Aidan O'Shea: Weeks surrounding 'no confidence' vote were draining
Aidan O'Shea believes that Mayo can extend their provincial dominance to finally satisfy the county's hunger for a long-awaited All-Ireland victory
An early morning train journey to Westport, on the shortest day of the year, does little to inspire much Christmas cheer. With only a cider-drinking pensioner for company, thoughts of championship football are a world away. That is until Aidan O'Shea appears at the train station and almost immediately it feels like the first round in Connacht is just around the corner.
It's hard to miss O'Shea; he's big, not just tall, and moves with a bit of a swagger. When he is out and about people wave and smile and shout "Up Mayo" and he is more than receptive to the attention.
Right now he is exactly where he thought he would be in life, a Mayo football star. It wasn't something that happened by accident. In fact, O'Shea firmly believes that playing for Mayo is his destiny. And winning at the top level in the green and red is something that he can help make happen.
"In my head I've always thought and believed I could change Mayo football," says O'Shea. "And growing up I always knew I was going to be playing football for Mayo. When I was young, watching them lose I wanted to change that for my county, I wanted to be part of a team that would win and be different."
When it comes to football there is a self-confidence and assuredness about O'Shea. It's inherent, it can't be faked. Even when he was 13 and got a start for his club minor team because one of the players was late, he believed he deserved that starting spot, he wasn't just making up the numbers. And at half-time when he was substituted because his team-mate arrived he felt anger because he wanted to play. Having parents from Kerry who loved the game their county is famed for made him fall in love with football. Practising day after day in the back garden with his brothers Conor and Seamie, who are also Mayo footballers, laid the foundations for his future.
There was little challenge for O'Shea in his own underage ranks. He wasn't just the biggest player on the field but probably the most skilful too. There was no late blooming for him. Other sports featured such as soccer and basketball but nothing came close to taking over his life like Gaelic football did.
It was 2006 when O'Shea felt that a chance to change Mayo football could soon come his way. He was 16, watching his county beating Cork in an All-Ireland under 21 final. A fearless band of young footballers lorded it over the Rebels in Ennis, fighting till the death to get their hands on the title. He was right to think that those players - who now make up the core of the senior squad - could make a difference, could be different. Although they haven't won the All-Ireland they have come close and picked up six Connacht titles along the way. A feat he feels is overlooked.
"You get very little credit for what you are doing in Connacht. It's grand but Dublin win a Leinster and everyone is raving about the score they put up. Who says Leinster is any more competitive than Connacht? No one is paying any attention to what we are doing. Realistically, we have two Division 1 teams and Galway are always competitive too. There is always a challenge there."
Expecting Mayo to win Connacht titles consistently and believing they can win an All-Ireland isn't just something that happened overnight. It's been a process and one that O'Shea credits James Horan for bringing about.
"I think it all changed with James. The level of preparation increased, like the small details around diet and gym, what was acceptable on the training pitch, arrival at training, preparation before training, and details about games.
"He also wiped out a few players. I'm good mates with Aidan Kilcoyne, he was someone I would have looked up to as a young fella, he was flying in that under 21 final in '06. They dropped him and he was gone. Barry Moran was dropped for a period of time too and Tom Parsons was dropped. All of a sudden you were looking around thinking he's dropping serious big names here.
"He also expected us to win and that was refreshing. He didn't care who we were playing and that belief started to filter through. We believed we were 100 per cent good enough to beat anyone."
Under Horan Mayo became a bit more hard-edged too. There were a few new faces added to the squad who were hard-hitting and could take what they gave. They brought that edge into training too and the rest of the team took their cue from that. Add that to the new-found competitiveness and Horan's discipline and Mayo was a very different camp.
On a personal level, O'Shea needed Horan too; he was in a bad place. He had a brilliant first year for Mayo under John O'Mahony and a terrible second one.
"When James came in it was at the end of my second year with Mayo and I was fat. My metabolism had slowed down when I was 18. During my first year with Mayo I was at home doing the Leaving [Cert] and my mam was looking after me. Then I went to college in Dublin at the last minute and my set-up there wasn't great. I moved in with lads I didn't know. They weren't like-minded characters. The place was a mess, I never really ate at home.
"During my first few months in Dublin I was nominated for Young Player of Year and went to the All-Stars. Then I came back into Mayo in January and on reflection, I was a state. My hair was all over the place, I had a big fat face on me, I was over the tonne! I was 16-and-a-half stone, I'm 100 kilos now but it's different. My brother was telling me I was a mess and I was saying no, that the problem was the ball that was coming in."
