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Which all-star ticket is best placed to solve Mayo’s shortcomings?

Four names are in the running to become the next Mayo senior football manager.

MICK O’DWYER WAS dismissive. At a 2010 Mayo county board meeting, he had been included on an initial list of seven candidates for the senior football manager’s job. Eventually, it was whittled down to three. He wasn’t one of them.

Tommy Lyons, Anthony McGarry and James Horan were the final contenders. O’Dwyer’s assessment?

“With all due respect to the three remaining candidates, I wouldn’t think any of them are ideal for the job. I’d tell the county board to put the three names in a hat and pick one.”

james-horan Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

As the county look to replace Horan, it is worth quickly revisiting how they came to appoint him. Firstly, four are in the frame: Kevin McStay, Ray Dempsey, Mike Solan and Declan Shaw.

Former Roscommon manager McStay’s proposed set-up includes former Mayo manager Stephen Rochford, renowned coach Donie Buckley, ex-Belmullet manager Damien Mulligan; and current Belmullet manager Liam McHale.

Castlebar coach Shaw will reportedly be joined on his ticket by Tipperary coach Paddy Christie, Castlebar’s Richie Feeney, Sligo’s Dessie Sloyan and Mayo native Cormac Rowland.

Solan includes Aidan O’Rourke, who coached Down last year, former Sligo footballer Eamonn O’Hara, and former Mayo senior footballers Mark Ronaldson and Alan Murphy. Details of Shaw’s ticket have not been confirmed.

What has this to do with Horan? Well, how did he get the job?

“He was very well prepared. He had a good plan in place. We were very impressed with it,” then chairman James Waldron told The42 last year.

“The backroom team he had in mind was very attractive at the time.”

Horan pointed to the catch-all explanation of Mayo’s failings, a mental weakness, and derided it. That was nonsense. 2010 included defeats against Sligo and Longford. Sift through the wreckage and study the black box, there you will see significant, specific issues.

They had won just five of 12 championship games and faded badly in several. Their athleticism wasn’t up to scratch. Some on the selection committee hadn’t even heard of strength and conditioning programmes. Under O’Mahony, players were told to undergo physical work in their own time.

Horan recruited Dr Ed Coughlan, the strength and conditioning coach. Initially, Coughlan did generic testing. Then he prescribed player-specific workouts. Several players were confused. They couldn’t contemplate why one programme was different to another. It heralded a new era. 

Paul Jordan and Martin Connolly were selectors that season. When he departed after one year, Connolly pointed to one pleasing outcome.

 “The highlight of the year though, to be honest, was hearing Kerry complain that a Mayo team was too physical. For years, Mayo teams would have been labelled as being too soft so I got a good kick out of those Kerry comments.”

Brick by brick, they built a regime not just competitive but leading in the modern game. They powered the county towards an elite sporting environment. The team became defined by pace and power. On several occasions, it brought them to the absolute boundary.

aidan-oshea-clashes-with-tadhg-morley Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Now they need a figurehead to move them even further. It is not a question of sustaining; the challenge has to be an enhancement. As raw materials go, the team has all the components to muster another tilt at the Sam Maguire Cup. They lost out by a single point to eventual All-Ireland finalists Galway, without young star Tommy Conroy.

Hold fast to that which is good. Discard what is not. At times, Mayo’s running game has struggled to break down defensive structures. Any incoming coach will need to reintroduce some variety to their game plan. The closest they came to an effective balance was under Rochford, strengthening that group’s case.

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How will any successor address the top-end issue? Repeatedly on the big stage, their finishing was woeful. For all their physical power, skill execution under red-hot pressure remains a weak point. Too often haunted by glaring wides. Goal chances went a-begging because of one-sided shooters. It is not merely a case of getting a famous candidate. Mayo need a certain one, capable of addressing longstanding concerns.

The strength of the contenders reflects the fact this is far from a poisoned chalice. McStay got the most out of Roscommon while delicately handling difficult financial headaches. At one point in his autobiography, he recalled sitting on a bus outside Omagh, looking at a county board official who was telling him the county’s credit card could not cover accommodation costs.

During his term, McStay had to pay for the team’s hotel bills and players’ gym membership. He was later reimbursed by the board.

Dempsey and Shaw both have extensive knowledge of the local club scene and are well regarded for their analysis work. There is no doubt continuing to unearth new gems must be part of the brief. Solan was in the running for the job before Horan returned in 2018. His proposed selector, former Armagh footballer Aidan O’Rourke, was previously strong in his criticism of Mayo’s shortcomings in the 2021 decider, highlighting a failure to kick, poor attacking play and slow reactions on the line.

That is just the tactical component. What of the burden that is the debt on McHale Park? For the first time in a decade, Mayo supporters exhibited signs of fatigue last year. How will they be re-energised?

Whatever the outcome, the only guarantee is that it will be box office. If the past week is anything to go by, fears about the promotional damage of the split season appear unfounded. Coverage and conversations roll on with club transfers and the managerial merry-go-round providing more than enough fuel. The inter-county games only got in the way of the chat.

Mayo’s decision to kick off the senior club championship in September despite the senior team’s June exit ensures there is ample time for the selection committee to mull and the hype to build. Candidates have already started outlining their vision in local media interviews. More headline-grabbing news will emerge. What does Jimmy Sloyan make of it all? We’ll surely soon find out. 

The carnival rolls on.

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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