Tuesday 15 October 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: 'James Horan’s bond with his Mayo players is so special'

Mayo supremo has returned to sort out unfinished business and his football brain gives westerners a chance if they can win Connacht first

Manager James Horan shouting the instructions. Pic: Sportsfile
Manager James Horan shouting the instructions. Pic: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

The most brutal image of a beaten team I’ve come across is that of Mayo in 2006, heading home after the All-Ireland final, curtains pulled across the windows of their bus.

Think about that, about the depth of hurt they were feeling. I was on the team that beat them and, being honest, wouldn’t have given those Mayo players a second thought at the time. Kerry heads were so full of what happened against Tyrone the year before, we saw nothing in front of us only opponents to be nailed.

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The game was almost over inside ten minutes and we won by 13 points in the end. It was only years later I took to reflecting on Mayo that day, on the humiliation they probably felt so soon after losing the ’04 final to us by eight. Humiliation that had them, effectively, hiding behind pulled curtains.

History can be an absolute thug when you’re chasing something as long as Mayo have been chasing Sam Maguire.

And I’d say they’re sick to the teeth of it. Of hearing about ’51 and all the piseoga they’re rumoured to have been carrying since. Mayo are probably the second-choice county everybody would love to win an All-Ireland, little enough consolation to them whenever things go belly-up.

James Horan knows better than anyone how that works. Which is why I respect him massively for returning to that dressing-room when an easier, maybe more lucrative summer was there for him in the media world.

I’ve obviously watched him on TV and I’ve done a couple of Q&As with him. He strikes me as a rock-solid type who picks up on small details in games that others seldom see. In other words, he’s not drawn to an obvious problem as much as the thing that might be causing it. Horan’s certainly no bluffer and it’s clear he has a bond with these Mayo players that he hopes might still lead to something special.

Winning the League felt like the laying down of a marker by Mayo, particularly the way they did it. Some of the biggest names in the game found themselves downgraded to roles off the bench.

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Horan identified new blood and seeded it into his starting 15.

People like Darren Coen, James Carr, Matthew Ruane and Fergal Boland were given responsibility to stake their claims for the year ahead. A smart move in my opinion. It meant holding stalwarts like Andy Moran and Colm Boyle in reserve to be deployed as impact subs.

Not alone did that tick the box of freshening up a Mayo dressing-room that the dogs in the street knew needed freshening, it challenged the established stars to really step up to the plate again.

Winning the league will have left the whole group bullish then, hungry for road. But it could easily have set a trap, too.

Put it this way, the bouquets falling the way of Limerick’s hurlers back in April suggested they’d all but become a force of nature. But I was in the Gaelic Grounds last Sunday and, long before Cork put them to the sword, I remember thinking that something just wasn’t right with the Limerick body language.

I could just sense something in them. Between flashes of absolute brilliance, they’d regress to little pockets of almost shocking mediocrity. At one point, Kyle Hayes got a ball underneath the stand and sent in what looked an aimless delivery.  But his reaction told you more than the pass itself.

He exploded with fury. It was clear as day that he was railing against the lack of movement inside, the absence of people showing for the ball.

Now I think it might just be the perfect wake-up call for that Limerick group. They’ve spent the last nine months or so hearing nothing but nice things being said and, no matter what John Kiely or the management preached, some of that inevitably seeps into the group psyche. When people keep telling you you’re brilliant, it’s hard to sustain the absolute humility required to win an All-Ireland. You think you are at the level required, but you’re not.

Limerick discovered that the hard way last Sunday. But, if there was a right month for that to happen them, May was surely it.

The Kerry team I played on was caught a couple of times like Limerick were caught last Sunday. Trouble was, it happened to us in All-Ireland finals. I could honestly look back on those defeats (’05 and ’08) afterwards and see quite clearly that, on some level, we’d been fooling ourselves.

At the time, you don’t realise you’re not right. But, in hindsight, all these warning signs suddenly seem so obvious. The hunger, the work ethic, the madness even, those qualities just wouldn’t have been there. It’s all so clear when it’s too late.

You see, you can talk until the cows come home about tactics and systems, but everything has to be underpinned by work rate. And that’s a rule as relevant today as when I was wearing short-pants in Ventry. Attitude must be the starting point for everything.