When his first year in college ended O'Shea moved back home. The weight started to fall off because of the training and his mother's cooking but he was nowhere near the form of the previous year. Mayo lost to Longford and Sligo and O'Shea was dropped for the Sligo game. By July, Mayo were out of the championship.
"I learned a tough lesson that year. Now I'm a bit paranoid about my weight. Every day I look at myself in the mirror, thinking, 'Jesus, I'm a bit fatter'. It's such a big thing with me for some reason. If I play a good game every commentator will say it's because I'm skinnier this year than I was last year. It gets annoying and I am conscious of it. I watch myself a lot closer but it doesn't stop me having a good time in the off-season."
O'Shea is coming to the end of another off-season and preparing to adjust to life under a new Mayo manager and backroom team. Former joint managers Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes departed last year under controversial circumstances. The squad proposed a vote of no confidence in their managers and after weeks of meetings and newspaper headlines the two men agreed to depart after just one year. It was a difficult time for all involved but a move that the Mayo players felt was necessary to get to the next level.
"When they came on board everything was different. Small problems started from the get-go with the appointment process and then grew from there as the year went on.
"It was never anything personal towards Noel and Pat. And we were 100 per cent worried about how it would affect them personally. We talked about that as a group and gave them the opportunity to walk away on their own terms. It was a very draining couple of weeks for all involved and it wasn't nice. You don't take pleasure in someone having to walk away from their job. The group felt it was something we had to do. I remember when I heard they walked away I felt bad for the lads but we wanted to win an All-Ireland and that's our focus."
O'Shea isn't worried about any additional pressure on his team now. Every year he hears different reasons as to why Mayo should be under pressure. He wasn't worried either by any negativity directed towards him and the team although he admits some of his team-mates did receive hate mail. There were some positive letters too and Facebook messages. This is a team that has a strong connection with its supporters and they, for the most part, have a strong loyalty to the players. However, this brings attention and in a county like Mayo where football rules, it can be intense.
For someone like O'Shea, that's not a bad thing because he can deal with it. And he is also aware that he is just passing through. In a short enough space of time there will be a new kid on the block. So he embraces opportunities that he feels are the right fit for him. His current advertisement for Elverys Sports, the team's sponsors, was one that he felt would sit well with his personality.
O'Shea has a strong online presence but updates his social media with his team in mind, refraining from posting anything that could have a negative impact on those around him. He's not on Twitter to talk about Gaelic football but he doesn't plan on not being himself either. In the run-up to last year's All-Ireland final he got corn rolls put in his hair and this brought huge focus on him.
"I think that this country is too small for this, it's not a big deal. If someone turns up with a new hairdo, who cares? Not everyone has to be a robot. I don't see it as drawing attention to myself. I did it because I've wanted to do it since I was a young fella and my hair was long enough to do it. I couldn't care less. That stuff is fun. Ten years ago if a fella had a tattoo sleeve people were like, what is he doing? Now a lot of people have them so it's not a big deal. I feel people are a bit quick to judge on that stuff."
Despite his varied hairstyles there's a surprising maturity about the towering footballer. He thinks a lot of it has come from being a young dad. Caragh was born when he was 23 so he grew up pretty quickly.
"I felt I was well able to cope with it, I was just finishing college, I was confident of getting a job. It definitely does change you as a young fella. I see a lot of my friends are going away for summers or doing a big of travelling in the winters so it does change your priorities. It hasn't always been easy but I think I've done ok."
Not seeing her as often as he would like is an added sacrifice O'Shea makes in order to play inter-county football. He knows he is missing out on things but his football/life balance is much better since she came into his world.
"I try to make the best of both worlds and I often burn the candle at both ends. I want to see her all the time but she doesn't live in my house so obviously that's an added difficulty. I hope it is worth it. I think she will appreciate what I've done in my career when I finish. I do have a good balance. When I retire I'd like to think I got it right."
But before he hangs up his boots there is a small matter of winning an All-Ireland title to see to. New manager Stephen Rochford is already in place along with selectors Donie Buckley, Sean Carey and Tony McEntee. Their first game in the FBD League is today against NUI Galway.
Where we will see O'Shea line out he's not sure. His favourite position is centre-forward, his twitter handle @AIDOXI is testament to that. Indeed he wore the number 11 jersey last year, not because he wanted to claim it but because it was the only one that fit him. He laughs as he tells the story and there's something very refreshing about that.
Sunday Indo Sport