'It was nearly the shortest career of all'
Former Mayo boss recalls his near-miss against London and believes his former charges are in for a 'great year'
Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30
Instead of signalling an era of new prosperity for Mayo football, James Horan recalls the early days of his spell in charge and knows it might have been remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Back in 2011, Mayo were struggling to shake the darkness of the season before.
Championship defeats to Sligo and Longford left a cloud over the county and John O'Mahony had stepped away, accepting that his race was run.
Such was the turmoil in the county that a root-and-branch review followed and a hunt for a new manager began.
Mayo weren't sure where to turn and it was only a late surge from Horan - who had guided Ballintubber to a first senior county title just before the county picked its new manager - that finally saw him handed the reins.
His appointment represented something of a risk for the county. Horan's playing credentials were impeccable but his managerial career was very much in its infancy.
As it turned out, it was a gamble that would pay off in spades and the foundations were be laid for five consecutive Connacht titles.
However, that would only come about after Mayo came to within a whisker of their greatest embarrassment.
His first championship outing came with what was expected to be a routine trip to Ruislip to face London when only a late flurry of points secured extra-time before they finally got the job done.
"I would have done a lot of things differently," he recalls now.
"Some around the playing elements but there is an awful lot around the team as well and I always go back to one of the worst experiences of my life, the London match in our first day.
"Had we lost in London I'd say it would have been the shortest inter-county managerial career of all time.
"I definitely think I would have been gone. You pick up the vibes of various people in power.
"The team were off, the preparation was off from our side, absolutely. But everything else around it was off as well that led to us nearly losing."
Horan went on to recall how the extra-time they needed to see off the Exiles led to a rush to the airport to make the flight home. It was a lesson in logistics that would stick with him.
"I remember being two points down with one minute to go. Kevin McLoughlin got a slicer and we had brought Trevor (Mortimer) on," he recalled.
"Trevor was out about 60 yards and I can remember somebody behind me shouting, 'Don't kick it Trevor' because Trevor's accuracy wasn't his strongest point!
"But he hit a bomb and it went over the bar and it helped bring us to extra-time.
"But just everything around that game was chaotic. I remember afterwards, because there had been extra-time, we were late for the flight to get back. There was all that kind of stuff.
"We didn't miss the flight but we had a two-hour journey through Watford to get to the airport.
"I remember members of the county board were going nuts when we were trying to do a warm-down.
"So everything around it was chaotic."
The following Wednesday, Mayo played Donegal in a challenge game and the London experience had focused Mayo minds. Less than 18 months later, they would contest an All-Ireland final.
Four years later, Horan had established his team as Connacht kingpins and as one of the most competitive around.
By his own admission, he learned as he went and by the time he left the Mayo dressing room for the last time, was a much different manager than the day he took to the sideline in Ruislip.
And it's with his own development as a manager in mind he has organised the Sporting Excellence Conference in Breaffy House for March 11, 12 and 13 of this year.
The event is the brainchild of Horan and others, and will bring together expertise from across the various sporting disciplines.
"I suppose one thing I learned from my time in managing teams is that there's always things you want to bounce off people or talk with someone who has gone through it before or could help you out in some way.
"There is none of that really in inter-county management because anyone you know you are probably in competition with.
"I think something like this (conference) can open a lot of doors to things like that - to find out what works for others who have been successful in their fields."
And while his attentions are elsewhere, he still keeps a close eye on his former charges with a new man, Stephen Rochford, in charge.
"I don't know too much about him (Rochford), he has been successful and I know he's a smart guy," Horan said.
"He's got a good team around him and I'm looking forward to seeing how it works."
And Horan agrees that while there will be more focus on the squad in the wake of the mid-winter managerial heave, he believes the Mayo public trust them to perform.
"It wasn't good for anyone the way it ended up," Horan said of the coup that saw joint managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly removed from the post.
"It was tough on everyone involved but that was then and this is now - so it will be fascinating to see how things progress this year. I think Mayo are in a great position.
"There is a strong connection between the Mayo team and the Mayo public because every game they have played over the last five years they have given everything they have, in every game.
"We had 4,000 at an FBD League game in Castlebar last Sunday, so there is a strong connection there with the fans.
"But you're right, there is that edge to it now but the players will get their heads down and train away. I think it could be a great year for them."