Just over a year ago a screeching halt was called on life as we knew it and with it the action on the sporting field.
Last years National Football League and All Ireland Football Championships were able to be ran off later in the year, with Mayo contesting the All Ireland Final in late December. But that has been the last action on the Gaelic football fields.
When action was able to resume last year, it looked like some sort of normality was returning to the sporting landscape and many would have assumed that at this stage of the year - Mayo would be somewhere in the middle of their drive to make it out of division two of the National Football League and preparing for the championship season ahead.
But they are still awaiting confirmation of when they will be able to get back to action on the field, late last week Mayo senior manager James Horan sat down with the local press for a wide ranging interview - where he gave his opinion on a number of things including, the lead in time he feels that teams will need to prepare for the season ahead once they are allowed to get back to collective training, the spate of retirements of experienced players, ones he’s been keeping an eye on to come into the squad and the difference that playing and training on different surfaces can have on players performances.
Last year and learning from it
Looking back on last season and the defeat to Dublin in the All Ireland Final while losing the final was obviously disappointing - there was plenty to take from the season as whole and to look forward to he believes.
“Last year was an interesting year, playing an All-Ireland final at the end of December. We were disappointed, obviously, very disappointed, but we learnt a huge amount in the season.
“I’ve lost track of the amount of players we introduced to championship football, eight or nine or ten, some with very little time under their belts, and their rate of development and growth throughout the year was phenomenal. If that growth continues, it will be interesting in a couple of weeks time when we start to play again. That’s the great unknown.
In regards to the final itself he added: “On reflection of course you think about what we could have done or tried differently, you’ll always have that after any game, but very quickly the players and ourselves moved on to what’s ahead and the opportunity that’s out there.”
When it came to analysing what happened in the final he said: “I don’t think so. The circumstances around the final and leading up to it, and the season were very different but losing a football game is pretty disappointing whenever and however it is.
“We look very honestly at what we did, what we tried to do, how we tried to play, and look back individually and as a group and take the learnings from it and away we go with those and try and build and improve and grow and develop for the next game.
“I haven’t seen some of the players in three months but I’d obviously be in touch with them. Their training and level of commitment just grows year on year and when you have that you’ve always got a great chance. We’re just looking forward to getting together as a group and to getting going.
As for what he feels the younger players learnt from that run he said: “When you strip away everything else what they’re working on is their own individual skills and programmes, decision making, that’s where it’s at. There were a couple of bouncing balls we could have won, a couple of hand passes that if they went through… a couple of the basic things under the highest pressure or the highest pace you can do them at, that’s where it’s at. Hopefully we’ll see the benefits of their hard work."
Mayo picked up just two All Stars despite their drive to the final and the omission of one player in particular from a nomination is something that irked Horan a bit.
“The way I look at the All-Stars is Diarmuid O'Connor wasn't nominated for an All-Star. Just go back and watch his performance in the All-Ireland final. I think that says it all for me.
“Best of luck to Cavan and whoever, but I suppose when we look at it in every game and see some of the performances of some our players and spot stuff that maybe not everyone sees or spots, and the work rate and effort and skills that they put in, as we did with Diarmuid, then that's the reward - the recognition that he gets from the players or management. That's really what counts.”
A year like no other
When inter-county action returned to scene last Autumn it was in front of empty stadiums with just the bare minimum of those needed allowed into the grounds - it was put to Horan that maybe this suited Mayo and taking away the sideshows and other distractions it allowed them to focus completely on just the game.
Horan said: “It was very different for sure. If you look at the amount of young guys we had last year – a phenomenal amount really, more than any other county, and we played more than any other county, we had three young players in for Young Player of the Year – we got an awful lot of development very quickly from our younger players.
“I don't know if it would have been any different with crowds there but there was certainly great clarity in what we were trying to do. There were no distractions – you know, leading up to the final and the organisation of events and tickets and prizes and all that kind of stuff just didn't exist.
“Everything that usually surrounds Mayo football is great, don't get me wrong, but it can be a distraction, particularly for younger players who might play one game and might be all over everything straightaway or people coming up to them or whatever. When that wasn't there, I think it did maybe help them focus on the football.
“Don't get me wrong though, it's not the same without the crowd there. I think the players would say that too. But I think the degree of development we got last year was amazing. Circumstances would have helped that.”
