their All-Ireland quarter-final without too much fuss.
All of the above is educated guess, but here’s a certainty: Someday, they will spend time back among the also-rans, the vast majority of counties whose fans can only dream of suffering defeat in September rather than July.
Only then, when it is much too late, when Roscommon or Galway hold the whip in the west, will some people appreciate the remarkable achievements of James Horan.