'It doesn't matter what you've done before'
Keegan hails Horan's ability to keep Mayo's elder statesmen on their toes ahead of another tilt at banishing All-Ireland demons
When the text dropped on Lee Keegan's phone informing him of a trial game in late October for anyone hoping to stake a claim on the Mayo squad, he knew things were going to be a little different this year.
Having played under James Horan with Westport last year, Keegan had a fair idea what to expect from his second coming as manager and a line was immediately drawn over the past.
Experienced faces who had gone to the well in recent All-Ireland SFC finals would have to battle for their place the same as any young rookie, with a "more scary" Horan taking no prisoners having replaced Stephen Rochford at the Mayo helm.
"He's definitely more scary!" Keegan says of Horan when asked how his two terms as boss differ.
"He's probably more of a coach now than he was then. He's more involved with the training side of things.
"He has more of an input with the session. I suppose I had him for club last year so that was scary as well.
"But the big thing with James is he's bringing the style with him where he doesn't care what you've done before as a player.
"And that's keeping a lot of us on our toes and keeping us fresh. If you have one bad game, you could be on the bench the next day. That's the biggest difference with James now.
"He knows himself he's still learning a lot in terms of the coaches and the players. So we're still working through the game plan but James probably brought that more challenging mindset to the players.
"It doesn't matter what you've done before. If you're not playing well, you're not getting picked. As a player sometimes, you nearly know if you're going to be playing. You might get into a comfort zone. That shows in how you perform sometimes in big games as well."
Funnily enough, the former Footballer of the Year wasn't around for the trials as he spent the October Bank Holiday in Munich for Kevin McLoughlin's stag and he lauds Horan for allowing players to enjoy themselves on and off the pitch.
There are no drinking bans in place, no contract signings, no overly strict rules to abide by and while Keegan admits he's still "the driver for all the weddings", players are not kept on tight leashes. Instead, they're trusted.
"He treats us like adults. This whole myth around 'you're nearly a 30-year-old lad, you can't go drinking', you have to debunk that because I mean if you can't be treated like an adult then you're not going to act like one in training," the four-time All-Star says.
"James understands that you have to spend time with your partner and your friends and obviously work as well is another aspect of it, you have to tick that box as well. There is flexibility but when you're on you have to be ready and training hard.
"It's just crazy getting people to sign contracts. We're adults, if you treat us like adults we will act like adults and if you start putting bans on lads that's where you start losing respect and you won't get the best from lads."
It's clear that Mayo have returned rejuvenated after last year's early summer exit and getting their hands on a national title when winning last month's Division 1 league final was an early feather in their cap.
New players like Matthew Ruane, Fionn McDonagh and Fergal Boland have emerged to complement elder statesmen like Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins and Keegan but their league glory was "short-lived".
Championship was always on the horizon with the rampaging wing-back setting his sights on visiting New York in the Connacht SFC on May 5 before trying to fry bigger fish.
The 29-year-old will wed fiancée Aoife Duffy later this year and Sam Maguire would be a welcome guest should they finally end their 68-year All-Ireland SFC famine in September.
To do so they will likely face Jim Gavin's five-in-a-row-chasing Dublin, for whom there has been much speculation that old sparring partner Diarmuid Connolly - as well as former full-back Rory O'Carroll - may make a sensational return to the fold.
"I hear he's playing centre-back!" Keegan says.
"And you see Rory O'Carroll back playing at the weekend and a lot of stories have been on them, so they are a big plus for Dublin if they do come back.
"It'll add to the stories anyway, what's going around Dublin. They are two players that would be serious contenders for any team, so to have them back playing is a huge plus.
"But I can't be worrying about those guys. They are for Dublin to worry about, we'll worry about our own players back home."