Following on that theme he was asked did it make his job easier as the focus was solely on the football for him and his team.
“I think it does. There can be a lot of distractions, particularly around Mayo football, and they all add us because we might have 40 players, so very quickly you can see how there's a number of things that are small in nature but when all added up could be a distraction to the group or the team or what we're trying to do as a management group.
"When they're not there, the majority of your time can be on coaching or video or working with the players. The more time we can spend on that, the better.”
As for enjoying the big moments during the year when there were no supporters or family to celebrate with or even the ability for them to really enjoy it as a team together for a period of time after a win like over Galway in the Connacht final, it wasn’t really the same he admitted.
“We're like a lot of teams in that the fun is in getting together at training and just that feeling in the dressing room after winning a Connacht final or winning an All-Ireland semi-final. You only have a couple of minutes usually before things move on. That's where the real enjoyment is. It's a short feeling because things move on but it's a great buzz and there's a great vibe around for a while. We just moved on quickly but hopefully we'll be able to do something in the not-too-distant future.”
The Connacht final victory over Galway was a major highlight of the 2020 season, with Horan’s celebration at the end captured on television he was asked was this his highlight of the season.
“Ah look it, that was a very good moment for us as a group. We had our backs to the wall, we were against the wind, the momentum was against us and we were hanging on, and to hang on and come through a game like that with so many young players and so many things going on, I was delighted with that and delighted to get through. Connacht finals are huge for us and huge for the development of teams. We were delighted with that for sure."
Learning all the time: Mayo learned lots last season especially the younger players believes James Horan. Photo: Sportsfile
Saying goodbye to familiar faces
The Mayo squad that gets together for the first time this year will be a very different looking one from the group that has been chasing the All Ireland dream for the past decade or so, with the likes of Seamus O’Shea, Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins, Donal Vaughan, David Clarke and Tom Parsons all stepping away from inter-county game.
The decision of such a number of experienced players to step away didn’t come asa major surprise to Horan.
“Not really. If you weight things up, last season was an interesting season the way it fell, the timeframe of it, it was a shot to nothing for certain players. The guys that retired, what brilliant, brilliant players and people who gave absolutely everything playing for Mayo for a substantial period of time.
“For the majority of those guys, travelling up and down from Dublin, it’s off the charts the level of commitment those guys gave. Life moves on, a lot of them have children, young families, all that kind of stuff, and it’s just the natural order of things as much as anything else.
“We’ve a lot of change in the team but we had that last year. A lot of those guys didn’t really play significant time and a lot of young guys got experience and we’ve a number of young guys in this year that we’re really excited about as well so we’re looking to get them game time. What you may be lacking in experience we’ll have in energy and enthusiasm and ambition, which are huge characteristics.
“Those guys are phenomenal and guys I’ve been involved with for a long, long time and I’m very proud to work with them. You won’t meet better. But it’s on we go.”
One player that Mayo supporters will be looking to see back in green and red this year is Jason Doherty and Hora is fully confident he’ll be back in action for Mayo: “Absolutely. Jason Doherty will be a big part of Mayo’s season.
“(He’s ) Making massive progress. I mean, we talked about role models before, (he’s ) absolutely phenomenal. He’s making very good progress, he’s got a check-up again in March but is doing really really well. We’re very happy with where he is.
“Brendan Harrison is doing really well. So they’re pushing each other along, they’re very similar timeframes. We’re very happy with how they’re doing.”
As for trying to talk any of those who decided their time had come out of their decisions, it was never a runner - once those kind of guys make up their mind that it, Horan added.
“You know the characters involved. Some of those guys I’ve been ten years trying to do it! I think there’s a natural course of events.
“Some of those guys, if they wanted to wait on, absolutely. I still think a number of them could have offered something to Mayo, for sure, but when they weighed up their family situation and everything else, and when they see the talent that’s coming through. .
“They were brilliant last year in how they mentored the younger players, it was fantastic, it was amazing to see actually. So I think the way the season went, it was just a natural end.
“That’s probably why you had six going in very quick succession. It worked well for them, and I think that was important as well after the service they put in for the county.”
