James Horan’s intentions were pretty clear when he returned as Mayo manager before the start of the current season – win Sam Maguire.

How he planned to achieve that was slightly more opaque.

He sought and was given a four-year term, which is unusually long in the hire-them-and-fire them world of inter-county GAA, which suggests he was taking a long-term approach.

However, it was never likely to be as simple as that. Horan was taking over a squad packed with players that he had managed for four seasons between 2011 and 2014, leading them to four consecutive Connacht titles, two All-Ireland finals and two losing All-Ireland semi-final appearances.

Would he move along the older men quickly and start injecting more youth into an ageing panel with stars from the 2016 All-Ireland Under-21 winning side and introduce members of last year's Under-20 team that lost the final to Kildare to senior inter-county football?

Rising star Matthew Ruane

In all likelihood, this was only ever going to become a four-year project if year one failed to deliver an All-Ireland title.

Horan gave young players like Mattie Ruane, Eoin O’Donoghue and Michael Plunkett their chance in the league and was paid back with some impressive displays, from midfielder Ruane in particular, who has missed most of the championship to date due to a broken collarbone.

The 47-year-old father-of-five from Ballintubber has leaned most heavily on those who he knows he can trust though.

It’s likely that in Saturday’s winner-takes-all Super 8s clash with Donegal at Elverys MacHale Park nine of the team that started the 2012 All-Ireland defeat to the same opponents will line out.

They are David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty and Cillian O’Connor. Seamus O’Shea came off the bench that day and Andy Moran was injured – both will play a part in Castlebar – while Ger Cafferkey started in the full-back line and is likely to be on the bench this weekend.

Still going strong, Andy Moran and Colm Boyle

That’s 12 players, many of them on the far side of 30. Donegal boss Declan Bonner may start as few as four of the All-Ireland winning team from seven years ago as his refitting project continues at pace.

At this stage, an All-Ireland title in 2019 looks like a big stretch for Mayo. First they’d have to beat Donegal in their final Super 8s Group 1 game and then, a week later, they’d face the Group 2 winners, who are odds on to be five in-a-row chasing All-Ireland champions Dublin in the semi-final.

Beat them and it looks like it would be Kerry, who beat them by ten points in Killarney just a few weeks ago, or Tyrone in the decider on Sunday, 1 September.

Injuries, of course, haven’t helped, with captain Diarmuid O’Connor, Seamus O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor and Ruane all missing for significant chunks of the season.

Horan’s intention will be to land Sam Maguire at some stage between now and 2022. If it’s not this year, the transition project will really crank into gear as older panel members, legends of Mayo football, are eased out or retire.