Thursday 23 November 2017

Cillian O'Connor hails shape of Mayo's new dimension

Mayo sharpshooter Cillian O’Connor holds the Sam Maguire at the Gap of Dunloe outside Killarney – bringing it back to Mayo is his sole ambition this September
Mayo sharpshooter Cillian O’Connor holds the Sam Maguire at the Gap of Dunloe outside Killarney – bringing it back to Mayo is his sole ambition this September
Aidan O’Shea (pictured) was at the heart of what Alan Dillon stated was the most complete performance from a Mayo team he has been involved with, in last weekend’s Connacht final
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

An advertising campaign that ran earlier this year to promote the new Mayo jersey promised that this year will "be different."

For years now they have knocked on the door and probed their way to within touching distance of an All-Ireland. But it seemed every time they came close, someone found a new and dastardly way to trip them up.

Some suggested they simply weren't good enough. That for all their endeavour and heart, they lacked a couple of key ingredients that the other main All-Ireland contenders boasted.

For a couple of seasons, the debate raged as to whether Mayo possessed a marquee forward the top sides had. Cillian O'Connor settled that argument before the question was raised as to whether the Ballintubber man had enough help up top.

They seemed fair enough questions, particularly for a side that had come so close, so often to getting over the line.

Now it seems Mayo might have a double threat.

Aidan O'Shea's switch to full forward isn't a new idea - he spent the early part of his senior career close to goal - but in last weekend's Connacht final they delivered what Alan Dillon agreed was the most complete performance from a Mayo team he has been involved with. And O'Shea was at its heart.

And what's more, O'Shea's performances in the championship this year have given O'Connor a new lease of life. He's still a marked man of course, but things are a little easier for him now as teams look for a way of nullifying the considerable threat of O'Shea.

"It does yeah (take some heat off him)," O'Connor agreed. "He's another point in the attack. We've always had good runners in the half-forward line, to take some heat of me and draw a second man, but even more so this year, with Aido.

"He's another player teams have to worry about I suppose I've found myself in a little bit more space."

And while the deployment of a big man like O'Shea to the edge of the square might have a feel of reinventing the wheel about it, O'Connor believes the Breaffy clubman's physicality is only part of his arsenal. He boasts a skill set that is a result of hard work as much as natural talent and O'Connor believes he will only get better as a full-forward.

"He's improved his ball skill a lot, improved his handling and hand positioning and his footwork too. He's more skilful than people thought, holding the ball, and making sure he's not bowling them over, like when he played in U-16 club games against us.

"He's very disciplined, and careful where he puts the ball, and his hands. He's flying."

Of course, O'Shea will hardly ever see the space he saw against Sligo in another championship game of note but there are other bonuses to his redeployment.

His shift to full-forward means a spot has opened up in midfield. Seamus O'Shea, Barry Moran and Tom Parsons are all live options with the latter putting in a huge performance in the Connacht final in his second coming as a county player. Veterans Andy Moran and Dillon are job sharing with each completing a half last weekend.

Elsewhere, in just his second season, Cillian's brother Diarmuid put in what was probably his best performance in a Mayo jersey so far. As well as chipping in with four points from play, he played his part in tremendous defensive effort.

"He would have played midfield underage and a little bit in the forwards," says O'Connor.

"He was always good for a point or two, but he has put a lot of effort now into his shooting and his finishing and decision-making, when to go for it and when not to go for it.

"I don't know if he had any wides the last day, his shot-selection was very good."


Last weekend's fifth Connacht title in a row seals this side's place as one of the very best the county have ever produced. Talk has already turned to whether they can finally get the job done this September.

O'Connor says they won't be getting carried away with those notions as they might have in the past. They've been around too long for that.

"As long as I've been involved, since 2011, it's something within the squad which has never really happened. If we were beaten, it was probably for other reasons.

"We weren't allowed by James (Horan) to look past Tuesday's training or Friday's training and Pat (Holmes) and Noel (Connelly) are the same. They really just place emphasis on the next team and they never look ahead.

"I'd say that perception largely comes from supporters or pundits, which is normal. They're going to be talking about teams and possibilities and speculation. That's natural, but it doesn't happen within the squad.

"When you're younger and you're coming up, if you have a massive win in a quarter or a semi-final, you might start thinking that you've the job done or that you're the finished article.

"We know at this stage that there's so little between the top five or six teams that you really park the game once you've reviewed it on a Monday or a Tuesday."

The fire still burns. Despite concerns that James Horan might have gotten the best out of this group in his four years in charge, O'Connor revealed the players were itching to go back to work before the county's Strength and Conditioning coaches were ready to recall them.

"We've had a few disappointments the last few years obviously. But we've had some great wins too and good days. We're not dwelling on last year. We've a new management, new ideas. Lads took time off, and it's the players wanted to get going again, the S & C wanted us to take more time off."

They could potentially face a run-in of playing the last three All-Ireland champions in the consecutive games. Depending on results, they might have to beat Donegal, Dublin and Kerry to finally win their All-Ireland. If they manage it, they'll have done it the hard way.

And then this year would really have been different.

Irish Independent

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