Fresh faces and learning as they go
Last year saw a changing of the guard in a certain extent before the announcement of a number of retirements post All Ireland final and there is plenty of exciting talent coming through to fill any gaps the Ballintubber clubman believes.
“If you think back to last year, we had a number of guys who started, Oisin (Mullin ) and Tommy (Conroy ) and Eoghan (McLaughlin ) and Ryan (O’Donoghue ), and they did very well, but we’ve a lot of others.
“Fionn McDonagh was injured, Mark Moran got an injury throughout the year having started very well in the league campaign, Eoin O’Donoghue is pushing very, very well, Jack Coyne was pushing for a lot of last year and we’d be really excited about his potential.
“Padraig O’Hora got in and out for a few games, David McBrien the same, and he’s had a year now under his belt, very athletic, a strong player. So even when you look at some of those guys that have been there for a period of time and didn’t get much game time, they’ll be pushing very, very hard this year.
“On top of that we’re looking at a number of different players, obviously some of the strong under-20s who we’ve had an eye on for a period of time, a lot of the guys who did really well in club football last year, we’ve been monitoring them and been in contact with some of those for a period of time. We think they could do huge things at inter-county level.
“There’s lots of players lining up and really working hard during the off season because when April comes, or whenever we’re back, it’s going to be like a shotgun start so you have to try and get yourself in the best position to get yourself to the top of the grid. That’s what guys are doing now on an individual level so that when we get on the field as a group, very quickly you’re going to have to show what you can do.
“I’m very excited about some of the guys who have been there for a year or so, obviously some of the new guys from last year and some of the fresh crop that we’re looking at. I think they can have a big impact in 2021.”
The players who got their taste of the action last year have now a season of coping as an inter-county player and all that entails on and off the pitch under them and that will be a massive benefit to them going on according to Horan.
“There is huge learning in that, we have some role models there in Diramuid O’Connor and Stevie Coen and Cillian (O’Connor ) and Aidan O’Shea, their preparation, their experience, their everything and you could see the younger players really lapping up how they prepared and how they work.
“Last year we found it tough, some of the younger guys had picked up niggles and that is because of the tempo of inter-county training, but more importantly the lifestyle and the recovery needed around it, is key.
“Sometimes at underage it is not that important, but as the levels progress everything like your sleeping patterns and what you are doing during the day and that kind of stuff is so important in getting the balance.
“I think there was huge learnings from that side of things like lifestyle, sleep, nutrition, your patterns, your routines and your prep and stretching, hydration and all that kind of stuff, I think there was a big realisation from the younger guys of the importance of all that to support your playing on the field.”
Winning a Connacht title and then going on to an All Ireland final will have also been a massive driver for them in showing them what they can potentially achieve in the future he believes.
“Ah yah, the excitement of some of the games they were involved in opened their eyes and was a very good experience for them last year and I’m sure there are a lot more young guys who want to be involved as well.
“It is good all around and it adds to the atmosphere around the group, it is only positive. But there are huge learnings last year right across the board from the youngest to the oldest and we really go after some of those key learnings so we can be that little bit better this season.”
Along with the players who were involved last year Horan’s and his management team are also looking at a number of other players who potentially could make the step up to the senior set up.
“We’re looking at Enda Hession, he’s going very very well. Jack Carney as well is still u20, he’s very strong, he’s still developing. Aidan Orme from Knockmore was very very strong for his club, Colm Moran from Westport came back last season and did very well, Luke Doherty from Ballina had a very good club season in the role that he played, he’s a very athletic player, Conor Igoe is a very very strong player with his club for years, so we’re looking at him. And many many others; Johnny Maughan from Castlebar is back and fit.
“Obviously they can’t train, we haven’t seen them train yet, so we’re just in discussions and looking to see how they can develop over this period. And then when we get back on the field, hopefully we can take a look at them. We’re excited about a lot of them and looking forward to working with them.”
Looking to the future: James Horan is looking forward to getting back on the field with his team. Photo: Sportsfile
Filling the leadership void
With half-a-dozen leaders on the field and in the dressing room now gone from the set up, Horan is confident that there will be no leadership vacuum in the panel - with leaders from those who have just got their toe in the door and others who have been around a good few years at this stage ready to fill the void.
