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Mayo's century star joins marquee club

WE call it the Eureka moment. Curve Ball started this week with an idea - Cillian O'Connor is now, officially, a marquee forward. Come hell or high water or statistical evidence to the contrary, we would not be persuaded otherwise.

Still, we needed statistics to support our contention and thus began a trawl through the record books and dog-eared notebooks, all ending with the following - totally unexpected and wonderfully symmetrical - discovery.

Question: What has Cillian O'Connor scored in senior championship combat? Answer: Ten goals and 100 points. Eureka!

Barring some unfathomable turn of events, symmetry will go out the window as O'Neill flies over the black spot at the Gaelic Grounds this Saturday evening. As a freetaker-par-excellence, you expect O'Connor to trouble the scoreboard every day he goes out ... but now he's doing it more frequently than ever.

DISLOCATIONS

Last summer he finished as leading SFC scorer with 6-22 (including back-to-back hat-tricks and 5-3 from play). This, despite only featuring in five matches, one of these as a half-time substitute, while his semi-final against Tyrone lasted just 11 minutes.

To top the scoring charts in a summer blighted by two shoulder dislocations almost beggars belief. It still wasn't enough to claim a maiden All Star, the selectors swayed by his failure to ignite in the final against Dublin ... but even to get through that match, so soon after his latest shoulder woe, was an achievement.

This summer O'Connor is once more ahead of the posse with 3-31 from five games (0-9 from play), for an average of eight points per game. Is that why he is now belatedly accorded this subjective 'marquee' label? Only part of the reason. It's not just about the frees, but the entire package.

By that we mean his two-footed authority: of his 0-8 Connacht final haul against Galway, all three from play were struck off his 'weaker' left foot.

We mean his ability to deliver when it matters: with last Sunday's semi-final against Kerry tied at 0-13 apiece, O'Connor showed the ice in his veins with a brilliant 1-2 either side of the hour, comprising that buried penalty, a point from play (again off his left) and a towering 50-yard free.

We also mean selfless creativity: he had the final pass for three Mayo goals against Galway last summer and had a pivotal role in two of their goals against the same county last month.

Moreover, unless you happen to be Ronaldo, being a marquee forward and a savage worker are not mutually exclusive. Notwithstanding what a certain Cork selector might say (and O'Connor is certainly not averse to conceding the odd free or three) few forwards are more accomplished at tackling than the 22-year-old from Ballintubber.

TURNOVERS

Check the DVD: three of Mayo's points last Sunday stemmed from turnovers forced by O'Connor, resulting in a brace for Alan Dillon and another for the man himself.

Before this starts sounding like a hagiography, Mayo's main man of the attack doesn't qualify as flawless. He isn't quick by jet-heeled Sky Blue standards. He is prone to the odd bad miss - his four first half wides against Kerry included a glorious goal chance skewed narrowly off target as he rounded the 'keeper.

But every marquee forward has been in that position, be he Bernard Brogan or Diarmuid Connolly for Dublin, Stephen O'Neill when in his Tyrone pomp, Colm Cooper for Kerry or even another recent addition, James O'Donoghue. The latter proved his credentials last Sunday with that crucial goal but subsequently missed a chance to win it. It's how marquee forwards respond to a squandered opportunity that sets them apart. Cue O'Connor's second half.

During the first two years of his senior career, Mayo's No 13 didn't score enough from play to rank among the best.

He tallied 1-19 in 2011, 1-3 coming from play, and was named Young Footballer of the Year. In truth he was lucky to retain that award in 2012, having shot 0-28 (but just 0-2 from play).

But over the past two summers he has grown in stature. James Horan has never hidden his disdain for media talk about Mayo's dearth of marquee forwards ... he has one now. And that's official!


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