Horan: We're a different animal now
MAYBE it's a slip of the tongue, or maybe the omission is intentional, but James Horan doesn't identify the opposition when talking about the lowest point of Mayo's season to date.
"At the beginning of this year, we had a league game away from home where we had a bad second half and everything was questioned and challenged," he recounts.
"But you've got to stick with it. It was just a bad half of football, and you've got to stick with what you're trying to do and you've got to have a vision of where you're trying to go. That's what we have and we've stuck to that."
For the record, the "bad second half" came in Ballyshannon on March 18 last. The opposition? Go figure!
Six months on, Mayo are about to renew acquaintance with their spring nemesis and the stakes are infinitely higher.
To say that both counties have taken a staggering leap forward in the interim is a statement of the bleedin' obvious. Mayo's progression, though, looks even more pronounced - especially in light of that Donegal debacle.
The irony is that their dire second half in Ballyshannon was prefaced by a flying start which saw them race 1-3 to 0-1 clear. From there to the finish, however, they were outscored by 0-17 to 0-4. At the midpoint they were holding onto a two-point lead and, while about to face a strong breeze, would have the benefit of an extra man after Rory Kavanagh's straight red on the stroke of half-time.
For the next 27 minutes they retained that numerical edge, and Ger Cafferkey's eventual double-yellow dismissal can hardly be cited in mitigation: by then the game was up for Mayo, who only opened their second half in the 34th minute via a David Clarke '45', substitute Michael Conroy adding an injury-time consolation.
"We wouldn't have won a Division Four game today," admitted Horan in his candid post-match assessment, bemoaning a performance that was "terrible" in every aspect.
Today, he can afford a more philosophical take on that day. "I still remember the bus journey. There wasn't a thing said all the way home. It was the quietest bus journey I've ever had!" the Mayo boss recalls.
"But, arra yeah, to play that badly something had to be wrong. So you just analyse everything and try and figure it out -- and we did, and we're certainly a different animal now."
A different animal, for sure, but it wasn't an instant mutation from slaughtered lamb to ravenous lion. Defeat in Donegal meant a Mayo team that had won its first two top-flight outings had now lost its next two.
A week later, they performed far better at home to Cork only to surrender a five-point lead in the last 20 minutes. That made it three defeats on the spin; suddenly all the talk was of relegation.
Once more, as in Donegal, Horan was left to lament a fatal penchant for turnovers, saying: "We gave the ball away at key times in absolutely crazy situations." But his most interesting comment after losing to Cork focused on the oscillating mood swings of Mayo fans.
"It might be hard to pick up the Mayo people," he conceded. "It is surprising how quick we go from a high to a low, and players aren't living in a cocoon ... I'm not quite sure where all the doom and gloom is coming from."
Defiant words from an embattled boss? Perhaps - but prophetic words too. The following week, Mayo were positively swashbuckling in their demolition of All-Ireland champions Dublin; that 12-point victory proved the catalyst for their late charge to the league play-offs and ultimately the final.
And now, on foot of another thrilling triumph against the Dubs, Mayo are back in their first All-Ireland final in six years.
Speaking of mindsets, it was intriguing to hear Horan's answers whenever the subject of Donegal and their unstoppable march to the All-Ireland final was broached at the Mayo press evening in Breaffy. Clearly, he wasn't about to allow his admiration for Jim McGuinness's crew descend into poor-mouth platitudes.
When asked about Donegal's low concession rate of goals, he immediately replied: "Do you know how many we conceded? We've conceded two (in the championship, both against Down) so we're very happy with our defensive record - very, very happy."
Later, when asked what Donegal do well, his response was more hesitant: "They're, em ... they're winning games. Donegal do their stuff. They do a number of different things well. They're a fit team, but we're a fit team too and we're a young and hungry team. We do an awful lot of stuff well and we feel that if we do our stuff, we'll be competitive against anyone."
To such an extent, Horan believes, that the old stereotype of Mayo as big-game chokers no longer applies. "This team is plotting its own course, and over the last two years we have changed some of the opinions that there are about Mayo football," he says.
And what of their own supporters, those rollercoaster junkies who were all "doom and gloom" last March? "Maybe along the way with this team, they developed and learned to be quite calm," Horan suggests. "I notice there's a lot of energy and excitement out there, which is brilliant, but I think it's in a fairly controlled manner. There are a lot of people looking for tickets and getting excited about the game and that's great - great for the players and, as Clarkie said, it gives some players some energy. We're delighted that we have made a lot of people's lives a little bit happier, even if it's only for 70 minutes or so."
Win on Sunday and the ecstasy will last forever and a day.