Can mayo survive life without mortimer?
TEN years ago today, James Horan would have noticed that Conor Mortimer was very much his own man. In the third championship game of his debut season as a Mayo senior, Mortimer (then a 20- year-old) was replaced by Michael Moyles in the 58th minute of an All-Ireland qualifier tie against Limerick in Dr Hyde Park.
He marched to the sideline and tossed his jersey on the ground in what could be interpreted either as frustration over his own performance or annoyance that manager Pat Holmes had replaced him.
Either way, it was an early statement that the youngster was different.
Horan, Mayo's best forward in a game they won by a point, was then 30-years-old and in his final season as an inter-county player.
A decade on, the No 13 and No 15 from that team are dominating the headlines in a manner which neither is enjoying, having been precipitated by Mortimer's reaction to Horan's decision to omit him from the starting line-up for tomorrow's Connacht final.
Mortimer's controversial exit from the panel has, inevitably, polarised opinion in Mayo, ranging from claims that he is behaving like a spoilt child by putting his own interests first, to criticisms of Horan for leaving out the highest scorer in the county's history.
Whatever the truth, it has succeeded in dramatically changing the dynamic in Mayo in a season when they were flying so low below the radar towards the business end of the championship as to be barely detectable. It was all very comfortable, the perfect build up for real war.
By now, every other county has played a minimum of two championship games, while some have had four, but Mayo's sole engagement thus far has been a 22-point win over Leitrim.
It's the sort of run to a provincial final that all the other genuine All-Ireland contenders would crave, but now there's a real danger that the advantage bestowed by the draw will be wiped out by internal upheaval.
What impact it has on Mayo -- against Sligo tomorrow and beyond -- remains to be seen, but one thing is certain -- how to deal with a walk-out by an experienced player in the week before a provincial final certainly won't be found in any preparation manual.
"It's not what you want, but it has happened and now the challenge for the squad and management is to focus totally on the game itself," said John O'Mahony, who managed Mayo for two separate stints, divided by a hugely successful spell in Galway.
"A thing like this can work in two ways. It can either galvanise a side or distract them and I suppose, to some degree, people will decide which effect it had, based on Sunday's result. If Mayo lose, it will be a big issue, if they win, it won't."
He's steering well clear of the background to a controversy. "I'm not going to comment on how James (Horan) picks his team or how Conor (Mortimer) reacts. It's between them," said O'Mahony.
"What I will say is that what's happened is unfortunate, most of all for Mayo football. Another thing is that in a strange sort of way this could be a distraction to Sligo.
"Sometimes when you hear stories coming out of the rival camp it might look like it's good news for you, but that's not always the case."
Nonetheless, Sligo have every right to feel encouraged by Mayo's outbreak of unrest. Even within the Mayo panel, there must be different views over whether Mortimer should start.
Those who feel he shouldn't will regard his departure as the petulant sulking of a prima donna, while his backers will believe that their manager has made a serious error which could undermine Mayo, who are ranked fifth in the All-Ireland odds.
The intervention of Mortimer's family has added to the intrigue while almost certainly guaranteeing that reconciliation is out of the question.
Their statement claims that Conor wasn't wanted on the team.
"He says that every time Conor was dropped James Horan told him he had a new plan, in that he had found two goal-scoring forwards. However, the Mortimer family feel that plan has not materialised," notes an excerpt from the statement.
It also states that Conor "wasn't happy with the way football was being played in the Mayo camp."
The Mortimer family have made a massive contribution to Mayo football, but whether Conor was, or wasn't, happy with Horan's approach to the game really isn't the issue. Every manager is perfectly entitled to build his game plan as he sees fit and if that involves omitting an experienced player, so be it.
However, the question does arise as to why Horan used Mortimer so extensively in the league, only to omit him from the starting line-up for the first two championship games. Mortimer started in seven of Mayo's nine league games and came on as a sub in the other two.
Did the league final convince management that it was time to remove Mortimer from his starting plans? He was by no means the only Mayo forward to underperform against Cork (the starting six managed just 0-3 between them from open play), but perhaps it was a case of Horan deciding that, at this stage of his career, Mortimer was less adaptable to change than some others.
The reference in the Mortimer family statement to the manager mentioning goal-scoring forwards is interesting. Was it a case of Horan believing that however extensive Mortimer's range of talent may be, they do not extend to delivering goals at a rate one would expect from a top inside forward?
He scored five goals in 34 championship games (five as a sub), one each against New York and London, scarcely two of the great defensive forces of modern football and one each against Roscommon, Galway and Tyrone. His strike against Tyrone in the 2008 All-Ireland qualifiers was his sole championship goal in Croke Park.
It wasn't that he didn't get chances, but, for whatever reason, he often opted to take a point rather than try his luck for goal.
Perhaps it points to a man who, despite appearing to be the essence of confidence, wasn't quite as self-assured as he looked.
Of course nobody knows how the season would have unfolded if he decided to take his place on the bench tomorrow. The 4-20 to 0-10 win over Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final has to be seen in the context of Division 1 runners-up playing at home to a mid-table Division 4 side, so while the Mayo attack looked very enterprising that day, it remains to be seen how effective it is against better defences.
Had he stayed on board, Mortimer might well have made a big impact as a sub and, if Mayo won, be back in the starting 15 for a return to Croke Park next month. Instead, he quit the squad, not just for this year, but possibly forever. If Mayo win, Horan's position won't be under threat and if he continues next year, it's unlikely there will be any rapprochement between him and Mortimer.
Nonetheless, Mortimer's exit has put unexpected pressure on Horan. If Mayo were to lose and then exit the qualifiers in Round 4, it would almost certainly end Horan's tenure.
Failing to achieve seasonal goals is one thing, but doing it against the shadow of a controversy could be a career-threatening development.
Ten years ago today, Mortimer and Horan were attacking Limerick from opposite corners of Dr Hyde Park with Brian Maloney raiding between them.
Now, the pair are looking at Mayo football from different perspectives with Horan believing he has six better starting forwards than Mortimer, who disagrees so vehemently that he was prepared to take drastic action which may have ended his Mayo career.
Mortimer suggested some years ago that whatever about winning an All-Ireland with him, Mayo wouldn't win one without him.
They came up short with him aboard since then and are about to find out if they can win one without him.