'If I'm honest, the peak is probably gone for this team'
Aidan O'Shea tells Colm Keys that Mayo have reached a stage of maturity where their performances are now more economic
Published 17/09/2016 | 02:30
If he's honest, Aidan O'Shea saw their peak slipping through their hands on the night in Limerick two years ago that Mayo fell to Kerry in that epic All-Ireland semi-final replay.
In a hotel room just a few minutes up the road from the novel amphitheatre they had shared with the eventual All-Ireland champions earlier that evening, he listened to James Horan sign off as Mayo's commander-in-chief after four adventurous years.
As Horan made his address to a room quickly filling up with tears, O'Shea was pretty confident he was looking around at faces he wouldn't see together under the same roof again, not just members of management but colleagues in the battlefield.
Things, he sensed, might not be the same again.
But here they are rolling the boulder right back up to the top of the hill again, one last almighty heave from propping it up over the ledge that has been too steep and awkward for them and their predecessors so often.
Maybe things aren't the same but the glue that binds this group together remains firm and unmovable.
Anyone in that room in Limerick two years ago who has left hasn't made their own decision to do so. You can only admire that resilience.
"To be honest there were some lads there who, I thought, might step away, not because they weren't capable of contributing but just out of frustration or wanting to go off and do other things.
"Some boys may have had a few travel ambitions in them and, having come up short again, they might have said 'right, I just don't fancy this any more.' I probably thought the team might break up a bit after James left. But the boys have stuck at it, testament to them."
Their best days may be behind them as a group but that doesn't equate to their 'best day' being beyond them. Far from it.
There's been an economy to the performances they have managed to produce since Galway turned them over in Castlebar in June that maybe hasn't always been readily associated with them.
So much so that O'Shea felt a far greater sense of security as they protected a one-point lead against Tyrone in their All-Ireland quarter-final than they did with five and six-point leads in the past. But there is acknowledgement from him that they have not been what they once were.
"I think everyone is acutely aware of where the team is at, where players' careers are at and we're aware of that ourselves and maybe have been over the last couple of years.
"If I'm being totally honest I think the peak stage is probably gone. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out. Some players are coming down the way and then younger players that are trying to bring it back up at the same time.
"They've battled through and regardless of whether we've had easy routes or not, we've had long campaigns, heartbreak at the end of them as well. So I don't think we are in that pomp that maybe we were a couple of years ago. The year we lost to Kerry I thought we were playing really good football. Really going well.
"But we're at a stage of maturity where we're getting the job done in games where we're not playing well. We're doing enough to get over the line and, when asked of us in the Tyrone game, we were able to produce. Fair enough, we could have coughed it up in the end but the reality is we got the job done.
"Before we'd win a game and maybe it would be eight or nine points but nobody ever thought that the game was out of sight when we were five or six up because of the concession of a goal.
"In that Tyrone game, even when we were one point up, I felt so comfortable. It's a strange thing to say but I've never been that comfortable with a one-point lead when I've been playing for Mayo because it has never been a very secure feeling.
"For some reason, maybe it's the way Tyrone play or the fact that they were down to 14 men, but I just felt comfortable in the situation and I think the group did as well."
If they felt the weight of that pressure during the season it lifted with victory that evening when the spectre of 'targeting' top players arose.
O'Shea was disappointed that Lee Keegan, "the Tomas Ó Sé of his era", was "perceived as something that he is not," after his running battle with Sean Cavanagh that led to the Tyrone captain's dismissal.
There was irony too that O'Shea had found himself in his own personal storm, something he has had to become well accustomed to.
"The challenge of trying to control yourself in those situations is difficult but having dealt with it as a young fella over the years I've learned to deal with it well. There is no point in reacting to it, it's what they're looking for, a reaction. I can't let my team-mates down by doing something stupid.
"Sometimes they want to talk about anything random just to break concentration on what you're doing. It might mean they get one less run out of you and that might be the one that gets that winning score or the lay-off to create a winning score. It happens in all sports."
Through the collective search and struggle for form O'Shea has been a guiding light. The peak of the team may have receded but his personal contribution has remained steady for a fourth successive season.
After relocation last year to full-forward there is renewed flexibility to his role between midfield and centre-forward where his influence is pronounced.
Possession statistics can never paint a full picture but in terms of ball-handling he is second with 180 in Mayo this season only to Lee Keegan on 186. Perhaps more significant, according to the statistics provided by Sure, are the 10 turnovers he has enjoyed, four more than Keith Higgins.
"I probably feel as in as much control of my game as I have since I was younger.
"When I was younger I peaked and troughed a bit," he reflects. But over the last couple of years any time I go out on the pitch you know what you are going to get with me most of the time. From that point of view, I'm in a good steady run of form."
Yet, when he reviewed the Galway game, he saw in himself a player he didn't recognise.
An Achilles tendon injury picked up, he thinks, in the Roscommon League game, where the Hyde Park surface did him no favours, hampered his preparations and his woes were emblematic of the team.
"I wasn't concerned about the losing but the performance level was really poor. It stank of staleness. In my performance, I looked back on myself and I was looking at somebody I didn't recognise and that was the most disappointing aspect and the most worrying part.
"We met on the Sunday night and I didn't know would I say. I sat there with certainty that I knew we were going to get on a roll, the reality is straight away people said Mayo would struggle in the qualifiers.
"The last qualifier we played was John O'Mahony's last game in Pearse Park. It was a terrible experience. I knew the quality was in the group but we had to just tease that out of us again, back to really basic stuff."
There was a little schadenfreude in the air too, courtesy of the players' removal of joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly last autumn.
As heaves go it was relatively clean with a strong credit line built up over the previous five years with the Mayo public.
"There wasn't a huge backlash from the Mayo public. It was a minority if anything. They seemed to trust our judgement and let us have a go at it.
"I've got a bit but very little by way of people giving out about what we did. Now maybe people wouldn't want to say it to my face but I think we had brought Mayo back from where it was on that Longford day (in 2010).
"I remember talking to Mayo supporters after that who were saying 'I'm never going to a game again. I'm done.' Those same people being absolutely as proud as punch about the group that developed. Maybe that was it.
"This is about us winning an All-Ireland. We made a decision as a group. When we made the decision we couldn't guarantee winning an All-Ireland, there were a lot of people with smiley faces after we lost to Galway and we were as poor as we were.
"But the reality is we battled back and put ourselves in a position where we wanted to be 12 months ago when we got knocked out of the Championship.
"The ways and means, really they're not a motivating factor for the players, because the decision was made to do this to get back to here."
AIB, sponsors of the GAA's Football Championship, has teamed up with Aidan O'Shea in his hometown of Castlebar ahead of the tomorrow's final. For more, follow @AIB_GAA