Which is why, I suspect, you see so many inter-county dressing-rooms opening their doors these days to people from other sports. Like Cork hurlers with Dougie Howlett. Like Galway hurlers with (Kieran) Donaghy. Like Dublin footballers, previously, with Bernard Dunne. Everything is designed to keeping minds fresh, avoid staleness.

Now, personally, I’m not entirely sure how that works. As a player, what exactly can these people tell me that I need to know?

Like how much Howlett can help a Cork hurler is a mystery to me. Because the psychology of hurling is almost unique in my opinion and I struggle to see how someone who has never experienced it can help a lad who knows it off by heart.

For me to buy into something like that, I’d need to be convinced that person could relate to my sport. Like Gary Keegan seems to be a man who ticks that box for a lot of people, given his work with Ireland’s Olympic boxers, Cork hurlers and, now Dublin’s footballers and the Leinster rugby team. He’s a guy, I suspect, most people can buy into.

Everybody’s doing everything they can now to find that edge. They need to because every serious inter-county team has, in my opinion, pretty much the same level of fitness. But there can be a huge gulf sometimes in how teams are prepared mentally. And I’d be intrigued to know what Horan has been doing in that regard with Mayo, because I’m damn sure he’s doing something.

He knows the road from here is brutally tough.

Best-case scenario? Roscommon now, Galway on June 16, then ‘Super 8s’ in the hope of making an All-Ireland

semi-final. Worst-case scenario? Roscommon catch them with a sucker-punch and all that early-season momentum, potentially, disappears in 70 minutes.

The mental side of the game is massive now. Actually, one of the early stories of this football championship has been the number of teams falling down in that regard. Monaghan last weekend. Tipperary against Limerick. Kildare against Wicklow. Galway against London, even.

The underdogs are having a real cut and I don’t doubt that Carlow will have a serious skelp off Meath on Sunday too. When Kerry were playing so-called weaker teams, I always had this quiet dread of getting a hosing. Of something happening that might leave me personally, or the group, open to ridicule.

Because a team can lose its bullishness overnight and Horan knows that.

So Mayo are walking a fine line now. The feel-good factor around them has to be fragile enough. My opinion is that the league was a bonus for James Horan, that his priority coming back was a Connacht title. Mayo were unbeaten in the province during his last stint in charge, yet haven’t won a Nestor Cup since.

So he’ll have this down as a case of minding their own patch then. Of looking after local business before anyone starts talking about bigger prizes.

But Roscommon are capable of banging in three or four goals against any team. I know from talking to Kevin McStay that they’re always confident of finding the net. Their problem is defending. Bear in mind this is a team that scored four goals in a League (Division 2) final last year and still almost lost.

I have a hunch, by the way, that this year’s league wasn’t quite as competitive as in recent years, maybe evidenced most obviously by Dublin’s approach.

So, on some level, it’s hard to gauge what it really told us about any team. Horan, in other words, is still finding out about these young players, still waiting to see how they react when someone, psychologically, has them pinned up against a wall.

And someone, inevitably, will.

In that sense, he needs to get this spot on.  He needs to know exactly who he can trust in the real heat of battle.

I’ve always thought Mayo’s supporters brilliant, but they have a way of putting the players on premature pedestals, too. My information is that Horan wants his men to distance themselves from the familiar hype this year. To keep their people at arm’s length almost and just stay inside the bubble.

His absolute priority right now has got to be winning back the Connacht title. In other words, getting and taking the opportunity to knock Galway back on their a***s. For that to happen, they’ve first got to look after Roscommon. And it won’t be simple.

Put it this way, people waxed lyrical about how they bullied Kerry in that final to win a first league title since ’01. But, remember, the bullies still needed that 74th-minute Ciarán Treacy goal to make the game safe.  That has to be a worry.

I have a theory that a back-door route to the Super 8s just won’t work for this Mayo team now. It’ll suck the life out of them. They’ve got to win Connacht, pure and simple. There’s no way on earth they can afford to lose to Roscommon if they’re serious about having a clip at bigger fish down the line.

And there’s a core group here that will recognise full well the fine line they’re walking. There’s big mileage in their legs and they know they can’t be thinking about too many tomorrows.

One of them is Aidan O’Shea who, to me right now, is the front-runner for Footballer of the Year. I think he’s been magnificent.

The one thing he’s shown above all else in recent months is leadership. He’s shown the younger crew what’s expected. The big question now is whether they can meet that expectation.

This local derby will tell a lot.

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