Posted by Ewan MacKenna

2012 final James Horan 520x280

Personally speaking, it was a very different experience. Early Sunday morning, in a diner in Boston, I sat with a radio tucked neatly beside a plate of waffles and took in the All Ireland final like many others have down through the generations.

The Americans in for breakfast looked as baffled by it as I did when I first saw the portions. As for the Irish, they meandered over wondering the score and at 2-1 to 0-0 they scoffed in their newly-found New England drawl. “Same old Mayo,” two said in a voice plucked straight from The Departed.

But those two were wrong. Anyone who puts it as simplistically as the county merely losing again is missing the feel of the game and the sense of the entire James Horan project. In 1996 and 1997 they were beaten when they might well have been the better team and they were All Irelands that got away from the county and will hurt until they finally win one. 

In 2004 and 2006 they were beaten so violently that never mind talking about who the better team was, they were groups that were never going to bounce back. Any spring in their step and flight in their spirit was crushed to the extent that any subsequent wins merely provided cruel and false hope.

However, to say 2012 got away from this latest Mayo group is too strong a sentiment. The simple fact is they were beaten by the best team in the country, but crucially beaten in a manner that showed both themselves and everyone else they are good enough.

They may well have been distraught at the final whistle but the feeling within the team was they’ll be back and better for this one. It’s why within days James Horan was talking about what needs to happen next year and within the camp, players are genuinely already looking forward as well. Next to winning, that’s the best possible outcome from the day. 

What went wrong? The goals didn’t help but they were merely a paper cut given the strong and courageous reaction. The talk within the Mayo management was that if something went wrong with their starting set-up they could simply change it.

However no one expected it to go so drastically wrong for Kevin Keane. But if he reset too slowly after the first goal, his reset after the second goal was remarkable. Reaction is a measure of a man and while he’ll be remembered for his errors, he should also be remembered for how he got back into the game and did well thereafter. That shouldn’t be understated and bodes well for his bright future. 

But if his match-up with Michael Murphy didn’t work — granted, Donegal were going to target whoever he picked up and the sense was that Keith Higgins was too small to follow the Donegal captain — the Mayo management did get a lot right. Indeed after all the talk all year of what teams would do with Mark McHugh, to the extent Cork sacrificed themselves over it, the Connacht side did nothing. They played their natural game, played to their own strengths and were the most effective opposition to Donegal all season long.

For Mayo, this wasn’t a game lost at the start, it was a game lost at the start of the second half for the most part. And this wasn’t a game lost by Mayo’s defence even after their rotten beginning, it was lost by their attack and their awful shot selection and panicked shot execution.

In the lead up to Sunday, we said they couldn’t be wasteful, and while so much attention was on the spectacular efforts by Jason Gibbons and Lee Keegan down the stretch, they are little use unless the easy chances sail over. That wasn’t the case and for Mayo to move forward and get closer to winning it all, that should be the primary area of focus.

Andy Moran will be back, but while the rest of the Mayo forwards are good, they’ve no superstar strikers and that was the difference between them and Donegal. They had no one on the field that could do what Michael Murphy or Colm McFadden have done time and again and that’s a great pity because the full-forward line made runs better than anything Donegal have faced.

They found space and the ball in was good, but the first touch and their choices were poor at that crucial point. It’s that which made them an seven out of 10 full-forward line, when another two was needed for victory.

Aside from that issue, right now there is so much positive about this Mayo team. David Clarke isn’t just a classy goalkeeper, but he is a leader of men. Kevin Keane showed he has the character to grow. Keith Higgins is one of the finest corner-backs in the game. Ger Cafferkey is unrecognisable from the player he was 15 months ago. Colm Boyle is a warrior back from the wilderness but still fighting. Barry Moran finally has fitness. In fact if Aidan O’Shea can get a run free from injury and Donal Vaughan improves his decision-making with and without the ball, there’s potentially the second best defensive unit in the country right there.

But Mayo must also evolve if they are to move forward. They can’t merely show up next season and expect to get back to this point because standing still in modern football will move you backwards. Kerry will return stronger with almighty fight before the dying of the light, Donegal could take another startling step forward although there’s barely any room left for improvement, Dublin won’t stutter through another season before chugging to a halt, Cork won’t want to be remembered as the great underachievers.

But unlike in other years where Mayo walked away from the All Ireland final with nothing but pride, there’s no doubt over the future of the manager and James Horan has already settled into what’s next.

Remember that he will learn from this too. He hasn’t spent a lifetime in coaching like Jimmy McGuinness, he’s only been at it six years and is improving all the time. He’ll know what needs to be done and he’ll move mountains to get it done.

There are no guarantees when it comes to All Irelands and the final step to the summit can be every bit as difficult as the long climb to that point. But leaving a half-plate of waffles behind on Sunday morning in Boston, I felt this wasn’t just a very different experience personally. It was a very different experience for Mayo as well and that bodes well.