“I think so, I genuinely do. Jack Coyne, for example, he was Under-20 the last few years, he’s back from injury, we went to see him playing for his club, Ballyhaunis, last year and the leadership role he plays in that, for a very young guy.
“There’s many others as well who lead in the way they play; if you look at Eoghan McLaughlin, a leader by deed. We mentioned the Connacht Final there, his turnover and acceleration to pull away from Gary Sice to set up the score for Bryan Walsh. The way some of those guys lead is huge.
“You have Stevie Coen as well, going every single year, he’s captained every single team to All-Ireland success. There’s Diarmuid O’Connor, another different type of leader, Cillian and Aidan O’Shea are there at the other end of things.
“You have Ryan O’Donoghue as well, his leadership capacity, his knowledge of the game, is great. So you have buckets of guys who, over time, will really grow into their roles.”
Coming down the track
While last year was a challenging one, with a pin being put in everything half way through the season, there was something different and even novel about and getting back out there was a huge relief and something to look forward to, this year could potentially be even more challenging with no firm date on when they can get back to work, Horan admitted.
“It’s funny how human psychology works. We’ve talked about it as a group, if you can’t really focus on a date or a time, it helps you focus on the here and now and what training you’re doing now and what you can do this week, and if we’ve more information at the weekend, great, if not we’ll continue on. So in a funny way, it can help you just fully commit to what you can do in that moment in time.
"But obviously, after a period of time it can become challenging if you don’t have a goal or a timeframe or something to work towards. The gym can become mundane and repetitive without something that you are striving towards, so it’s a bit of a battle at times. Hopefully there’s light at the end of the tunnel and by April we’ll be able to get going.”
With other sports continuing behind closed doors and the League of Ireland getting back up and running last weekend, he was asked did he understand the GAA’s position.
“The whole covid restrictions and where we things are at doesn’t make sense to me and doesn’t add up at the moment.
“You look at some shops that can open and some shops that can’t open, you go right through the logic, schools are now open, but with kids sport they can’t play on the pitches - the logical sequence of events as you’d typically see them aren’t there for me.
“I think optimism and having something to look forward too is a huge part of anything and I think the GAA could really add to that, obviously in a safe manner - but I think with the way the season went last year I think it was very safe the way it was conducted.
“I know there were different circumstances now, but I do think it is something that should be looked at - as I said if it can be done in a safe manner lets go for it.
“The announcement of April 12 up north was interesting, I thought it would be before that to be honest and we would co-ordinate with them, but it looks like April 12, I’m just guessing as much as ye guys, but it looks like April 12 at least before we are back on the field at this stage.
“All you can do is keep training, trying different things, a lot of guys are, we’d an interesting campaign last year so you have lots of guys who will pick up lots of niggles, lots of injuries, so while your not playing football it is amazing again the psychology turns to lots of rehab done with some guys, their running has improved, basic skills and agility work can be done and all that stuff can be done individually a lot of that stuff has been done so hopefully we will have a healthier and stronger panel ready to rock when we do.”
Having the lead in time to hit the ground running
With players out of action for a number of months and then getting only a few weeks collective training under their belts before they go into the cut and thrust of action not the field, is going to be a major challenge and Horan believes that at a month is not going to be time enough to ensure players are at level they don’t pick up injuries.
“Personally I don’t think so ( a month lead in time is enough ), you talk to a lot of the experts in the area of conditioning, it is going to be… because we can have absolutely no collective work and there is none happening, so you are going to go probably the middle of April you get together and you have four weeks - it will be max four weeks and then you will go into a run of games, three or five then it could be a week and into championship and then you could have a run of games that could be nine or ten games in nine or ten weeks - going from a standing start.
“With the typical injury rate that you have at inter-county level you could pretty much double that - I have no evidence behind that, it is just based on experience.
“It is going to be very difficult and we will have to be very careful and I know the guys are working on that already to makes sure we ramp that up right, but it is going to be difficult to get that right especially for the first game and injury prevention is going to be a huge part of this season.”
With what he sees as potentially a larger than normal number of injuries early season, it is important that counties be allowed to carry as big a squad as possible to help counteract the expected number of walking wounded he thinks.
“I think that is it, I think we are probably going to have a lot of soft tissue injuries but I think having a bigger squad makes sense for sure.
