Colm Keys: Giants of the game Aidan O'Shea and Michael Murphy reaching their peak
Published 16/06/2015 | 02:30
At two championship venues some 150 miles apart last Sunday afternoon, two giants of Gaelic football, physically and symbolically, made indelible imprints in different ways on the 2015 Championship.
Aidan O'Shea and Michael Murphy have been team leaders in Mayo and Donegal over the course of the last four years since their respective counties formed one half of an exclusive quartet that has carved up All-Ireland final day and 14 of the 16 provincial championships between them in that time.
But on Sunday they appeared to take their game to another level of influence.
Murphy has for some time been hailed as the most important player to any team. That doesn't necessarily constitute him being the best player though that case can quite easily be prosecuted.
Rarely has a player dictated the flow and tempo of a game with such subtlety as Murphy did in the Athletic Grounds last Sunday. He had the remote controls for the afternoon and no one else was changing channels.
Planting himself almost in quarterback fashion between his centre-back and midfield he called it as he saw it. If it required a handpass to his left, he met that need; if it was kick to his right that was executed too.
When it needed a surge to gain 20 metres that was within his remit too, his run to create the opening for the last score of the game a case in point.
At one stage in the first half he blocked down a shot from an Armagh boot while standing in the centre-back position. It wasn't quite Horatius at the bridge but you get the picture. On top of all that there was his sublime free-taking.
But in Pearse Stadium O'Shea was exerting that kind of influence too, as the inside target man or as an auxiliary midfielder. Like Murphy, he had the game management to sense what was required and carry it off, that blend of physicality and deftness of hand and foot such a potent combination.
The statistics show that with Cillian O'Connor in the Mayo team they are twice as likely to win a football match. But for presence and return Mayo dare not go to war any more without O'Shea.
It's difficult to gauge what his peak could be but right now it looks like he's at an altitude that he hasn't been at before.
"I don't know if he is close to his peak but I think he is getting close to it anyway," admitted O'Connor. "He is better again than he was last year. He is such a handful, even physically running with the ball, but his decision-making is getting better, his handling is getting better, so too his composure and his shooting."
How he dealt with the attention he inevitably got to try and curtail him is a leaf right out of Murphy's book too and something O'Shea has improved at, according to his colleague.
"He is well used to that at this stage. Before, when he was younger, he might have got frustrated at the fouls and lash out but the fouls were punished and he was excellent."
"He's always going to be a handful wherever he's playing and there were times when Galway had no choice but to foul him or there would have been goals. They were probably right.
"He's that type of player who draws fouls and always comes in for an extra bit of treatment. Yesterday was the first time in a while that he was given the frees that he takes from the opposition.
"When you're 6' 4" and 15 or 16 stone, for whatever reason you're allowed treat them a little bit rougher. On Sunday, he probably got the frees he deserved when he was being pulled and dragged. He's a handful."
Murphy wasn't so much in the eye of the storm on Sunday as Armagh chose to sit off him in a way that Tyrone, through Justin McMahon, didn't in Ballybofey. His patience in that Ulster preliminary round game was another mark of the player has become.
"He came under a bit of grief against Tyrone and he handled it. You could see it on 'The Sunday Game' that night, but it told you everything about the player that he is," said colleague Mark McHugh after Sunday's victory.
"He did not hit back or do anything like that because he is not like that. He just concentrates on his football and it is a total credit to him."
Under some of the same attention in last year's All-Ireland final against Kerry, Murphy held his nerve too but it's inevitable that teams will continue to take liberties with the likes of Murphy and O'Shea because of the physical momentum they can generate themselves.
The deployment of both men must be carefully calibrated now over the summer.
Murphy spent just a few minutes as an orthodox full-forward as part of a rotation system that served them well on Sunday. O'Shea hasn't always prospered at full-forward but over the last 18 months that has begun to change.
In any of the three central positions he has filled over the last three seasons he has been so effective, his second half against Kerry in last year's drawn All-Ireland semi-final his pinnacle when he took up a deeper position and gained crucial yardage with his power and evasion.
O'Connor sees a balance being struck to get the best out of both worlds. "I think it's a good problem to have because he can influence the game from so many different areas.
"If we want to play him around the middle, we can do that. If we want to play him inside, we can do that too.
"As long as we know, we'll decide early what we're doing and with clear communication, I don't think it's an issue."
Dublin and Kerry can point to players of similar influence, mentality and ability, maybe even greater in some cases. But right now Murphy and O'Shea are the key chess-pieces on their respective boards.
Their positioning has become everything to their teams.