Away-day grinds offer way forward for Horan
LAST November Mayo manager James Horan outlined where the recovery from a second successive All-Ireland final defeat would be most likely to manifest itself in the months ahead.
"We haven't won enough games in the league, we haven't ground out some of the hard games that we could have ground out. Winning tough games on the road in the league is a great character-builder and we'll be looking to do that," figured Horan.
He also made the 2014 league a more legitimate consideration than it probably has been at any stage during his previous three years of management.
"There's no better preparation for the All-Ireland championship than a national victory. I don't think there's anything you could do in training that would give you a boost like that would," he said.
Winning on the road was something Pat Gilroy prioritised during his overhaul of Dublin in the wake of their 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry.
Dublin's record away from their own environs during the league was not commensurate with a team dominating their province so emphatically in the summer. It was seen as a flaw in their make-up, a reason why they didn't win the games that mattered most.
By the following spring, they had come away from Killarney with their first league victory over Kerry for 28 years and finished the campaign with A resounding success over Tyrone in Omagh. It was the beginning of momentum that hasn't really trailed off since.
Mayo are at a much different stage in their cycle to where Gilroy's Dublin were in 2010 and Horan's reference to winning hard games on the road points to something of a deficiency in the past.
From 11 away games in three years under his stewardship, they have picked up four wins and a draw, the most significant of which came in Pairc Ui Rinn in the last round of the league against Cork last April to propel them into a second successive league semi-final.
But their home record could hardly be considered better with five losses and a draw in Castlebar from 10 games across the same period of group games.
It's a record that has helped them to remain one of only two counties to retain Division 1 status since the divisions were redrawn into four eights after the 2007 campaign. Only Kerry have that distinction.
Still, you know the games Horan has in mind when he talks of building character – Newry last year when they provided brief respite for Down, Donegal in Ballyshannon in 2012 and Inniskeen and Monaghan in 2011.
Whatever about the lights in Croke Park, it's the less fashionable venues Horan may have identified and Newbridge is a perfect starting point.
With an injury and unavailability list stretching into double figures, the balance between running in new players and meeting that level of consistency he desires will be difficult initially. Alan Dillon and Cillian O'Connor won't see much league action as they continue to rehabilitate from off-season surgery.
But in their absence there are credible alternatives who can stake claims in attack. Adam Gallagher is an exciting prospect, while Cathal Freeman can also build on the promise he showed in the early part of last year's league.
Keith Higgins' selection at centre- forward is an early commitment to a redeployment that was working so well until he was recalled for firefighting duties in defence in the All-Ireland final. For Mayo to keep advancing Higgins at centre-forward is something that probably needs to work for them.
Andy Moran is another who will benefit from such early exposure after missing last year's campaign that really left him playing catch-up all summer.
Horan's desire to grind out away wins is significant in the context of his firm league ambitions. Clearly, a positive start is one way to banish any lingering hangover from September. With trips to Newbridge and Omagh on successive Sundays, the graph on the recovery chart should be easy to follow.