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13th Sep 2021

James Horan stuck in a moment he can’t get out of

Patrick McCarry

James Horan

“Congratulations to Tyrone and commiserations, once again, to Mayo.”

At a church in Teemore, Fermanagh came the latest soul passing on their best to Tyrone while sympathising with James Horan, Mayo and all their fans.

Mass is back in Ireland and, with it, chatter amongst men and women after mass.

We may all be wearing masks now, or standing at a distance, but the need to connect and to share stories after sitting at mass has not gone away. The scene at St Mary’s, on Sunday, was no doubt mirrored across the country. The weekend catch-up and Mayo’s latest heart-break was top of the agenda.

“No doubt about it. The curse IS real.”

“Ah, Tyrone are a fierce handy side.”

“They’re never going to win it.”

“That’s them finished, now. They can’t come back.”

And yet they keep coming back. Few of us outside Mayo can understand how you can take so many licks and come back asking for more.

If there is something noble, and stubborn, about it, the All-Ireland Final itself is where history catches up with all that don the green and red at Croke Park.

There was something telling about the reactions of two Mayo men as their side’s own wretched finishing started to turn the tide in Tyrone’s favour.

Mayo had already missed two decent goal chances in the first half but were only two points down at the break. Horan brought Enda Hession on for Michael Plunkett and switched Lee Keegan on to Darragh McCurry. Padraig O’Hora had been given a rough ride in the first half so he switched over to Mattie Donnelly.

Mayo then squandered two more goal chances and you could just see shoulders drop. Doubts sidling their way in.

First up we had Tommy Conroy snatch a shot wide when there was a goal for the taking had he shown some composure. Just over a minute later and Mayo were awarded a penalty. Ryan O’Donoghue was playing, and scoring, well up until that point. He had it in his head to go high with his spot-kick, but he did not catch it right.

It was still only 0-10 to 0-8 in Tyrone’s favour. There were only 42 minutes gone. Still, it felt like the beginning of the end. It was those two own goals [against Dublin] in 2016 all over again. If fans were trying there best to block out the word ‘CURSE’, it was impossible now.

As the latest two chances went a-begging, cameras cut to Horan on the sideline. There was a sense of resignation in his body language. His arms sagged and his gaze dropped. Here is a man who fell at the final hurdle five times before [twice as a player and three times as manager].

It was hard not to feel sorry for Horan. He keeps getting Mayo teams to the brink but he can’t finish those glaring chances for his players.

When Cathal McShane punched a high ball home for Tyrone’s first, it had all come too easily for the big man. Horan was stunned.

O’Hora, meanwhile, was not going down without a fight. At 28, he is not part of that new generation of Mayo youngsters coming through, but he has less scar tissue. The Ballina Stephenites clubman did not get much of a look-in when Stephen Rochford took over from Horan, back in 2014. It was only after Horan returned for his second stint at the helm did O’Hora push on and make that starting 15.

He had been given a going over in the first half, and conceded a rash free before half-time, but he parked it in the second half. On three occasions, he won possession and burst forward to try spur his team on. History be damned, was the attitude.

On 52 minutes, he bombed up the pitch and won a free-kick that gave Robbie Hennelly a chance to make it a two-point game again. O’Hora was laying out the template. He was leaving it all out there.

And then he was off. Horan replaced him with Jordan Flynn, who did not have much of an impact at all.

It was a strange call at the time and, two days on, it remains strange. It was left to Lee Keegan to rage against the dying of the light, but far too many other Mayo players dropped off in those final 20 minutes.

When it was all over, many of those Mayo players showed such grace to stick around and congratulate the Tyrone lads and the backroom staff. More brave faces but that same uneasy acceptance that holds Mayo footballers back. Not to be. Not our day.

Horan found comfort in his family at the end, and he’s a lucky man at that. There were hugs in the stands, Horan doing his best to smile and his young son Eoghan, decked out in his Mayo jersey, never far from his side.

Most football fans in the county will be asking themselves if this is the last proper go at it for a while.

Many stalwarts have stepped aside in recent years but still Mayo reached deep to get to the final. They stunned Dublin but then had to spin their wheels for too long as the GAA were forced to reschedule fixtures.

Deep down, though, the biggest hurt from the latest failing will be knowing the game was there for the taking. They had the chances but got gun-shy when the shots needed to be fired.

You would think this surely would be the last you would see of a James Horan-led Mayo side in a final, but then you wouldn’t know Mayo football.

They have our commiserations again, but that’s all. It will be another long winter.

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