The country is getting back to the way things used to be, opening up and stretching its arms wide for the first time properly in almost two years - but the flicker of faces on computer screens is still the communication method of choice for a late Monday appointment for James Horan with the Mayo press corp.
Ahead of the start of the National Football League, Horan sat down, virtually, before the start of his eighth season in charge of the Mayo seniors, which has seen him pick up six Connacht titles, a National League title and appearances in four All Ireland finals.
On the upcoming league, Horan said: "It's a big challenge for us, but it is a fresh year, a new year, you know, a new season; nothing is written yet or nothing done, so now we are looking forward to getting going."
As regards what he hopes to get out of the league, whether that be about getting performances or just trying to build for championship, which comes up in late April, the Ballintubber man said: "I know I say it all the time, but we probably haven’t looked past tomorrow night and training; we had a meeting earlier on today before this, looking into the logistics and getting ready for the game at the weekend. It is a bit different for us, because we don’t have any home games and it’s funny the knock-ons that come from that and we have to make sure that is all sorted.
"We have done the planning and we have training on Tuesday and Friday and we’ll get that right and because we have so many moving parts at the moment, with the different competitions etc, that is another aspect to look at.
"There is a certain way, things we are trying to do and change, and to try and get that right, we will be measuring ourselves against how those go, and that will be a key aspect in every game for us.
"I wouldn’t mind winning the league, the seasons are changing, and it is condensed and all that stuff, we have an awful lot of space to move into and things we can improve, and you can’t sort of write off games because you are doing this, and you hope to get that, later on in the thing.
"You must go into each game, looking to do the best you can – looking for commitment and honesty and all those things in high performance, you are looking to hit those markers all the time, regardless of anything else. There is a load of those things, that you will be looking for and demanding of ourselves, whatever comes from that, great, but it will be along those lines."
As for whether this year there will be any difference in his way of approaching things in his role, it's going to be pretty much the same, according to Horan. "Same as any other year, looking at the players, looking at the games ahead, looking at the season, what we can do, where we can go, identifying things we want to work on as a group.
"When you are managing Mayo, you just want to do the best you can and with the players, do the best you can, see where that goes; there will always be other managers and teams will grow and change, so when I am in there, I just want to try and do the best I can."
Getting the message across: Giving instructions against Sligo in last year's championship. Photo: Sportsfile.
Looking back to go forward
Last September saw Mayo taste defeat once more in the All Ireland senior final, when asked by the Mayo Advertiser how soon was that parked or has he gone back over the game a few times since then, Horan said: "I suppose, like anything, there is no point in rushing or flaking into anything like that. Everyone evaluates games in different ways and different times, we took the time and chatted to the support team, so we went through that.
"Again, there is always things we are looking for in games, we hit some of them and we didn’t do some of the key ones, it is the challenge of trying to develop and grow that.
"Very quickly guys go back to their clubs and things take off very quickly and that is one of the good things about football, there is always, you know, another season or another game or new young players coming through, that generates enthusiasm or momentum and guys go playing games. Very quickly you move on, as in life, life moves on as well.
"After a while we were planning the combines and saw some of the talent there, that gets you going and plotting and planning again."
Styles, sweepers and subtle changes
A criticism that has been levelled at Mayo is that teams play only one way and aren't adaptable enough to change things up if they need to. That assertion is something that Horan rejects explaining: "I often smile, I remember when I got the job initially, we had just won our first county title with Ballintubber and we played with a sweeper and there was uproar ,that the new manager would be a defensive-minded manager and have sweepers etc; so I always laugh when I think back on that.
"We have evolved and played differently, season to season, game to game, to be honest. But there is always a couple of principals in the way we play. There is loads of stuff we can get better within that, that we are working hard on.
"Different players come in, in different years, and you look at the players you have and what is the most effective or dangerous way you can play in that to give you the best opportunity; we always look at that and see what else is needed or needs to change. There are changes every year, some of them might be subtle and some of them this year might be subtle."
"There is always the debate, if you play with two sweepers or this that or the other, that we would have won the game, but none of that can ever be proven. It is opinions and all those things, if you played with two sweepers you may have been beaten 0-10 to 0-7 in a low scoring game, you never know.
"Our job as managers and the support team is to look at the players and try and develop the players and come up with the game that we think is the most dangerous for the group of players that we have and that is what we are always try and do."
Back on the road: James Horan will be taking charge of Mayo for his eighth season this year. Photo: Sportsfile.
The back six and driving on
The fluidity of the modern game and its ever-changing moving parts on the field of play is something that every manager has to deal with. When Horan was asked about the feeling that some people have that Mayo are potentially wasting two very potent threats to their opponents in Oisin Mullin and Lee Keegan, by having them minding house in the full back line, he pointed out that the game is no longer about the number on your back at all and things change all the time in the game.
He explained: "You go through our back line, we have Paddy Durcan, we have Stevie Coen, Eoghan McLoughlin, Rory Brickenden, Lee, Oisin, Enda Hession - on any given day there is a huge amount of players available and depending on who you are playing, you might have to set up a different way, depending on who's marking who. If there is match-ups, it could be a different way, those players can change out of a line, there is changing in match-ups, there are so many different variables that can happen.
"Lee in particular has done a huge job for us at corner back, particulary last season, that is strong; we have played Oisin in various positions, we have played Paddy Durcan numerous times at full back or corner back, we have played him man-marking, it all depends.
