WHEN MAYO PULL on the green and red and stride out onto the Croke Park pitch on Sunday, their captain and leader will be sitting tight; watching and hoping.
The latest in Andy Moran’s long list of untimely injuries is a blow — one which may prove decisive against Dublin when the sides meet in the second All-Ireland Football semi-final — but James Horan is confident that if his side can stick to their principles, they can prevail.
In Enda Varley and Andy Freeman, the manager has worthy candidates to fill Moran’s boots. But while Mayo’s squad depth has shone through in training, it’s a personnel distraction he could have done without this week.
“We have three to four very strong options at the moment,” Horan said, without saying much at all. “We have a number of A versus B games left before we decide anything but we’re very happy with the options available to us. It will be about who comes out strongest over the next couple of sessions.
“Andy is a big loss, both for Andy himself and the team. As we said earlier on we’re extremely lucky we’ve a strong panel. You saw it there in the Down game. There were subs came on for injured lads and increased the tempo in the game and that was a good sign for me that the team had already moved on.
In training since we’ve had four or five guys training really well so we’re happy with where things are and that we have had a positive bounce from the Andy injury.
Moran’s absence inevitably leads to questions about Conor Mortimer, the county’s all-time leading scorer and another potential game-changer who won’t be lacing up his boots on Sunday. A very public falling out between player and manager ended with Mortimer leaving the squad mid-championship, citing personal reasons after he was left out in the cold for two provincial ties.
Unsurprisingly, it’s old ground that Horan isn’t anxious to revisit in the run-up to their biggest game so far this season.
“Do we want to go back to the Conor thing? We do? If he was here he could have been playing but if Jinky Joe [Corcoran, formerly Mayo's top scorer] was here he could have been playing too. To be honest it’s irrelevant at this stage.
“Andy is a loss absolutely no doubt and he’s still our captain of our team but he will still drive us on from the side. But I’m very happy with the way things are at the minute.”
Happy, and with good reason too. In two seasons under Horan, Mayo have picked up two more Connacht crowns, made it to a Division 1 league final and now back-to-back championship semis.
Rather than sit back and admire the improvements of last season, this year has been about chopping and changing and tinkering in an attempt to push on to the next level. It was a risk but one which is working, Horan says.
Absolutely there’s no doubt about it. We were just talking last week that for the Connacht final this year there were eight changes from the year before. It’s been a significant road to take but people have just come in and improved the strength of the team so far.
I’d be very confident that we’ve improved since last year. We’re stronger and smarter and have a lot more strings to our bows than last year but it’s all based on the same principles.
“[The same things] that every inter-county team and successful team in the world is trying to do: tackle high, high work rate, high tempo, high pressure, good skill and execution. That’s the principles of what we’re trying to do at the moment and there’s no secret to it. We’re happy we’re further along the road than this time last year.”
It’s a formula that works, not just for Mayo but for Dublin and Donegal, the other two teams still standing as we move into the weeks which separate winners from losers. Having watched Pat Gilroy plot a path to Dublin’s first All-Ireland in 16 years, Horan knows that the champions’ lethargic performances are no indicator of what is still to come.
“It will be completely different. If you look at them last year, yeah they might not have hit the same heights but if you look at how they won the All-Ireland it was based on work rate and intensity and movement all over the field. They outran and outworked other teams last year. We have to feel that will be the case on Sunday. It’s going to be a huge step up for us.
They haven’t played as well as they can and I think everyone knows that. They’ve got the players though and are the reigning All-Ireland champions. They’ll be looking to perform on 2 September, that’s their job and their role. We’ll be just getting ourselves right for the encounter.
“We like playing in Croker. As a team some of our best performances have been there. When you play a team like Dublin in front of a full house that’s absolutely where you want to be. We feel we’ve the game and players and can play well and we just can’t wait to get cracking on it.
“When you get to Dublin they will play at the top end of their range. We’re going to try and play at ours and see where that brings us.”