Kicking Out: Horan may finally have something to be ruthless with
“Ruthless is something we will be in 2020 as a team. But ruthless for me is a very powerful word. Are we ruthless in our skill execution? In how we think? And then in how we play?”
- James Horan speaking to Keith Duggan in February
JIM Gavin’s demeanour did not suggest a ruthless man. He didn’t have the piercing eyes of a natural-born killer. Lorries turn quicker than his temper.
But ruthless he was.
There’s enough evidence from All-Ireland finals against Mayo alone to make the point.
The drawn game in 2016 was probably Dublin’s worst performance of his entire reign. Only for two own-goals, they would have been well beaten.
For the replay, he dropped Michael Darragh Macauley, Bernard Brogan and Davy Byrne.
Most managers would have given Brogan a victory lap last year. But with time winding down on his career, Gavin didn’t even include him in the 26 for last year’s drawn decider with Kerry.
As far as he knew making that call, the last day of Bernard Brogan’s Dublin career would be spent watching his team-mates from Littlewoods’ corporate box.
Sentimentality was a distant second to winning. Whatever decisions had to be made to collect trophies, Jim Gavin made them. Repeatedly.
Dessie Farrell has carried on the trait. Three-in-a-row Allstar Paul Mannion and back-to-back Allstar Brian Howard cannot get into his team.
Truth is, it’s easy for Gavin and Farrell to be ruthless. Where most are massively weakened by big decisions, Dublin are simply changed.
The depth of their squad over the last decade has been the biggest factor in crushing Leinster football. They don’t let up on teams because individuals cannot afford to let their performance drop.
That is where Mayo have been trying to get to.
There are many theories as to why they have faltered at the finish line so often in the last decade, but one of the most prominent and believable has been their comparative lack of depth.
In the 2017 All-Ireland final, Dublin brought on Paul Flynn after nine minutes, Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly at half-time, and Bernard Brogan, Niall Scully and Cormac Costello when the game was there to be won.
Mayo didn’t make a change until the 50th minute and each of the six times Stephen Rochford turned behind him, it arguably weakened what they had on the pitch.
That was the reality and James Horan saw it from the Sky Sports studio.
He hasn’t had anywhere near the credit he’s due for the last two years.
In his two years back in the hotseat, the Ballintubber man has filed through the credentials of 51 different players in league and championship.
He’s had 13 new faces from last year to this, and used 39 players in 2020 to improve on last year’s tally by one.
Many counties will boast such numbers but when it comes down to it, there’s no substance behind it.
Throwing a man on for two minutes at the end of an early league game so you can say you used an extra body doesn’t do much good when it comes to breaking bread with Dublin.
Mayo, though, have been different.
This year’s Connacht final win over Galway was the first time Horan had named an unchanged team for a league or championship game in his second reign.
He then kept the same 15 again for the Tipperary game, offering a suggestion that after all the tinkering, he’s close to settled on his team.
In the 2019 and 2020 leagues, they’ve made on average more than four changes per game.
In the championship, it’s just under three.
The total number of week-to-week changes to their starting line-up is a remarkable 101 in just 28 games.
On top of giving so many players a start, 60 per cent of their 142 substitutions in the last two years have been made between half-time and the 58th minute, giving players proper opportunity to impress.
There’s no doubt that his time out of the job has affected his approach since he came back. The whole idea of using so many players hasn’t been about false statistics or proving to a county board he’s giving youth a chance.
It’s been about Saturday evening and trying to ensure that if they are neck-and-neck with Dublin on the final bend, they will be able to match the blue vest stride for stride.
Against Tipperary, the injured Brendan Harrison was absent, while Colm Boyle didn’t make the 26, yet they still had Keith Higgins and Padraig O’Hora as defensive refreshments.
Tom Parsons and Jordan Flynn are the midfield back-up, with Fionn McDonagh also on the outside of the 26.
In attack they can spring Darren Coen and James Carr, with Tommy Conroy having overtaken both and jumped straight into the full-forward line.
It is up front that they’ve been so bare in terms of game-changing impact.
In their eight knockout championship defeats going back to the 2012 All-Ireland final, Mayo have scored just 0-8 off the bench. Their opponents’ subs have racked up 1-16 against them.
The only two games in which they’ve bettered the opposition’s scoring from the bench was in that 2012 and, notably, last year’s semi-final loss to Dublin.
Perhaps the idea that the Dubs don’t have the same punch is reserve is another myth like once-in-a-generation players or a weak full-back line, but Mayo would like to test the theory.
Are they better equipped? It would appear so, not least because a flying, injury-free Cillian O’Connor and a fearless Tommy Conroy have given new life to their attack.
Let’s also not forget that in last year’s semi-final, they completely dominated the first half, leading 0-8 to 0-6 at the break having owned the ball.
They played without a full-forward and moved the ball quickly and patiently around the Dublin defensive cover, making the most of the gaps until the infamous third-quarter spell that blew them away.
Expect Aidan O’Shea to play at midfield (he’s had absolutely no joy at full-forward against Dublin and would be wasted inside), and for Cillian O’Connor and Tommy Conroy to play on the loop, with nobody occupying the space in front of the goal again.
Mayo have a chance. Manufacture enough primary possession, avoid being overwhelmed on their kickouts and they have a great chance.
And if they take it into the final 20 minutes, James Horan will have to ruthless.
As a result of his patience to give players a chance and develop them, he might finally have something to be ruthless with.