They say the most romantic kind of love is the unfinished kind. The kind that will forever burn and mark your soul. You date a girl, fall in love, and have a blissfully happy romance. The relationship, like any, has its ups and downs, smiles and frowns and ultimately, for whatever reason, doesn’t work out as hoped. It runs its natural course. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Yet the feelings remain strong. You wonder what might have been, and over time you realise that the pang of longing and regret won’t dissipate. She can’t be the one that got away. You reconcile and both agree to give it one more chance. Maybe this time it will be different.
And so James Horan returns to the role of Mayo senior football manager with unfinished business. The love affair is set to continue. However, will things be different this time? Can they even be the same? Horan’s pained paramour is now that bit older – four years’ worth of miles on the clock and four years of accompanying scars in need of healing.
Mayo football was at a low ebb in September 2010 when Horan was ratified as manager for his first term. He was the only man for the job, as he was by then on the cusp of leading his native Ballintubber to a first senior county title that year. The disastrous John O’Mahony experiment brought just one provincial title and concluded with defeat to Longford in a June qualifier, following an already chastening provincial defeat to Sligo. Still, Deputy O’Mahony was elected to Dail Eireann during his reign so perhaps he has fonder memories of that particular rekindling.
Horan became, over the next 4 years, arguably the most successful manager in Mayo history – 4 consecutive Connaught titles and 3 All Ireland Final appearances in 4 years is no mean achievement. 14 All Stars were handed out to Mayo men in that period, a golden generation with personal accreditation to reward their efforts. A special player/manager bond was forged. Lee Keegan tweeted on the night of Horan’s resignation in 2014 – “To the great man. All I can say is thank you”.
Horan was the definition of a player’s manager – calm, measured, empowering, yet ruthless. Just ask Conor Mortimer. Mayo’s play imbued a toughness and togetherness, an almost pugnacious physicality under his watch, shedding the “soft touches” or “Swedish maids” tag of prior years. But alas, the one prize that mattered, remained elusive during his tenure, instead settling, in Dublin (2011, 2013), Donegal (2012) and Kerry (2014).
And so the question lingers: can Mayo reach the Promised Land under Horan’s second coming? Wrestling Sam Maguire from the capital to Castlebar seems unlikely on all current form and evidence. Since Horan’s departure, Jim Gavin’s charges have won four All-Ireland titles in a row. Galway, under Kevin Walsh’s stewardship, have overtaken Mayo as the dominant force in Connaught over the last number of years.
Would a Connaught title and a run in the Super 8s represent success for Mayo next year? You would have to argue not. After all, provincial success and an All-Ireland semi-final appearance in 2015 held little sway for this group of players when it came to the ill-fated management team of Holmes and Connelly. No, the only barometer of success for this group of players and supporters can be an All-Ireland title.
2019 arguably represents Horan’s best shot at success, purely as time is not on his side. The average age of the Mayo team which meekly exited the 2018 Championship at the hands of Kildare was 29. The average age of the Dublin team which coasted to four in a row against Tyrone in September was just 26. Dublin have seamlessly brought in young, fresh players each year – Murchan, Small, McCaffrey, Fenton, Howard, O’Callaghan, Kilkenny, Scully, Costello and Mannion were all born in 1993 or since then. Of Mayo players in that age bracket, only Paddy Durcan and Diarmuid O’Connor could legitimately be regarded as successes. Stephen Coen and Conor Loftus have flattered to deceive thus far.
Dublin won their 28th All-Ireland title with MacAuley, Flynn, Brogan, O’Gara, Andrews and McManamon reduced to mere squad players. Connolly is now deemed a gamble not worth indulging. The apprentices have taken over the mantle from the masters, bit by bit, year by year. There hasn’t been a whisper, let alone a murmur of discontent. The strength in depth is frightening. Conversely, Mayo’s best forward made his debut in 2004 and will be 35 in November. The dearth in depth is frightening.
All this means that Horan will need to either a) find a whole raft of new talent within the county; b) blend some new players with the existing core group or c) go to the well once more with the same band of brothers. Option A seems far-fetched. Option B would be most preferable. Option C seems most likely.
The general consensus is that Horan is the right man for the now; the landlord of this last chance saloon. His love for and commitment to Mayo football is unquestioned; the players’ loyalty and commitment to him reciprocated. The hope is that if there is one last kick in this team, one last sting in this particular wasp, then Horan will bring it to the fore in 2019. Horan is the Mayo County Board’s Plan A, B, C and D.
Common sense suggests that the chance of All-Ireland glory has passed for Moran, Higgins, Clarke, Boyle, O’Shea, McLoughlin, et al. Evidence points to a team in decline. Horan is inheriting a lesser team than that which he left behind. Yet Mayo have shown they are at their most dangerous in the face of adversity, when their backs are up against the walls. Mayo don’t do common sense. After all, this relationship is a matter of the heart. Horan and Mayo have agreed to give this love affair one more chance. No regrets.
Maybe this time it will be different.