'People always ask me if I meant it': The 40-yard goal that saw Mayo finally beat Kerry - and how RTÉ missed it
‘An absolutely bizarre goal’ was the description given to the score that sealed Mayo’s only championship victory over Kerry since their All-Ireland drought began 66 years ago, and in lieu of any televisual evidence, Ger Canning’s summation was all anyone unlucky enough not to be in Croke Park for James Horan’s moment of absolute audacity 21 years ago had to go on.
Imagine if TV cameras had decided to abandon the action at the 2002 World Cup as Ronaldinho studied a free kick 45 yards out on the right touchline in the quarter-final against England.
David Seaman certainly would have thanked the camera operators – and two-time All Star Declan O’Keeffe ought to deliver RTÉ a Christmas hamper each year for inadvertently trying to hide the fact that he had joined Paddy Cullen in a select group of shot-stoppers who have been the victim of an ignominious lob on the biggest stage.
Horan is best known for taking Mayo as close to lifting Sam Maguire as anyone since 1951, but before he donned his trademark managerial cap, he also brushed past the canister with his fingertips as a player.
He enjoyed an All Star season in ‘96, an illustrious personal campaign capped by a moment of complete cheek that would be replayed each and every year at the business end of the championship – that is, if RTÉ had captured the moment instead of cutting to the crowd after Mayo went three points clear of Kerry late on in the semi-final clash.
The next thing the TV audience saw was a ball sailing into the top of the net as O’Keeffe jumped despairingly to prevent the unlikeliest of goals to seal a 2-13 to 1-10 victory.
Think of Paul Durcan’s 2014 final miscue, plus Cullen’s ill-advised walkabout from his goal in 1978 - and double the distance.
Given the paucity of footage to illustrate what happened, it is best to get Horan himself to give his best Michael O'Hehir-style reconstruction of the moment to truly hammer home how outrageous his long-range lob really was.
"Maurice Sheridan got a free and there was a kick-out," Horan remembers.
"The way Declan O’Keeffe was kicking them, I went outside, wing-side, of my man. I knew he was trying to kick it that way and I don’t know if he toed it a bit, but it went a bit low.
"It was on about the 40-yard line, and he was out at the 21 because he was kicking it. I just caught it on the outside of my right foot and the way I kicked the ball there was always a lot of top-spin, so I just drilled it a bit harder with lots of top-spin on the ball, and sort of aimed for the goal to make sure it got there. It just snuck in under the bar."
(Watch from 4.15 for the end of Horan's goal)
‘Sort of aimed’, ‘just snuck in’ – these are phrases that, you would think, would be employed by a man who counts himself lucky to have raised a green flag.
So, tell it to us straight James, it will just be between us (and a national newspaper audience) – were you honestly going for goal?
"100% - why do people keep asking me that?!,” Horan asks incredulously.
"100%. Honestly, I absolutely was. I’m more definite with time than I was definite then! No, but I remember in my head thinking when I got it down, if I can get this off quickly towards goal, I was aiming for the crossbar, that kind of thing, and in she went. That put the game to bed."
The Irish Independent match report from namesake Liam Horan the following day tallies with those recollections.
"O’Keeffe struck the kickout poorly to an unmarked Horan. Showing a previously unsuspected penchant for outrageous adventure, Horan let fly from about 40 yards. Down it came into a net into which an aghast O’Keeffe was galloping.
"With one inspired thump, Horan had thrown his name into the folklore that already boasts Mikey Sheehy and Barney Rock among its strongest features."
Horan has had plenty of heartbreak with Mayo, but being deprived of the lasting acclaim that should accompany a 40-yard semi-final screamer, along with the possible advertising campaigns, supermarket openings, t-shirts and the immorality that comes with a place in countless RTÉ montages must secretly rankle, deep down.
"They missed getting my goal and I’m still upset about that," Horan jokes.
"If we had won the final it would have been a lot better remembered. Maybe there is a bit more intrigue that the cameras didn’t get it, I can spin the story however I like!"
The closest Mayo have come to repeating that 1996 victory over Kerry was when Horan was in charge. Everyone remembers his final games with Mayo - roughly 165 minutes of rip-roaring semi-final action against the Kingdom, played out over two games, two weekends and two periods of extra time that featured every Gaelic footballing-trope imaginable.
However, when Horan reflects on his encounters with Kerry as a manager, the nine-point All-Ireland semi-final defeat that ended his first season at the helm stands out as an important milestone for the current side.
"The Cork quarter-final in 2011 was huge for us, beating a big team in Croke Park to get that out of the way," Horan says.
"We just wanted to play as well as we could in an All-Ireland semi-final to see where it took us. But certainly after that game we knew where the real top teams were and it was a great learning experience to be honest, it shaped the 2011 off-season and helped us prepare for 2012. It was great a learning experience.
"Just the general skill levels, the use of possession, the conditioning of the players. While we had a good year and made huge progress we were still a long way off and it gave a great idea of where the bar was and how we needed to drive on."
Drive on they did, but unfortunately for Mayo, just not enough, losing finals in 2012 and 2013 before being pipped by Kerry after extra-time in the aforementioned semi-final replay in 2014.
Amazingly, just like in his final games with Mayo three years ago, and in 2006, Kieran Donaghy has once again emerged as arguably the main threat ahead of this Sunday’s semi-final.
Ask Horan what he would do with another chance on the line this weekend and he gives a rueful laugh – but also some interesting tactical advice for a game that he thinks Mayo can emerge on the right side of.
"From kickouts, if you give them possession then you are in for a hard day so you need to wrestle that away. That is straight away reducing the amount of ball they can kick in. Then you need real pressure around the middle third and half back line because Kerry love to play that bounce pass ball in.
"Then you can play a man-marker on Donaghy and as the high ball is coming in make sure you have another defender dropping to get there when he either catches it or the ball drops.
"Tom Parsons is a guy that has played sweeper so maybe they play Aidan and Seamus [O’Shea] midfield and Parsons drifts back. He is a guy who can get back very quickly if a high ball is floating in so that could be an option.”
"It’s hard to bet against that Mayo team," he adds.
"They have been inconsistent all year but you just think that there is a big one coming. Hopefully we see Mayo at their best on Sunday and hopefully that is good enough."