The hard work begins now for Mayo, insists O'Shea
Published 13/04/2016 | 02:30
After a topsy-turvy league campaign which saw Mayo threatened with relegation while also flirting with a knock-out position, the thought of Championship football is something that excites Aidan O'Shea.
Three consecutive defeats at the outset left Mayo facing an uphill battle but it was one they negotiated safely, with Stephen Rochford's side maintaining their Division 1 status despite experimenting with many new faces.
They were also short many marquee performers due to injury and Castlebar Mitchels' involvement in the club All-Ireland but now it's "all systems go" as they build towards their Connacht SFC opener with London on May 29 in Ruislip.
"It was funny this year, a bigger score in the last game (against Down) - which would have been quite possible, if I'd scored my goal, and Alan Freeman scored before half time - and we could have been in the semi-finals after a very sluggish campaign," O'Shea said.
"But we used 35 players in the league, which would have been unheard of for us the last few years. And boys coming back late, Cillian (O'Connor) back late, Keith (Higgins) gone for most of the league, and with that other boys got a run and a chance.
"We had a scattered league with different things going on, players' injuries, coaches etc... so I definitely think this period of time is key for this group in 2016. A lot of work has to be done but it all starts now. And maybe it's a blessing to have these six or seven weeks to build up to it."
From a near meltdown, Mayo now set off on their long journey to bridge a 65-year gap to their last Sam Maguire with morale on a high within the county, buoyed by their Connacht U-21 victory over neighbours Roscommon.
It was their first since O'Shea (pictured)was part of the 2009 team but this side is packed full of players who have made winning a habit, having claimed the All-Ireland minor title three years ago.
"There's been a lot of pressure on those shoulders for the last couple of years but they are a very talented group of lads and we have a good crew in with us at the moment," O'Shea said.
"That was a real test against Roscommon and it will bring Mayo on a lot. They kind of snook it in the end which is a great sign of a team and they have some very strong characters in that dressing room.
"Diarmuid O'Connor and Stephen Coen are just great guys with great heads on them. They are great leaders already at 21. That winning mentality having won an All-Ireland at minor level is something they will hold onto and bring into their senior careers."
The Breaffy powerhouse believes that O'Connor, "a freak of nature", is up there with Ciarán Kilkenny and Donnchadh Walsh as one of the top three half-forwards in the country.
Mayo will need O'Connor to the fore this weekend if they are to beat the Dubs in the All-Ireland U-21 semi-final on Saturday. After a breakthrough 2015 season which earned him Young Footballer of the Year, O'Connor is also central to Mayo ending their senior hoodoo. Along with O'Shea, of course.