Horan is ready for whatever comes Mayo's way
By Stuart Tynan
Adapt. It was a word frequently used by Mayo senior football manager James Horan at the media conference at Hastings MacHale Park recently and it has certainly been a year in which have had to do so in different ways.
Whether it was the challenging preparations for the Connacht semi-final against Leitrim due to a Covid outbreak, playing a provincial final in Croke Park, losing all-time leading scorer Cillian O'Connor to a season-ending injury, and now a longer lead-in time to the All-Ireland final against Tyrone following the delay to that game being played as a result of the Ulster champions' own Covid issues. But whatever has come Mayo's way, they have taken it in their stride.
"Not at all," said Horan when the question was put to him if a four-week run-in as opposed to two would be an issue. "I said that after the game as we hadn't planned for four weeks. But we had a meeting that night with Conor (Finn, the Mayo S&C coach) and the guys so whether it's four weeks, six weeks or two weeks, we adapt and set our sessions up accordingly. It's fine by us, not an issue."
The extra recovery time from the battle against Dublin will be a benefit to some players, although whether Oisin Mullin and Eoghan McLaughlin play any part remains up in the air.
"After the semi-final, we had some knocks and bangs so it takes a while to get players back up and running. It's like everything, whether it's two weeks or four weeks, you just adapt the training to suit, so four weeks is fine with us."
The tackle on Eoghan McLaughlin by Dublin's John Small still remains a major talking point from the stunning semi-final win over the Dubs. Horan hopes something is done regarding tackles like that to reduce the risk in future, but hopes the physical aspect of the game is not diminished as a result.
"There are tackles like that for every footballer, when the ball is coming and you can see it in your eyeline, you take man and ball. You see it in rugby sometimes when the pass comes out the back of the scrum, your centre comes out and he can take man and ball. There are times like that you can do it.
"But they're hugely high-risk tackles. And if they're mistimed by a second, they're very dangerous. That's what we saw. John Small is a tough player, a brilliant player. He went in to physically dominate that contact. But it is reckless and there's high risk with it. And more often than not they're red cards, as it should have been the last day.
"But regards the tackle, there are plenty of players that try to seize that opportunity for a strong tackle.
"I think the shoulder-to-shoulder and the physical element of the game is hugely important. It makes it an exciting game; any game where there's contact and physicality, it makes it a more interesting game. So I wouldn't like anything that would diminish the physical aspect.
"But when there's players getting hurt, there's something wrong somewhere. So it's what you can do to maintain the physicality. I've no idea of solutions but I think it's key that physicality is kept in the game.
"The speeds are higher and therefore the impacts are higher. Thankfully it's not so often that it happens but we don't want players getting significantly injured in our game.
"Something needs to be looked at there, absolutely. But I will reiterate that physicality is an important part of Gaelic football. There could be a bandwagon now that goes to look at taking that (away). There are too many changes in Gaelic as it is. We're too quick to respond to maybe one incident. So I think we need to be sensible and look at the game we want to play.
"And just on the tackle – I think John Small is a brilliant player. It was a mistimed tackle that significantly hurt a player. A red card should've been the outcome, game stopped, etc. There are tools that should have been used to deal with it if it did happen."
When this reporter asked if it was time for a video referee to review incidents like that, Horan's answer couldn't be any clearer.
"I'd say for the last 10 years I've been saying it; you have a ref in Gaelic on a pitch that is 140 metres long or whatever it is, and 28 players that can run at over 30 kilometres per hour, in a mad game that has everything. How can one guy keep up with that and spot everything?
"Then he feeds from different guys. I don't know what authority or how that interaction happens from the sidelines, who says what or how many feeds come in. I think, at the highest level, it's an impossible job, I genuinely do."
All eyes now turn to Saturday as Mayo meet Tyrone in a first-time pairing for an All-Ireland final. Tyrone defeated Kerry in a semi-final that was delayed after Tyrone originally pulled out of due to issues with Covid.
While Horan has concerns going regarding what may happen going forward if teams have cases within the squad, in particular at club level, he felt the semi-final going ahead was the right thing to do.
"I can't imagine what type of an All-Ireland (it would be) with a team getting a bye into an All-Ireland final, everything around it. I'm not sure anyone wants that. I think in the area of fairness, it was the right thing to do.
"I think it's a delicate thing. What if any team gets one or two cases, what happens then? Does everything get kicked into touch? There's that sort of danger at club level. That's the risk but in the area of fairness, I think it was the right thing to do."
Horan could sympathise with Tyrone's Covid issues even more so given that Mayo had to deal with their own outbreak before the provincial semi-final against Leitrim
"It's very tough. The training for the game against Leitrim, we were tested on Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning. We had to spilt the team into thee different groups so they couldn't mingle before the game until results came back. It's crazy compared to the way you normally prepare before a game. You never really fully know what's going on before a game but with that, it's just anything could happen. It's far from ideal, for sure."
When asked whether the players were vaccinated, Horan said: "All the players are vaccinated. That certainly helps or decreases the risk. It doesn't fully rule it out but it certainly helps."
It all now leads to this Saturday evening to see whether Mayo can end their 70-year wait for Sam or Tyrone winning their first All-Ireland senior title since 2008. Horan, as always, is remaining calm.
"It'd be nice (to win). We'll stick to what we're doing all year long. We're absolutely looking forward to winning games and we do everything to try and achieve that. For the last two years, we've been growing and developing every week. You can see improvements and that's our focus. Obviously, we have plans to win as much as we can but growth and development is a huge focus of ours in the day-to-day."
JAMES HORAN ON......
THE SEMI-FINAL WIN
"You get about 15 or 30 seconds after the game where you enjoy it and then your head pretty much races forward from there, to be honest. But look, it's a brilliant feeling you get. We've challenged Dublin for a long time so to beat them is important for us and important for the development of the group. It was great feeling, no question."
RETURN OF CROWDS
"It's absolutely crazy. The crowd behind us, from where I was standing for the All-Ireland semi-final, there was a row of very vociferous Dublin supporters (chuckles)... For a field that size, for the amount of changes and what happened, to not be able and talk to your players, to me it's crazy. The noise was different to what I've known over the last year or so."
"I've no idea why they're in, to be honest. I hope they don't stay. It's like everything else, you adapt and you use it as much as you can. But I'd prefer if we could just get messages onto the field and the game kept going. We've used it the other way when we've been struggling but I don't think they're needed in Gaelic."
BEING IN MANAGEMENT
"You definitely need to be a bit mad, I suppose. I genuinely love what I'm doing. It's not too often you get a bunch of guys all pulling in the same way, trying to grow and improve, without any major complications. In work or general life, it's very rare you get something like that. Delighted to be part of that and help in some way to make it happen."
END OF DUBLIN
"I never believed that stuff. There's still maybe four or five of the best players ever in the history of the game there, some still haven't reached their prime yet playing for Dublin. They didn't play well the last day, neither did we in a lot of patches. But Dublin will be very, very strong consistently, there no question about it."
NO TRAINING IN MACHALE PARK
"We're a travelling bus at the moment. Going to different pitches around Mayo. Some very good surfaces that we're playing on. Sometimes it's good to get out of the one location. It's working well for us. It's a fairly slick operation at this stage so it doesn't matter where we're training at this stage, to be honest."
WORKING WITH A SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST
"No, not particularly. There's a lot of people we bounce things off from time to time. There's a lot of expert people out there in different fields. In Gaelic football and any other sport, we've 42 guys from different backgrounds and different set-ups and different motivations. Different people and different experts can help in different things. A larger support network is the way I'd describe it. We don't have one sports psychologist that deals with 42 players."