'Born leader' has embraced responsibility of shouldering weight of Mayo expectation
Friday Profile Aidan O'Shea
Aidan O'Shea lost the first two long balls that came into him in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal. Neil McGee was all over him. When Mayo won a free outside the scoring zone after 15 minutes, which gave Donegal even more time to add another screen in front of O'Shea, he still put his hand up and demanded the ball.
Once it dropped, O'Shea won it and was hauled down for a free. The message was simple: 'Get it in here, whatever the terms and conditions.'
Right on half-time, Seamus O'Shea kicked in another high ball. McGee was beside O'Shea. Mark McHugh was behind him when O'Shea won the ball. Hugh McFadden was coming back to close down the space. There were no support runners coming for a potential offload. Everything was stacked in Donegal's favour but O'Shea just blew every defensive rampart out of his way before burying the ball past Paul Durcan. Game over.
In the Connacht final, O'Shea had been unmarkable and untouchable. From 29 plays, through scoring or assists, his fingerprints were all over 6-15. O'Shea only had a hand in 1-2 against Donegal but he won eight of the 14 long balls played into him and ended with the fifth highest possession count of both teams. His brother, Seamus, was the game's best player but O'Shea was still the chief emblem of Mayo's defiance.
O'Shea is currently the frontrunner for Footballer of the Year. Jim Gavin described O'Shea as "the form player in the country". Denis Bastick compared him to "Superman". Dublin will do all they can to ensnare O'Shea in their defensive web but maintaining his incredible form will be critical to Mayo's hopes of winning that coveted All-Ireland.
O'Shea has been almost unstoppable all summer. In the Connacht semi-final against Galway, he had a direct hand in 1-10 out of 1-15. His awesome strength and handling is the obvious focal point at number 14 but his midfield experience gives him a huge edge.
As a midfielder, O'Shea knew what should have been going on inside, the type of runs forwards should have been making. Now, O'Shea knows exactly what the outside players want to see inside.
O'Shea has been there before. He played in the full-forward line in his debut season in 2009 at just 19 and scored goals in three of Mayo's four championship matches. Now at 25, and with all his hardened experience behind him, O'Shea is a different animal.
"O'Shea is a beast at the minute," said Darragh ó Sé. "He's looking to clear everything in his path."
Everyone else is following his lead. His footballing class, power and huge physique always suggested O'Shea was one of Mayo's driving forces but there were other players within the squad who assumed a greater leadership status.
O'Shea was an excellent player but Mayo still always needed more from him, for him to be ultra consistent. Now that he has become a more complete player, he has assumed that role as Mayo's natural leader.
He looks now like a man on a serious mission. He has trained as hard as anyone else this year. His GPS numbers are one of the highest in the squad. O'Shea was distraught after last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay loss to Kerry.
That devastation steeled his resolve and sharpened his desire but O'Shea has also clearly honed his game. In last year's International Rules clash against Australia in Perth, O'Shea won a mark close to goal.
He had a free shot but he didn't even get a behind. It's possible that was also a spark which has ignited O'Shea and his game to another level.
"People are talking about him now for six or seven years but he is still only 25," says Declan O'Reilly, who managed O'Shea with Breaffy when they reached the 2013 county final.
"He probably would have thought he'd have got to this stage of his career earlier because the man has 100pc belief in his own ability. He's a born leader.
"His fitness levels are as good this year as any year but I think he is just more mature now. When he played full-forward before, he was chasing down everything.
"His energy levels were going because he was trying to do too much. Now he knows exactly how to play the position."
O'Shea is on record as saying his move to full-forward came about from a casual chat earlier in the year with Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly. O'Shea's form was so hot coming into the summer that one member of the backroom team heavily fancied O'Shea to score a hat-trick of goals against Galway. O'Shea was able to joke afterwards that the man had picked the wrong game. Seven days later, O'Shea scored three goals in the first 24 minutes of Breaffy's senior championship win against Ballyhaunis.
O'Shea has also played centre-back for Breaffy. Some people in the club think that is his best position but O'Shea's versatility always set him apart. He won an All-Star at midfield in 2013 and narrowly missed out on one last year at centre-forward. His favourite position is centre-forward - his Twitter name (AIDOXI) tells as much - but he has been brilliant since returning to full-forward.
"It's not easy to make that transition," says Ciarán Whelan, the former Dublin midfielder who tried to make that move to number 14 late in his career.
"That in its own right says a lot about O'Shea's huge talent.
"He has massive strength but he has great balance. He is very light on his feet. He can pick small passes off right and left that you'd see from Colm Cooper. He is a very talented ball player. He is the elite player at the moment. O'Shea is Mayo's leader now."
That expectation has always been on O'Shea's shoulders. When he was still a minor in 2008, he had a physique that apparently skipped the adolescent stage. Yet O'Shea had the talent and class to match his power and he looked set to become the fulcrum of the next generation. It just took time.
"He's obviously toned up and got a lot stronger but he was as big back then as he is now," says Ray Dempsey, who first came across O'Shea when he was Mayo minor manager in 2007 and 2008. "His stamina and strength levels have improved now to allow him to carry his frame more efficiently around the pitch. The one thing Aidan always had though, was huge belief. He always wanted to win."
He always had a huge footballing pedigree to draw on too. His parents are both from Killorglin in Kerry. His father Jim was a Kerry minor but he broke his leg in his early 20s. When O'Shea lined out alongside Seamus and Conor last year against Roscommon, it was only the second time in more than 70 years that three brothers started a championship match for Mayo.
Mayo are still searching for the ultimate history and nobody has become more important to the quest than O'Shea. That expectation has placed huge pressure on him but O'Shea is now ready to embrace that massive challenge.
"Aidan is a sound man," says O'Reilly. "He likes the profile. I think he deals with the limelight quite well but he has always believed in himself 100pc. He is the type of guy who will say in the dressing room, 'Lads, if ye're under pressure, give me the ball, and I'll sort it'. That's the way he operates."
It's the way Mayo need O'Shea to operate if they're to finally crack the code.