"The day of just telling, this is where it is and you stay in your half back line and that’s it, that doesn’t happen. There is such mobility and movement in games now all the time, that things change, but look, we have a lot of good defenders, we have Brendan Harrison thankfully back in the mix as well, Padraig O’Hora, there are a good mix of players that are fighting for spots.
"It's no longer a 1 to 15 game, people say such a guy should be tried at eleven or midfield. You'll find that over simplistic anyalsis of a game which is now so fluid, it's hard to keep up where guys are playing.
"It’s changing, you take in particular the half back or half forward line, they are so interchangeable now. You know that happens all the time, I know a lot of people still analyse games based on the number on the player's back, I have heard analysis of a player in the middle of the field or the half forward line, but sure he was never in the half forward line whatsoever.
"Gaelic can be funny and it is such a dynamic game and that is why we love it, there is such movement and fluidity – that you need players, think of Oisin Mullin who scored the goal against Clare and you think of, Enda Hession at wing back and how he can come up and score and could slot in at half forward – Stevie Coen and the versatility he shows, you need that versatility and those options where Gaelic is now."
Putting yourself out there and what comes with that
Going into his eighth season in charge of the senior side and all the effort and time that goes into the role, along with plenty of flak along the way, why do it?
Answering this question put to him, the Mayo manager, replied: "It is like anything, if you do anything you stand up and put your head above the norm, you put yourself out there, good or bad, you are going to get commentary, you learn to deal with that and if that dictated your thoughts or teams you picked or decisions you made, you should no longer be in the job.
"I’ve done a masters in coaching, being involved in football it is something I love doing, and I think sport is a place you can see growth and development of people at a very quick rate, because of the attitudes and common goal and the central purpose that fellas have, so I think things can change very quickly, so it is exciting to be part of that.
"For the most part, it is uncomplicated, it is guys wanting to push on and do well and represent their county. There is something great about being involved in that and with the talent and the character we have, they are great to be involved with and when you start winning games, it is a potent mix when you put it all together."
When it comes to the focus that he and his team is subject to, he went on to say: "Football is about opinions; I often think about it in England on a Wednesday up in Stoke, you have thousands of people chanting in the stands and whatever, half the fun is going to the game and discussing the game and going through it, that is a huge part of football. I was talking to a family today who were at the Tooreen game and on about the day out and discussions and they met people at the game before and had debates and this and that. That’s part of every sport that there is, I realise that.
"Nobody likes getting criticism, saying that, but look it is part and parcel of what it is. The more experienced you get, the more you realise that a lot of what is being said is just noise. Where it does bother people is when there is blatant untruths published and I suppose that is something you move on from as well."
Bringing the topic back to why he does it, he continued: "The enjoyment, the real enjoyment is from working with the players, and watching young players grow, working with the support team, there is a strong connection with everyone pulling the same way, trying to do their bit to drive Mayo football on. When you are in that, there is real strength being in that group, I really enjoy that.
"We go to training on the back pitch in MacHale Park and there is 40 or 50 people there in the group and every one of them, unconditionally, is trying to do their bit to put the thing forward. When you are part of something like that, you can't help but enjoy it, life happens and can have its ups and downs and, but being part of that, is a pure joy to be part of, so that’s where I get the real kick."
New faces getting their chance
The tail end of last year saw Horan and his management team run his eye over a number of players who hadn't been part of last years squad over a series of combines held in the Connacht GAA Center of Excellence - speaking about how some of the new faces that have come in so far this year, Horan said: "Delighted with the new players, there is I suppose a funny thing, we just have Conell Dempsey and Pearse Ruttledge in for the last couple of weeks and both of those have done very well since they came in, they are only in a short time. But have done very, very well.
"We have had Sam Callinan in and Donnacha McHugh since our first training session and both are developing – happy with their progress and you know Paddy Henegahen, Frank (Irwin ), Fionan Duffy and Conor McStay – are in as well and are doing well. But inter-county football takes a while to find your feet I suppose on the physical side of it, you are looking to sustain but we are very happy with how a lot of those guys have taken to it and their attitude they are displaying."
As for any being let got at this early point of the season, it's all very fluid with the way things are in regards to avaialbilty and potential injuries and everything else that goes with all the various football competitions taking place at this time of year. "There have been a number of players in, and we are still discussing with a number of others it is a funny situation, because there is still some club players, obviously Kilmeena are still in the championship – that we still want to have a look at. But they could get injured in their campaign and they might not want to be involved and we have the likes of Frank Irwin, Ruairi Keane, Rory Brickenden, Tommy Conroy, Fionn McDonagh and Eoghan McLaughlin, we have a huge amount involved in Sigerson as well – so we intended to have the panel a little bit lower at the moment, but based on the amount for games going on, we just need to see where things are following Sigerson etc.
The pressure put on younger players in particular at this time of year is something that Horan is worried about with potential injuries cropping up: "The hardest thing is on the players, if you think of it you could be a player that has finished a long club season and you are straight into the inter-county and Sigerson and then you might be u20 you know, so much is squeezed into such a period of time – I think injury rates are going to be higher, I have no data to back it up, but that would be my feelings and we just need to be cognisant of that as a management team that we put the players first and foremost."
Year eight of the James Horan Mayo adventure is about to get up and running proper, it'll be foot to the floor from here to the end of July all things going well - as for where it the final stop on this years journey on that adventure is, we wait to see where it will take us.