That flurry of coverage generated by James Horan’s interviews with the local media is, I know, a bit old hat by now but I meant to do a piece arising from it and I guess it’s still current enough to do this.
You’ve probably seen the relevant pieces on James’ interviews at this stage but, in case you haven’t, here they are.
Mayo News (thoughts on All-Ireland final, new players, focusing on the football), Mayo Advertiser, Western People (new faces, All-Stars). There’s obviously more than this in the most recent print and digital editions of these papers.
A few broad themes emerge from this thicket of information, on which it’s worth chewing the fat a bit. Sure, what else is there to do?
The first and most obvious point relates to the significant turnover in the playing squad over the past year. A number of new faces like Oisín Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Ryan O’Donoghue, Tommy Conroy and the rest became integral to the team within a short space of time last year but it’s clear that James is keen to introduce still more new talent into the senior ranks this year.
It remains to be seen how many of the lads that he name-checked in the interviews actually make the match-day 26 this year, let alone the first fifteen. What last year demonstrated, though, is that James is ready to give new talent a go and then it’s up to the fresh faces to make the most of the opportunity they’ve been handed.
2021 will be the third year of James’ second tenure as manager. It’s tempting to compare and contrast with the Horan I era, which, if you do, sees this year lined up against 2013.
Back in 2013 we were arguably the closest we ever came over the past decade to being the best team in Ireland. The disembowelling that summer of both Galway and Donegal showed a ruthlessness in our ranks that most of us had never seen in a Mayo team before and part of me still can’t understand how we let that year’s final slip through our fingers. We were definitely good enough to win it.
Back in 2011 James inherited a relatively young Senior squad and a number of those players who would become mainstays for him had already made their Senior Championship debuts. The players he added, though, were crucial to the plot, as he brought through the likes of Lee Keegan and Cillian O’Connor and recalled to the ranks Colm Boyle and Mickey Conroy.
2011 was very much a learning process for that group of players. 2012 arguably was too, though by now Horan’s team was getting close to the level at which he wanted them performing. In 2013, the team by now to all intents and purposes a settled one, performance levels rose again.
This time round, the lifecycle of the team is very different. James largely kept with the older experienced lads in 2019 before pivoting to an all-out push for new talent last year. This means that, as we await the start of this year’s action, the team is far from settled. Most of us, in truth, would struggle to make any kind of decent stab at what James’ preferred starting fifteen might be.
Which leads us on to a different point. Covid is still, depressingly, the central factor in all of our lives and it’s set to be a major influence on a second successive season of GAA action. We don’t even know yet what this year’s inter-county season will look like but the smart money appears to be firming up behind a shortened League campaign and another old-fashioned straight knockout Championship.
James is right, then, to say that there’s likely to be a “shotgun start” to the season and he’s also correct to pinpoint the need for his team to hit the ground running. With maybe only three or four League games and then the danger that every day you play in the Championship it’ll be your last outing for the year, if the team isn’t tuned in for every game then the season will come and go very quickly.
Last year also showed that if a player picks up any kind of knock, that could be it for the year for him. That was the fate that befell Fionn McDonagh, Bryan Walsh and Mark Moran last year and injuries of a similar kind are almost certain to be a feature again this summer. We can only keep our fingers crossed on that one.
A final point that I thought was very interesting was what James had to say about the impending MacHale Park development. Now that all that’s wrong about the pitch is out in the open, it’s ever more clear how the leaden playing surface there has often hobbled us so profoundly down the years.
If you look back over the past decade, there are precious few examples of an outstanding Mayo performance in a game played at MacHale Park. Of course, we’ll always be aiming to time our peak form each year for when we get to Croke Park but all those sub-par displays on home turf had to have had a debilitating effect and, more than once, defeat in a key match at MacHale Park made it far harder for us to make it to HQ at all.
It’s a sobering fact to note that the most recent time we beat Galway at MacHale Park in the Championship was way back in 2014, while our most recent Connacht victory at the venue over Roscommon was the previous year. A faster playing surface, one far better suited to the style of football we play, should at least increase our chances of improving on that less-than-stellar record against two counties who, let’s not forget, now play League football in a higher Division than we currently do.
The development work on the pitch won’t, though, start until after we’ve finished playing whatever League and Championship games we’re rostered to fulfil at MacHale Park this year. We played both Galway and Roscommon away in Connacht last year so it’s likely that we’ll have to play one or other (or both) of them at home if we’re to retain the Nestor Cup this year.
Which begs what, in these pandemic times, might be viewed as an obvious question – is there a better home venue we could use instead this year? All the matches will be played behind closed doors so ground capacity isn’t a consideration. What pitch in the county has a playing surface that’s closest to what we’re aiming to get MacHale Park to? It’s at least arguable that wherever that is should be the place we call home this year. It’s not as simple as all that, I know, but if there’s a chance we could be able to turn this situation to our advantage, then surely that’s something we’d do well to explore.