1995 was a forgettable summer for Mayo football and few could have foreseen just how dramatically its fortunes would change inside twelve months.
Galway had handed Mayo a sobering defeat in the final of the Connacht SFC at Tuam Stadium, winning by 0-17 to 1-7, and this after the Green and Red had lost the previous year’s final to Leitrim – one of only two times the province’s smallest county has lifted the Nestor Cup in 121 stagings of the competition.
On top of that, Mayo had just suffered back-to-back relegations so were about to begin the 1995-96 National Football League season in Division 3.
The odds of them starting with a victory then, against the same Galway team that had thrashed them three months earlier, would have been slim enough, even if this was John Maughan’s first game in charge since returning from working miracles with the Clare senior footballers.
Of the Mayo team beaten in Tuam, some notable names were absent from the team-sheet when the sides met again for that league opener in MacHale Park, among them James Nallen, Gary Ruane, Pat Fallon and Ray Dempsey – all of whom would go on to play prominent roles in future All-Ireland finals.
That, however, opened the door for some other would-be stars to dip their toes into the world of senior inter-county football for the very first time. And together with Maughan, they would help re-float what at the time had been a sinking ship.
Among a quartet to make their debuts for Mayo on Sunday, October 15, 1995 was none other than James Horan, who scored three points from play as the Green and Red avenged that year’s provincial final defeat despite scoring less than on that dismal day. Indeed scores by other debutantes David Nestor (1-0) and Maurice Sheridan (0-2), together with Horan’s contribution, accounted for all but one point of Mayo’s 1-6, with Galway registering just six points. Mayo’s other point was scored by Ronan Golding.
There was one other newcomer for Mayo that day with goalkeeper John Madden taking over the role filled by Barry Heffernan for the previous two seasons.
Remarkably, that win against Galway on this day 25 years ago was the first of eight league wins in succession by Mayo that season, including against Meath in the quarter-finals. Five months later the teams were to famously clash – in the truest sense of the word – in the All-Ireland SFC final. Twice.
James Horan started fourteen out of Mayo’s fifteen league and championship matches that 1995-96 season, a merry-go-round journey that took them to Belfast, Gorey, Scotstown and Irvinestown in the league, and even to London for the championship opener – the only game Horan sat out.
By the end of the year, the man who had never played senior football for Mayo twelve months earlier was now an All-Star. By 1999 he had two.
Appearing in three All-Ireland finals as a Mayo player (1996, ’96 replay and ’97) and two more as Mayo manager (2012 and ’13), James Horan continues to chase the dream of watching a Mayo captain climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift the Sam Maguire Cup.
His pursuit truly began on this day 25 years ago.