“I think a six week lead in would be ideal, or a lot better but I don’t think we will get that, when you look at the season and tying to shoehorn it in with the club season then, I don’t think it is possible, but we will work with what we got and we will be as careful as we can with the guys and try and have them as ready as we can.”
With no FBD League and a shortened league season ahead of championship the chances will be limited for those who are trying to stake a claim for a place in the panel or the starting 15 he acknowledged.
“It is gong to be different, you try and give guys game time during the league and all that kinda stuff, maybe a few league games and they have to develop on some stuff and then you bring them on in league games, but you won’t be able to do some of the things you were previously in the league campaigns.
“As I said previously, it is the guys who are working hard to be right for the first session, because you need to be in a good spot to hit the ground running and try and develop from there. Guys that are injured or coming in without some of the pre-season work done that others have, it is going to hard for them to catch up, but that is the nature of the season as it is.”
Celebrating the good times: James Horan celebrates after Mayo's win over Galway in the Connacht final. Photo: Sportsfile
Getting off on the right footing
Mayo find themselves in a very unusual position of playing their league football in the second tier this season, when asked was it vital that they made an instant return to division one this year Horan said: “Winning is important, it brings a lot of things with it. But we’ve a lot of guys, and we’re trying to learn a lot of stuff, so we’ll be looking for development, growth, playing hard for the whole game. . we’ll be looking for a lot of those things.
“We don’t know how a lot of the young guys will take to it yet. We don’t know how ready we’ll be or how ready our opposition will be. It’ll be an interesting league campaign, it’s absolutely critical that we learn and grow and develop very very quickly.
“That will be a huge focus in this year’s league. But make no mistake, winning is really really important for us as well.”
But he doesn’t think that the calibre of opponent they will face in the division will have that much of an effect on them being ready for championship when it rolls around.
“You look at Meath last year, and how close they were in multiple games. They were very very unlucky, and we were lucky to beat them up there.
“I don’t think Down are a bad side either and Westmeath will be a challenge. In and around them, and division one, there’s very little between them. Meath and Down would have All-Ireland aspirations as well.”
Managing the management team
Mayo lost one of their key backroom members ahead of this years campaign with Martin McIntyre stepping away to take up a club management position, so he won’t be able to stay on with Mayo Horan explained.
“No, Martin taking over a serious club like Breaffy will take a huge amount of his time so Martin won’t be part of the backroom team for the coming season. We wish him well with Breaffy, he’s got his hands full there. So we’ll watch it with interest.”
As for replacing him, they have spoken to a few people but haven’t firmed up anything as of the moment.
“We’ve looked at a few things, for sure, as we always do. No major scoop yet, or anything like that. But we’ve talked to a few people, and we’re looking to see if there’s someone or something out there that can help us in whatever way they can.
“If there is, and they fit into the type of environment that we want, then we’ll certainly look at things.”
On a club level, the introduction of a split season between the club and inter-county game is something that Horan believes will be a big benefit for all concerned and last Summer when the club games came back before the inter-county action has already shown that.
“Absolutely. Last year I think we got a kick out of working with the clubs. Ciaran MacDonald was all over the county at training sessions with numerous clubs, I had numerous phone calls with different managers, just trying to develop the players.
“You have them right for the clubs, and if they’re in form and playing well with their clubs, then it’s a benefit for us as well.
“So I think it works really well. The players just want to play football. They don’t want to be doing an inter-county training block while playing club football, or whatever it may be. So I think the clarity will be massive.”
Getting pitch perfect
The surface will be ripped up and replaced in MacHale Park later this year, getting the pitch in tip top condition is something that will only benefit Mayo in the long run the manager is confident of: “ Absolutely. It’s huge the difference. We’ve trained at MacHale Park, we’ve played at MacHale Park, wth GPS and everything, and then we’ve trained at Abbotstown and we’ve trained in Ballyhaunis, and the speed of the game, and the difference in the surfaces, you wouldn’t believe how quick, and how big the difference can be.
“If we train in Castlebar, whether it’s the movement because it’s a little bit heavier, or a bit more uneven so the ball if it hits the ground, the game slows down significantly.
“Whereas if you’re training on a top pitch all the time, your skills etc will go quicker. So it’s absolutely critical that we get a good pitch. And I think everyone agrees that MacHale Park can, and needs to improve."