By now, you will have heard enough about the similarities between Mayo and Donegal. In particular, you might have noted how the coaches of these two teams are bracketed off together.
They were both dumped out of the 2010 Championship on the same weekend, their defeats both assessed as ‘bottoming-out.' Last year, they won their provincial title and made it to the All-Ireland semi-finals with remarkable victories in the quarter-final stage. In 2012, they both defended their titles and have gone a step further, making it to the final.
In winning Ulster and reaching an All-Ireland final with the county under-21s, Jim McGuinness was the only managerial candidate that Donegal were going to go with. Despite guiding Ballintubber to their first Mayo county title, James Horan had to go in direct competition with Tommy Lyons for the county job, which leads to a surreal thought; how different would the last two years have been in Mayo had Lyons been manager?
While McGuinness says that some people had suggested he was ‘off his rocker’ going for the Donegal job, it's something similar to Horan, who says: “Some people thought I was daft to take over the team, others thought I couldn’t do any worse, but we had a very good idea of the ability that was there and we felt we could offer something.
“It was a huge opportunity and a huge challenge, but we’re delighted with how it’s gone.”
There are certain principles of Gaelic football that McGuinness and Horan prize above others. They also show a remarkable devotion to perfecting the skills of the game.
As a player on the team that lost the 1996 All-Ireland final, Horan has acknowledged that he feels a lack of polish on the basic skills proved costly. Hand-passing with the weaker hand, or kicking off the weaker foot was proving crucial when you add up all the little things that go into a win or a loss.
In the semi-final, his side were nearly done for as Dublin reeled off eight points without reply in a stirring recovery. The predictable assessments followed — that Mayo inevitably collapse at some point — ignored the fact that they hung in while players were dropping everywhere with injuries.
Their shape went, but Horan peels the bark back even further to get to the sap: “Some of the key areas like our basic skill execution wasn’t as good as we’d like it to be. We pride ourselves on that, we feel we’re one of the most skillful teams around, so we’re looking to improve on that.”
Ultimately, how they reacted was a massive education.
“The main thing I’d take from that period,” says Horan, “was how we responded and problem-solved our way out of it.
“We finished the game quite strongly, in the last five or six minutes and we had a couple of goal and point chances. We didn’t take them, but we responded well and showed character.”
In an overall context, Horan has changed the face of Mayo football. When Conor Mortimor walked away on the week of the Connacht final, it was as if the old image of individualism left the group.
Younger players stepped it up, responded to the demands of hard work. One of the most important lessons Horan claims to have learned on his feet over the past two years is: “That you can never underestimate youth. We’ve had some guys that have come in and done very well and developed very quickly...the different rates at which different players can improve is always a source of amazement.”
Within the county, ostentatious displays of fandom have been cautioned against. The fervour that gripped the county in the lead-up to the finals of '96 and '97 has often been used as contributory factors.
In the pursuit of a deeper meaning to their defeats, it has been said that the final losses of the least two decades has damaged the soul of Mayo football.
It's fanciful chat and while Horan dismisses the hokum, the games themselves contain some relevance. “There’s a huge amount to be learned from those defeats”, he says. “Where there’s benefit to this team, we’ll take them, but this team is plotting its own course.”
Teams that finally ended their long run of pain
Mayo have last won an All-Ireland title in 1951. Since then have lost finals in 1989, 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2006. Here we look at other sides to have broken a long sequence of disappointing failures.
From 2003 to 2008, the Shamrocks lost six Antrim hurling finals in-a-row. When PJ O'Mullan jnr came in as coach, they won the Volunteer Cup in 2010, and are now reigning All-Ireland club champions.
While their drought from 1914 to their next All-Ireland in 1995 was labelled the 'curse of Biddy Early', it is interesting to note that the 19th century healer from Feakle, Co Clare died in 1875, long before the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Nevertheless, it took a Feakle man - Ger Loughnane — to lead Clare out of the darkness.
Boston Red Sox
When the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920, they became afflicted with the 'Curse of the Bambino’. They went without a World Series title until 2004, when a change in approach to player recruitment inspired by Billy Beane of the Oakland A's paid off in style.