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'He had an influence in bringing Jason Sherlock back into the GAA'

Coaching, politics and the rise of the GAA’s new president John Horan.

SHORTLY AFTER HE was elected GAA President at Congress a year ago, John Horan took to the podium to address the room.

He cut an emotional figure and his voice wobbled as he thanked his wife Paula for her support.

Source: officialgaa/YouTube

Horan, who exceeded the quota on the first count with 144 of the 278 available votes, paid tribute to his Na Fianna roots by referencing their ancient war cry.

“Throughout the years when I was a young lad growing up, Na Fianna taught me how to behave myself, how to carry myself and how to believe in the GAA.

“Na Fianna had three traits that were always on your membership: ‘Purity in your heart, strength in your limbs and action according to your words.’

“That was something that was always drilled into you in Na Fianna. There were a lot of great men there, some of them have passed on, but I certainly owe them a lot.”

When Horan was honoured at the Glasnevin club for his rise to the top rank in the GAA last March, he started his speech with the line: “It’s great to be home.

“Everywhere I’ve travelled in the last number of months I have always started by saying that I come from Na Fianna in Glasnevin,” Horan said.

He referenced the club motto once more, before concluding: “I am a proud club man. Na Fianna, all it represents and stands for, has made me the man that I am.”

John Horan Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The 59-year-old officially begins his three-year term of office today after a lifetime embedded in the association. His playing career with the Mobhi Road club only took him as far as junior level, but there were much greater things in store for him off the field.

Horan first set foot in St Vincent’s in Glasnevin as a student in 1971, before studying to become a teacher. He started his working career at the same secondary school and has remained there ever since, including serving the last nine years as principal.

During his time in college, Horan dipped his toes into coaching and the first underage team he took at Na Fianna included an 11-year-old Dessie Farrell.

He played an indirect role in Dublin’s All-Ireland win of 1995, having trained Farrell before later encouraging Jason Sherlock to pursue GAA while he was at St Vincent’s.

Dessie Farrell 1993 Dessie Farrell in 1993 Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Sherlock had played some underage football with Erin’s Isle, but was focused more on soccer and basketball during his youth.

“John Horan helped change that,” Sherlock wrote in his recent autobiography.

“He was a science teacher in the secondary school before he became principal there. John saw something in me and he played me on the sixth-year teams in both Gaelic football and soccer when I was only in second year, which was a fair leap of faith. Not only was I raw, but I was much smaller than the giants I would play alongside and against.”

Former Dublin minor manager Paddy Canning says Horan was instrumental in persuading Sherlock to join Na Fianna the year before he burst onto the national stage.

“He had an influence in bringing Jason Sherlock back into the GAA through St Vincent’s,” Canning tells The42.

“Jason was playing basketball and a bit of soccer. He was playing with the school and John encouraged him to play football.

“He said, ‘There’s a place for you on the Dublin minors if you join the club.’ John registered him with Na Fianna and Jason started playing with Na Fianna. The rest is history. He played minor that year with Dublin and the following year won the [senior] All-Ireland with Dublin.”

Jason Sherlock escorted off the pitch 1995 Source: ©INPHO

Horan managed the Na Fianna senior footballers for a three-year spell during the early 1990s, shortly before Pillar Caffrey arrived at the helm and led them to three county titles and an All-Ireland final appearance.

From 1997 to 2005, Horan was heavily involved in work with underage squads in Dublin.

When Canning took charge of the county minors in ’97, he brought Horan on board as a selector.  They’d spend the next five years working together between the U16, U17 and minor sides.

“He had done the seniors with Na Fianna when they were very weak, they were hard work at the time when he was doing them,” says Canning. “That was before all the high profile fellas came afterwards.

“He would have spent a lot of time involved in underage coaching. He was back doing the minors with Na Fianna and he was bringing young lads out to a [Dublin minor] trial one day.

“I originally asked him would he get involved as a first aid. He indicated he didn’t really want to go down the first aid line, but if I wanted a selector he would come in and help.

“He was very active, himself and Bobby O’Sullivan from Ballyboden did a lot of the work. Declan McConnell did the [physical] training, while Bobby and John did the coaching more or less.

“He came in and we did ’97 together and got beaten by Wicklow in the second round of Leinster.

“It was the famous day where the bus didn’t turn up to Parnell Park. We had to drive up in the cars and we got in eight to ten minutes before the game started. They wouldn’t put the game back five or ten minutes because there was a senior game afterwards.

“We were beaten that day and we were beaten in a Leinster final in ’98, to that good Laois team. They had won the All-Ireland the two previous years and they were beaten in the All-Ireland final that year.”

