By Anthony Hennigan
It was to one sentence above all the rest that my ears pricked during James Horan’s recent interview with . Asked by presenter Tommy Marren about the state of his relationship with Mayo County Board, Horan said his brief was specifically “to try and develop young players, to try and improve the players, try and improve them as people, bring it all up together, and try and be as successful as we possibly can”.
What struck me was not just what the Mayo manager said but the order in which he said it. Language, you see, is important. What you say and how you say it.
The one thing I’d suggest is least James Horan’s job is the thing he said first. And the one thing I’d suggest is James Horan’s primary responsibility is the thing he said last.
Ask yourself, has Jack O’Connor gone back to manage Kerry with an instruction “to try and develop young players”? Not likely. He spent long enough doing that in separate stints as county minor and U20/21 manager — and even then you can be sure that development took a back seat to results. That’s just his nature. No, O’Connor’s brief for 2022 is very specific and carries the initials AI — and he sure ain’t no vet.
Results are the reason Jack O’Connor and not Peter Keane is now the Kerry manager. Keane’s brief was not to develop players (he, too, spent long enough doing that when Kerry were winning five All-Ireland minor titles in a row, three of them on his watch, two on O’Connor’s) but to return Sam Maguire to the Kingdom. It didn’t matter to Kerry officials that the players liked Keane; Kerry officials — and the public they represent — didn’t like not winning All-Irelands more. You might even say that Kerry officials were more bothered by Tyrone winning this year’s All-Ireland final than the officials of the team Tyrone beat in the final, given the ruthlessness of their actions at the end of this season.
Results are also the reason Henry Shefflin was last week named as the new Galway hurling manager. The Galway County Board said his appointment underpinned their “immediate ambition” for their flagship team. No further explanation of that immediate ambition was even required.
Is what James Horan believes is his brief and what Mayo County Board believes is his brief one and the same?
I ask because I also wonder if Jack O’Connor has gone back to manage Kerry with an instruction to try and improve the Kerry players “as people”, as James Horan says is his remit in Mayo. I sincerely doubt it. Nor was Jim Gavin too bothered about the moral compass within some of those men he sent into battle against Mayo and the rest during Dublin’s all-conquering run, likewise Mickey Harte when he dragged Tyrone from the shadows in the early noughties. And nor have Galway officials issued any such request to Henry Shefflin.
Quite frankly, I’m not looking for the next Pope Francis to captain the Mayo team, nor do I care if it’s a barrister or barman who puts the ball between the posts for Mayo, or drag queen or dentist who stop the other team from putting it between ours (not that I’ve anything against barristers or dentists). I just want Mayo to win an All-Ireland. And to give ourselves the best opportunity, surely our focus needs to be on creating winners first, better people second. Walk the Hogan first, the Camino on your holidays.
But as much as James Horan might have us believe otherwise, Mayo’s difficulty is not developing players. Only Kerry have appeared in more All-Ireland minor finals than Mayo, and Mayo have won the same number of All-Ireland U21 titles as Dublin and Tyrone, and have appeared in more finals than both. So, what’s required of him or any Mayo senior football manager for that matter, is not really “to try and develop young players” but to apply the finishing touches.
The national consensus, after all, is that Mayo had plenty good enough players to win at least one All-Ireland senior football title in the past decade. If Donegal, Kerry, and Tyrone could do it, even during Dublin’s incredible era, then why not us? What did those counties possess that we didn’t?
One-off, individual results such as this year’s semi-final victory over Dublin carry the risk of clouding judgement when what probably needs to be seriously considered is this: Are Mayo any wiser about how to win an All-Ireland SFC title than when they lost to Donegal by four points in James Horan’s first final in charge in 2012, now that they have lost by five points to Tyrone in James Horan’s fourth final in charge?
To assist in the search for that answer, it would have been useful had Tommy Marren pounced when the manager willingly offered that there were “learnings” and “ownership” he had to take from last month’s defeat. What are those learnings? What are the things James Horan believes he got wrong? It would have been intriguing to hear such self-reflection. But to be fair, a mid-morning current affairs programme was never realistically going to be the time or the place for such forensic analysis.
But if developing young players is what Mayo County Board has at its number one ask of James Horan, then the Ballintubber man is delivering in spades. I’d actually go so far as to say there’s no inter-county football manager can rival Horan for the speed in which he is able to turn rookies into serious senior footballers.
It really is a quite incredible achievement that in the past three seasons he has handed out 23 championship debuts and still been able to keep Mayo so competitive that they have contested three All-Ireland semi-finals and two finals. Indeed if Mayo GAA ever in the future decided to travel the road of appointing a head coach to an adult development squad, which is something Galway hurling is doing for 2022, then James Horan would be an unbelievable person to fulfill that duty.
But developing players to keep Mayo “consistently competitive”, as was Horan’s stated ambition over a decade ago, is quite separate to what he outlined as his aim when returning for a second stint at the job in 2018.
“I came back to win the All-Ireland,” he told a gathering of around 250 Mayo supporters at a swanky Cáirde Mhaigh Eo Christmas Lunch in the Shelbourne Hotel.
But just like how there’s more to fine dining than quality ingredients, and that’s it’s the cooking and presentation that wins the Michelin Star, it’s something similar with the Sam Maguire; developing quality players only gets you some of the way. The success depends on the chef and their recipe.
Another point of interest to James Horan’s interview with Tommy Marren was his flat denial of any truth to the rumour that he had fallen out with his selectors or that either or both Ciaran McDonald and James Burke had departed his management team.
“I find it incredible. The amount of untruths that were published on this is just phenomenal,” he told Marren.
And you could fully understand just how annoyed all three individuals would be if something quite so baseless and untrue was being circulated by established and new media alike. What’s difficult to fathom though is why Horan or McDonald or Burke or Mayo County Board acted so slowly to quash the rumours.
It was on September 17 that a national newspaper first published a story that Ciaran McDonald had departed the Mayo backroom team. claimed online that same day to have sought comment from the selector. On September 19, Mayo GAA released what it termed as an ‘End of Season Position Statement’ on behalf of the Mayo senior football team but that contained absolutely nothing to pour cold water on any of the speculation.
Eventually, on September 29, Mayo GAA chairman Liam Moffatt, at a monthly meeting of the County Board, said: “There’s no truth in the rumour that anybody is stepping down” but still there was nothing by way of an official statement issued.
In fact, it wasn’t until a full 31 days after the story first appeared in print that James Horan, in his interview on Midwest Radio, finally rubbished all talk of backroom unrest.
“I haven’t come out and said anything because there was nothing really to say,” he told Tommy Marren.
Nothing to say? Really?
A story that was growing more legs than a centipede with each passing day, while all the time you’re in contact “four or five times a day, every day, since the All-Ireland final” with the man it is alleged has walked off your management team, and you’ve nothing to say about it?
I’m drawn back to Kerry and to the actions of their County Board who last week were issued a public apology by Newstalk Radio.
The broadcaster’s Off the Ball morning sports programme on October 4 reported that Jack O’Connor had been given a guarantee that he was going to be selected for the role of Kerry senior football manager even in advance of the County Board’s formal selection process. The comments were discussed that same night by the executive officers of Kerry County Board who, following their meeting (not 12 or 31 days later), “communicated to OTBAM their abhorrence that such false, misleading, and untruthful assertions were made during the broadcast”.
As a result, a lengthy retraction and apology was read out not once, but twice on Newstalk Radio last Tuesday week, morning and evening, that contained an acknowledgment that “false assertions were made” and that a “fair, equitable, and thorough selection process was undertaken” by Kerry County Board.
Maybe we just handle untruths differently in Mayo.