Thursday 18 July 2019

Alan Brogan: 'James Horan strikes me as a manager living every day like it could be Mayo's last'

For the eight counties left in the SFC qualifiers, it's all about getting the heads right now

Mayo manager James Horan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mayo manager James Horan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Alan Brogan

This weekend is like Glastonbury for amateur sports psychologists.

Four games. Eight teams, all of whom technically are in exactly the same place. They just arrive here in wildly contrasting frames of mind.

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If you're in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship qualifiers in July, you're damaged goods.

That's not to say you're beset by angst or crippling negativity. But you can’t be completely sure of yourself either.

You could be finding yourself, like Tyrone are.

Or you could be building a bit of quiet momentum, embracing the freedom of trying to make the thing last as long as possible, knowing that if it ends this weekend nobody expected you to get this far in the first place.

Like Laois or Clare.

Alternatively, you could be in the process of peeling yourself off the floor and taking a look in the mirror to see what looks back, like Meath or Galway or Cavan.

In some ways, they're the teams to watch this weekend. Hurt, vulnerable, maybe even a little volatile.

There’s so much at stake this weekend, anything could happen.

Watching the two live games on Saturday night, you got the sense from Mickey Harte that he is looking at a bigger canvas.

He knows that his players are skilful enough and athletic enough to beat 30 counties in Ireland. He knows too that he needs to find a way to beat Dublin.

But until then, Tyrone will carry on as before, soaking teams up, spitting them out and running all over them on the counter-attack.

What's going through James Horan's head?

He strikes me as a manager living every day like it could be Mayo's last.

Mayo are Gaelic football's inadvertent thrill-seekers. They are the game’s great modern survivors but at the moment, they’re only just surviving.

Meath manager Andy McEntee gestures during the Leinster SFC final defeat to Dublin last Sunday. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Meath manager Andy McEntee gestures during the Leinster SFC final defeat to Dublin last Sunday. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Mayo’s ability to make life difficult for themselves is remarkable.

They had plenty of men back and in position for Armagh’s early goal last Saturday but about five of them were taken out with one kick-pass.

Late on, they were turning ball over inside their own 45 and giving short kick-outs away.

Aidan O'Shea kicked one free straight to a player camouflaged in a bright orange jersey.

David Clarke is an incredible shot-stopper. But it's uncanny how often his own team mates provide him with the chance to publically demonstrate those skills.

It all just feels a bit haphazard.

Maybe that's just the nature of the qualifiers. You play. You survive. You move on. There are no marks for artistic merit this weekend.

But it's hard to stress how positive it is for Mayo that Darren Coen and Fionn McDonagh had such big games on Saturday night.

Now I'm all for ageing warriors but surely Andy Moran and Colm Boyle should be coming in with 20 minutes to go rather than starting?

They're both unmistakably great players. All-time Mayo greats.

And with fresh legs and wise minds, they are the ideal 'finishers', men with the experience to win a game or shut it down.

I marked Boyle in the 2015 All-Ireland and even then, he was starting to show his age.

There's no way, if Mayo somehow managed to complete yet another epic voyage back to an All-Ireland semi final or final against Dublin, that Boyle and Moran are going to be physically capable of going for 75 minutes at that intensity.

That's what I mean about everything being about the here and now for Horan and Mayo.

And that's fine until Dublin or Donegal or Kerry are in your ‘here and now’. They might not get that far because the draw hasn’t been kind.

Galway are one of those teams who could be anything this weekend, good or bad, but what an incentive they and Mayo have now to get things right for one day.

For whoever loses, their season will be classed as failure. Worse than that is the nuclear winter they face if they’re knocked out by their nearest and dearest on Saturday night.

Meath are an interesting prospect here too. When Andy McEntee sat down and watched the tape of the Leinster final in an analytical, dispassionate way, I think he’ll have come to the conclusion that the Meath performance wasn't nearly as bad as it felt.

Mickey Harte, standing with his players. Photo: Sportsfile
Mickey Harte, standing with his players. Photo: Sportsfile

In the general exchanges,  Meath were competitive for 50 minutes. They created plenty of chances in that time and they stopped Dublin from scoring goals too.

When you use video analysis, you can be selective about what you show players to prove whatever overarching point you're trying to get across.

But I don’t think McEntee needs to be too creative with the footage to show his players that they’re far better than the scoreline made them look.

If that doesn't work, the draw for this weekend has to have energised the group.

Clare are a good team and need to be treated with caution but if the alternatives are Tyrone and Mayo, the gods of GAA draws have been kind.

They've played each other regularly in Division 2 regularly and Meath have had the upper hand.

If Meath win, the Leinster final doesn’t matter any more, just as the second half of the Division 2 final was washed away with their t hree provincial wins.

The Super 8s was the absolute summit of their ambition at the start of the year. Win on Sunday – particularly with promotion already achieved - and the season will be a roaring success, Meath's best in years, with tangible evidence of real progress and the potential for more to come.

Lose and memories of Croke Park and the Dubs will haunt them through the rest of summer and into autumn.

It's all about getting the head right now.

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