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Dejected Dublin player 2/8/1998 Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Canning and Horan took over a Dublin U16 team featuring Paul Griffin and Bryan Cullen in 1999, and brought them all the way to an All-Ireland minor final two years later where they fell to Tyrone after a replay.

Horan reverted to the U16s once again in 2003, this time as manager, and spent three years in charge of a crop of players that would go on to reach unimaginable heights in the game.

The star-studded group he worked with for three successive seasons included Diarmuid Connolly, Paddy Andrews, Philly McMahon, Darren Daly, Kevin Nolan, Tomás Brady, Joey Boland and Johnny McCaffrey.

With eight dual players in their ranks, the Dublin minor hurlers went on a run to the Leinster minor hurling final. They were scheduled to face Wexford in the decider seven days after Horan’s squad were due to face Laois in the football semi-final.

Horan greenlit the postponement of the last four football clash with Laois until after the Leinster hurling final.

“[We did it] to allow them have a free run, to try and win a Leinster title,” he told the Evening Herald last year.

“It wouldn’t have been the normal decision of a manager, but we felt, in fairness to the young lads and hurling in Dublin, it was a great chance because they were fancied to beat Wexford.”

Dublin did beat the Model county to land their first provincial hurling crown at the grade in 22 years, but the minor footballers gave a flat display a week later as they bowed out to Laois in the Leinster semi-final.

Dublin minors celebrate 3/7/2005 Dublin minor hurlers celebrate their Leinster title win in 2005 Source: INPHO

Horan’s willingness to accommodate hurling for the greater good might have backfired on him in ’05, but that sort of forward-thinking would serve him well as he delved more into the administrative side of the game.

“He was interested in the games and into the politics,” recalls Canning.

“That was very unusual and I remember passing comment on it one night. He was on the Leinster colleges council and he was very interested in the behind the scenes work.

“Most fellas that were coaching and hands-on with players, they wouldn’t have any interest in committee rooms or anything like that. The big problem was getting them to go to meetings, where they wanted to be on the field.”

Horan served on the Leinster Council as coaching and games development chairman for six years, before he was elected as Leinster vice-chairman in 2011. He was elevated to the chair in 2014.

“He’s a very capable person who knows the ins and outs. Has been involved in the club scene, the colleges scene hugely and in county set-ups. He can see it from all sides, where he’s not just coming from being an administrator or in county boards.

Paddy Canning Former minor football manager Paddy Canning who worked closely with Horan for a five-year spell Source: INPHO

“He’s unusual in that he had very little involvement with the Dublin county board on an administrative level. Most presidents would come up through their own county board. He didn’t, he came up through the Leinster colleges, schools and Leinster Council.”

Among the big achievements of his spell in charge of the Leinster Council was helping the Offaly county board overcome financial disarray and construct a fine training base, the Faithful Fields, debt free.

He established the €1.5m East Leinster Project, an initiative in Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow that aims to establish proper coaching structures.

He has also sought to divert funds from the capital to other counties in the province, with €200k of the Dublin funding from 2017 reverted to the East Leinster Project.

John Horan with Aogán Ó Fearghaíl Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Today, he takes over from Aogán Ó Fearghaíl as leader of an organisation that finds itself at several critical crossroads. Paraic Duffy’s successor as Director-General is expected to be announced this weekend and both men arrive at the helm with some big decisions to make.

The increasing demands of the inter-county game is a hot topic, while the need for a proper fixture schedule has been highlighted by recent fixture clashes between club, college and county teams.

“Hopefully he’ll make a very good president,” continues Canning.

“He’s been around, he’s experienced and savvy enough. It’s a tough job, you’ve to try and keep everyone happy. I think the most difficult thing is the huge [divide] between club and county, with the Super 8s and all that.

“It is going to be difficult to get something that suits everyone between club, county, hurling and football. They’re all pulling and they’re all looking at it from their own side and fighting their own corner. He’s a good diplomat so hopefully he can pull them all together. Now I don’t know what his main focuses will be on.

“I wouldn’t anticipate he will [shy away from the big decisions]. He’ll make his decision and go by it. I hope it goes well, it’s a daunting task. It’s a huge and massive organisation. There’s a lot of changes coming in and society, in general, is changing.

“I was talking to him after he was elected. I left him for two days. It means a huge amount to him. I was talking to him in the six months before it and he was hopeful. He had put a lot of work in.

“It’s a huge honour for himself, his family, Na Fianna and Dublin. It’s a long time since Dublin had a president. Our record in elections like that isn’t good so it’s great that he was able to do it.”

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