Losing in the gut-wrenching way we did was bad enough but an already awful day was crowned with the news last night that, after four years at the helm, James Horan had decided to stand down as Mayo manager. And yet this decision was not unexpected and is completely understandable.
To appreciate fully James Horan’s achievements – and his detractors will, no doubt, be out quickly from the traps to decry the lack of an All-Ireland title under his watch – it’s necessary to go right back to when he was appointed, four years ago next month. We were in complete disarray then, John O’Mahony’s shambolic second term in charge having ended in complete ignominy, with a tepid Connacht championship loss to Sligo and a woeful surrender to Longford in the first round of the qualifiers (another evening when overtly biased reffing went against us but let’s not go there now).
It’s worth recalling too that James was a bit of an outsider for the job then and it was only Ballintubber’s breakthrough run in the club championship that got him into the frame for it at all. The attempts to parachute more than one celebrity name into the post very nearly came off. God only knows what the years between this and then would have held for us had that happened but it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have had as many good days out as we did under James.
In terms of his achievements, there’s clearly no need to list them here but it’s worth noting the two things that James brought to the table during his time in charge. The first was the professional set-up he put in place, assembling a top-class back-room team to provide the players with the best off-field support that could be mustered. Without this, we’d never have been able to challenge in the way that we did over the last few years.
Having this kind of team in place behind the manager is now a given for the top tier of counties. Dublin, obviously, lead the way in this respect (and have the money to outgun everyone else twenty times over in this area) but Kerry and Donegal are on the same page here too. Given this, perhaps it’s not that much of a surprise that this quartet, us included, have opened a bit of a gap from everyone else in recent years.
The second thing he did was get results. Earlier this summer, James said that his ongoing goal was to make the county what he termed “consistently competitive”. His record speaks for itself in this regard. If you look back at county’s performance in the championship since the Eighties, the graph shows sharp highs and crashing lows and a consequent inability to stay at the top on a consistent basis. James, on the other hand, pushed us into the top tier and kept us there right ’till the end of his tenure.
James won’t go down in history as the first Mayo manager to go agonisingly close to leading the county to a fourth All-Ireland title – John Maughan had that one sewn up as far back as 1996. But he will do so as the man who led the most sustained push towards the summit undertaken by the county since the glory years and, 2011 aside, the losses his teams have suffered have all been agonisingly narrow ones.
The way this group of players, under his watch, came back again and again has been nothing short of exceptional. John Casey said earlier this summer that by 1998 the team that had played in the All-Ireland the previous two years had nothing left to give. In a far more competitive era, James’ team last night came within a whisker of reaching a third All-Ireland final in a row, despite carrying the crushing burden of the final losses in the previous two years.
James had, of course, his failings. Many would point to his stubborn character, the way he dealt with certain players and his supposed lack of tactical nous. All this may be true but I suspect it all isn’t.
In one sense, stubbornness could be seen as a virtue when you’re operating in such a high-pressure environment, having to deal with County Board officials and the like. You’d need to have a bit of a thick exterior to thrive in that kind of company.
We all know the issue about various players but two things are relevant here. The first is that James and his selectors were far closer to the squad than those of us outside looking in were and were best placed to make the calls they made about who should be playing and who shouldn’t. Secondly, for a man who some would claim made so many mistakes, he got a lot right by consistently getting us as far as he did.
The same goes for his game management. It’s so easy to be critical of this as it’s here we get to those key moments where contests swung away from us, where All-Irelands were lost. But the 2012 and 2013 finals were lost for a whole variety of reasons, some to do with tactical issues, others not, and it’s impossible to pin those losses on one or two critical decisions made on the line. Jim Gavin, by the way, got most of his calls wrong last September – easily as many as James did – but this fact is masked by his side’s one-point win. History is truly written by the winners.
I’ve always felt that the moment of James’ departure would be the point where we – and by this I mean the County Board, the players, the supporters, all of us – truly reach a crossroads. James has left us as one of the top teams in the country but we’ve no God-given right to occupy such an exalted seat in the house and there are many other counties out there who’ll be well ready next year to knock us back down in the pecking order.
The claim that James took us as far as he could may have some truth but it needs to be recognised – and quickly – that the direction we could go from here may well be backwards. Indeed, we’re virtually certain of this if we don’t find somebody equally as good to take on the job, someone that can re-assemble the same kind of backroom team, somebody that can lead the line in the way James did. The big Ballintubber man has left us a rich legacy but it’s one we simply have to build on.
For James, there’s much to look back on with pride from the last four years. Like his players did on the field he emptied the tank in his role as manager, despite all his other professional and personal commitments. Ed McGreal of the Mayo News tweeted last night that he was the best manager we’d ever had and this is an assessment I’d wholeheartedly agree with. From the lows of 2010 he led us to highs we were barely able to dream of. We’ll remember those good times fondly and as we do his achievements will take on added lustre. Thanks for everything, James, thanks for four truly special years.