O'Shea's centre stage role has him fired up for Rebels
Aidan O'Shea has known for his entire football life what it's like to be thrown in at the deep end.
So, when people tell Mayo they either sink or swim against Cork tomorrow, the 21-year-old finds himself in familiar waters.
He first played minor football for Breaffy when he was only 13 and won a county U-21 'B' championship when he was just 16.
And when he travelled to New York in his debut senior championship summer of 2009, he was a month away from sitting his Leaving Cert.
He is a young man with a big talent who has always been in a hurry to get into the big time.
Tomorrow in Croke Park, both he and Mayo are back in that deep end when they take on the champions in an All-Ireland quarter-final -- only this time O'Shea believes he is back where he belongs.
"It was grand the first year because everything went alright and then, the second year, I was useless, and it was a bit more difficult," he laughs.
"I came in off the back of the minor campaign and it all kind of rolled into one and I really did not think about it too much. I was still in school and doing my Leaving Cert and I was still playing colleges football. John O'Mahony just put me in full-forward and there were no expectations.
"In the second year, expectations started to come and I didn't match them, to be honest, and it did not help that the team did not match them either.
"It's now my third year and I've got two Connacht medals already. I've probably taken on a bit more responsibility and am in better shape than I was last year and I've probably learned to be a bit more disciplined.
"Living away at college in Dublin and not training with the group of players here all the time was difficult and that transition was the toughest part.
"I'd no problem dealing with expectation. I still feel like I'm only a kid -- there is that bit of expectation, but I'm happy to be out running around the middle now and it is a nice change from being in the full-forward line," says the 21-year-old DIT student.
Man of the Match in the epic drawn All-Ireland minor final of 2008 with Tyrone, Mayo were edged out in a gripping replay, but O'Shea's marker had been planted.
O'Mahony came calling with a place on the senior squad in 2009 and after taking to the top flight like a natural, Aussie Rules scout Ricky Nixon was soon sorting out a two-week AFL trial where Richmond and Western Bulldogs showed an interest.
However, the 'second season syndrome' was all over his 2010 campaign, in which Mayo were beaten by Sligo and then Longford. Now, he's part of a new-look Mayo team being built by new manager James Horan that is placing its trust in young stars like O'Shea, Cillian O'Connor, Alan Freeman, Enda Varley and Jason Doherty.
"Winning Connacht was an important one for us and definitely for all the lads involved last year -- it was embarrassing to be out of the championship that early. It just wasn't good enough," he says bluntly.
"It was important for us to bounce back. It got off slowly against London and we were definitely lucky to get out of there.
"In trying conditions on both days against Galway and Roscommon we came out and battled. People did not expect us to get over Galway or Roscommon and it was nice for a change to win it against the odds."
Club colleagues are in no doubt that the real key to O'Shea's return to form has been the decision to persist with him at midfield.
Standing at almost 6' 5," he was always going to be compared to Kieran Donaghy and when he scored 1-1 on his senior debut under O'Mahony at full-forward he was suddenly type cast.
After playing almost all his underage football at centre-forward and midfield, mastering full-forward was a difficult challenge and he looks happier further out the field where he can take players on and use his explosive power.
Tomorrow he goes toe to toe with the might of Cork's Alan O'Connor, Aidan Walsh and Pearse O'Neill -- but can rely on help from his brother Sheamie, who was midfield on the 2006 Mayo U-21 side which beat Cork in the All-Ireland final.
The last time Mayo came into a quarter-final as Connacht champions was 2009 when they were full of confidence for the meeting with Meath, but lost all their momentum to the goal-hungry Royals on a day when O'Shea was taken off.
But he is undaunted by his Croker return.
"It was disappointing to lose to Meath, but I have no fear going up to Croke Park. I don't think it is on my mind going up there that we have to win the game, we just want to go out there and perform.
"I think this bunch of guys is ambitious enough to do that. We are well prepared and we will perform when we go up there," he insists.
"People don't expect much from us. There is a perception out there that the Connacht final was our ultimate goal and that we have achieved it and we're in bonus territory -- but that is not the case in the dressingroom.
"It was our goal to win the Connacht title, but definitely not our ultimate goal. We have achieved it, parked it, and you knew the Tuesday night after the final at training that fellas were not just happy with a Connacht title.
"They wanted to push on, go to Croke Park, perform and move on to the All-Ireland semi-final," he says.
His parents, Jim and Sheila, are from just outside Killorglin in Kerry and should the Kingdom and Mayo win tomorrow, it will set up an interesting sub-plot before the semi-final in the O'Shea household, where Gaelic football has always been the big topic of conversation, with younger brother Conor captain of the Mayo minors this year.
"There is a lot more pressure at senior level, but that's what we all dreamt of when we were younger, to come out and thrive under that pressure.
"When you come from Mayo there is that extra pressure that we have not achieved anything in a long time -- it's something that we all want to put right and it is something that we hope we will do soon," he adds.
The deep end awaits. But, as ever, Aidan O'Shea is ready.
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