Friday 15 November 2019

Reducing age of Mayo group will be difficult task for Horan

James Horan is back at the Mayo helm. Photo: Sportsfile
James Horan is back at the Mayo helm. Photo: Sportsfile
With a successful stint as Kerry minor boss and the retirement of several veterans, Peter Keane (pictured) is starting his reign with a clean slate. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It wasn't where Mayo or Kerry wanted to be this autumn, but then plans don't always work out as expected.

Despite enduring their least successful championship season for quite some time, neither county had regime change in mind at the end of summer. However, the managers saw it differently.

After six years in charge of Kerry, Eamonn Fitzmaurice signed off, having decided it was right for him and the players.

Stephen Rochford's departure in Mayo was less harmonious. He wanted to continue for a fourth year but felt he didn't have the necessary support from the county board executive.

And so, the two counties who have done most to keep Dublin honest over several seasons were forced into a search for new managers.

What happened next was interesting. Kerry looked forward and Mayo looked back. Peter Keane was handed the keys to the Kingdom after excellent work with the minors over recent seasons.

In contrast, James Horan (pictured) has several of the same faces from the last time he was in the role. Photo: Sportsfile
In contrast, James Horan (pictured) has several of the same faces from the last time he was in the role. Photo: Sportsfile

The message was clear: Kerry are headed on a new track with a new leader. He may lack experience at senior level but they believe he is the right man at the right time.

Mayo, meanwhile, went back to James Horan, whose previous four seasons in charge (2011-2014) had teased and tormented in equal measure.

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If the contrast in managerial appointments between Kerry and Mayo was striking, the follow-on was equally intriguing.

One by one, Kerry's older guard began moving out. First Kieran Donaghy (35), then Donnchadh Walsh (34), followed by Anthony Maher (31). Darran O'Sullivan (32) joined them in retirement this week.

Kerry were self-cleansing, clearing the way for a new manager, who will have enough to contend with without making a public call on players at the latter end of their careers.

We will never know whether Keane intended to retain any - or all - of the quartet, but even if he had kept them on the panel, it's unlikely they would have featured very prominently in the rebuild.

And if he dropped them, it would have attracted early headlines he didn't want. Instead, they went of their own accord.

Kerry will be different next year because they have to be. Fitzmaurice did everything he could in a term that yielded one All-Ireland, one league title and six successive provincial titles, but it still wasn't quite enough in a county that demands so much from its footballers.

Only Dublin had a better yield. Indeed, that was the problem for Kerry. They didn't even get a shot at Dublin in the last two championships, let alone beat them. That went down badly back home.

There was a flatness about Kerry this year, the reason for which not even Fitzmaurice could pinpoint.

So, in keeping with the honesty he always displayed as a player and manager, he opted to do what he thought was right for Kerry by resigning.

His helpful legacy for his successor was a request that he and the players would be given time to build something substantial, without having every brick and rafter critically scrutinised during the construction work.

As transitions go, Kerry's was as smooth as they come. Whether that's any help next year or beyond remains to be seen, but it establishes the right atmosphere for Keane as he begins formulating his plans.

Replaces

The situation isn't anything as straightforward in Mayo as Horan replaces a man who had begun planning for next year before events took an unexpected turn.

And unlike in Kerry, where the older brigade decided that a change of management was the cue to exit, there's no such movement in Mayo.

"I haven't come across anyone that is stepping out," said Horan.

That leaves him facing some big decisions. It's not as if he's inheriting a young squad, so the dilemma is whether to stick with the core group for one more year or begin the break-up and take his chances with a different model.

That would require thanking prominent names for their service before moving them on.

And if Horan opts to do that, are the emerging crop good enough to replace them?

The reality is that none of the top teams - and possibly none of the others either - have a core group with such a high average age as Mayo.

In 2019, these 10 players will celebrate birthdays as follows: David Clarke and Andy Moran (35); Keith Higgins (34); Colm Boyle (33), Chris Barrett, Seamus O'Shea, Ger Cafferkey (32), Tom Parsons (31), Kevin McLoughlin, Donal Vaughan (30). They all know Horan well from his previous term, but times have moved on for them and him.

Few Mayo supporters believe that reuniting Horan with a squad which has undergone very little change over several seasons will automatically provide the magic mix for All-Ireland glory.

It will take a lot more than a change of driver. Horan knows that too, which is why the composition of the squad that begins the league in late January will be closely watched inside and outside Mayo.

As he begins the assessment phase, his decision to stage trials next weekend may go down well locally, but what will he really learn from them? Holding trials is quite common among managers who arrive from outside a county and, even then, it's often no more than a PR exercise, designed to give the impression that some nuggets have gone unnoticed previously.

That can't be the case with Horan. He knows every footballer in Mayo, so what new information can he glean from trials which, by their very nature, are artificial affairs? Despite that, even the older players have been told they must attend.

They could hardly say 'no', but it's unlikely that such an experienced group are enamoured with spending the October Bank Holiday weekend trying to impress a manager who knows all about them anyway.

Horan has indicated that when it comes to making calls in next year's league, newcomers will get priority.

"If it's a close call between an existing player and a new player, the new player will get the nod if he's performing," he said. Time will tell how that works out.

Horan knows he has to reduce the average age of the team, but he can only do that if the newcomers are good enough to impose themselves as genuine top-line contenders.

Easing out the older brigade will be all harder for Horan, who knows them so well from previous times.

And unlike in Kerry, where the squad effectively trimmed itself, all Mayo's familiar faces are returning for more.

Dealing with that will be Horan's first test because, however harsh it might sound, the reality is that if they weren't good enough to win an All-Ireland in their prime, they won't be good enough next year.

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