Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Mayo won't choke at Croke, says James Horan

Mayo manager James Horan
Mayo manager James Horan

What are Mayo going to change about their game when they play Donegal in the All-Ireland final? Well, that's for Mayo to know and everyone else to find out.

“We just have to score more than them,” says manager James Horan. “I’m not giving you a smart answer. Of course we will have to look at things and the way they play. They are playing good football and so are we. There are two different styles. It will be interesting.”

Interesting indeed.

Given that Donegal play football on their own terms, we have yet to see an opposition that does not make some allowance for them. Even Cork, who had been favourites for the All-Ireland by some distance before the semi-finals, tailored their approach.

It's not as if Mayo don't know what they are in for. Given that both counties share the western seaboard, their geographical and footballing proximity makes them ideal candidates for challenge matches.

As well as shipping a seven point defeat during the National League in March, the sides played a challenge match prior to the Championship. It was a Petri-dish for testing their Championship ideas. Both sides would experience an early prototype of the formations and styles that have brought them to the ultimate date in Irish sport — the All-Ireland final.

Horan’s response though, is to keep it all business: “Donegal have beaten all before them, and we have beaten anyone that has come in front us.”

Pushed to elaborate on that lacklustre league display in Ballyshannon earlier in the year, he says: “We did well in the first half. We had a bad second half. People lost the plot a little bit over that one. It was one bad half in a league match up in Donegal. We certainly learned from that so we will plug that in. As I said, we have improved from every game since. We are happy with where we are.”

There are many similarities in what has occurred in Mayo and Donegal over the past two years, under young managers. They were both knocked out of the first round of qualifiers in 2010 and it was seen as the final straw in each county; Donegal by 10 points to Armagh, Mayo on a horrible afternoon in Pearse Park to Longford.

Horan is asked to put his finger on what has been the major factors on the Mayo revival and comments: “In my case, the players are there. They are very good guys. They are very committed and they are very keen. We have brought in a good backroom team and we are trying to play a certain way.

“We tried to cut away a lot of the stuff that you maybe don’t need around a football team. We are just getting on with it and playing football, and so far so good.”

One difference in the camp is the introduction last year of sports psychologist Kieran Shannon. Also renowned as one of the most respected sports journalists in the country, Shannon worked in a consultative role for Mayo last year, but this season Horan has brought him in to work directly with the players.

Previously, Malachy O'Rourke utilised Shannon when Fermanagh made it to their first Ulster final in 26 years back in 2008, and he has also been involved in the success of the ladies' basketball team of University of Limerick.

“Kieran is very good,” says corner-back Keith Higgins. “Lads can sit down with him or ring him up whenever they want and have a chat. He will come up with stats and data just to prove a point to you.

“Everything he does is fact based. From that point of view he is excellent and the lads are getting something out of him.”

It's not hard to see why a sports psychologist would have the ultimate case with Mayo. Although they reached four All-Ireland finals in 10 years between 1996 and 2006, the legacy of those defeats left them with the dreaded ‘chokers' tag. It's as if they don't get credit for reaching a final, says Higgins. “Hopefully it is a bit different this year. We are going to be going in as underdogs.

“We know the task that is ahead of us.

“It’s going to be a huge game against Donegal. We know the way they play. They are hard to break down.

“We are just going to have to figure out some way of getting around them.”

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