It’ll roll around soon enough – the day the best players in the county report for the first training session of a new campaign. It might be on a Saturday afternoon with the winter sun still slanting across the pitch. Or on an evening under light when the beams cut through a grey drizzle. Or one of those infamous dawn sessions when the players’ breaths preceeds them like fog every step they take. But at some point in proceedings, the manager will call them in to form the first huddle around him in a new quest for Sam. They’ll have been together before this and spoke hard truths about why they failed on a Sunday in the not too distant past, but this will be the real moment of truth. This will be the moment they’ll make eye contact for the first time at the bottom of another hill called Calvary. This will be as far removed from Glory Days as it is possible to be. Countless, thankless hours of hell lie ahead on fields just like this, far from the cheering masses, just to get back to where they need to be. And so, in that first huddle, the manager will look them in the eye. And they him. And the answer to the question posed will be there in their eyes.
Two managers. Two teams. Two counties who came up short. In Donegal Jim McGuinness stands in the middle of a huddle in unfamiliar, alien territory for him. In his short managerial career, he has never occupied this spot. This was the manager with the midas touch – the genius whose exploits at the helm over the previous two summers had been so exceptional that they attracted the attention of Glasgow Celtic – he will have to sell the dream all over. In front of him, some of the most decorated brilliant footballers ever to pull on the green and gold. But they have been wounded badly, surrendering their Ulster and All-Ireland crowns in a fashion unimaginable at the end of May. Jim, who could sell snow to Eskimos, has serious selling to do. Once again he’s selling belief.
Two and a half hours south of the Donegal huddle, another group of wounded men gather around James Horan. Horan is hardly looking at them in unfamiliar circumstances. Twice now, in his era as manager, they’ve occupied this spot. They’re household names these boys but other than a mantelpiece full of worthless dust-catching Connacht titles, they’ve sweet nothing to show for their trips up Calvary. Yet, here they are again, at the bottom of that same hoor of a hill. Ready to push one last time for James, the man they thought was the Messiah who’d push the door open into the Promised Land.
What does James say that will make the boys believe? One hundred miles north, what can Jimmy say that will have the boys bouncing on their toes again? Hurler would suggest that he’d rather be in Jimmy’s shoes than James’.
Mayo came up just one point short of Dublin on Sunday but the margin of their defeat can’t be measured in mere points. This was monumental, and it exposed – harshly – unfixable flaws in this Mayo team. Such was their naivety on and off the pitch on Sunday that Mayo actually deserved to lose this game. All-Ireland glory is undeserved if you bring Junior B tactics and performances to football’s biggest Sunday. There were system failures everywhere but none more notable than Mayo’s unfathomable decision to allow Stephen Cluxton find his man every single time from the kick-out. What was James Horan thinking? It may be harsh to say but could it be that Mayo were too arrogant about their own abilities to take on board a lesson that Kerry mapped out in black and white for them in the semi-final?
The late great Paidi O Se once talked about setting opposition teams back three or four years by the nature of the defeat imposed upon them. Hurler would suggest that the James Horan era is over for that very reason. His tenure may run another year but James is not the Messiah and this Mayo team are not the chosen ones. They are on their arses. They won’t rise this time. They’ve been to the well too often and the bucket is still empty. Empty it’ll stay.
Jim, on the other hand, has a different hand of cards. Monumental mistakes were made in 2013. Mistakes he’ll have to own. Although possibly, as one man said, Rory has already been given ownership of those mistakes. Hurler was listening to Mickey Harte previewing the All-Ireland last Friday on Today FM. When one of the other contributors began extolling Mayo’s quarter-final performace against Donegal, Mickey dismissed it instantly. Listen, he said, you have to dismiss that game entirely out of your heads. Donegal misjudged their training very badly last summer and it cost them dearly. Hurler found that comment fascinating. Mickey is never too far off the mark. More to the point, it rings true. Joe Brolly too had spoken about the savage Donegal training at the time. And there was no doubt that Donegal were absolutley flying at the start of summer. It takes some team to do what they did to Tyrone in Ballybofey that day. Hurler was convinced leaving MacCumhaill Park that the train was rolling again. And then the wheels came off. But it’s much easier to fix a technical mistake than a wound that cuts as deep as the slash that runs across Mayo football. Jim has already started the ball rolling, culling passengers as is his wont, including his sidekick. He’s ready to go. His reputation is entirely on the line. Hurler would not bet against him turning it around.
Put it this way, if Hurler was a player in one of those huddles, I’d rather be meeting Jim’s eyes that James’.