Cillian O'Connor: 'I'm itching to play. I'm ready for road'
O'Connor recharged after two-month injury break
Naturally, Cillian O'Connor is a little uneasy. Just slightly. His last league game was on March 8. A knee injury required two months' rest. Most of his training was restricted to gym work and off-field conditioning. He has only three weeks field training under his belt. Fifteen minutes of a club championship game. One half of a challenge game. An A versus B training game last weekend. With Galway coming down the tracks, of course O'Connor wanted more.
He was tempted to do more. "If I was a bit younger, I'd probably have been doing a bit of running on my own unknown to the physios," he says.
"When you're restless and you're worried about your fitness, the temptation is always there to do a few running sessions on the sly. I had to be mature enough to listen to the boys and completely down tools in terms of running and just stick to the rehab."
By now, O'Connor knows how this works. Two years ago, he suffered a serious shoulder injury on the eve of the championship, just nine weeks after returning from a similar injury which had kept him out for six months.
His first game back was as a half-time substitute in the Connacht final. His first start was the All-Ireland quarter-final against the All-Ireland champions Donegal.
In a game and half, O'Connor bagged 6-7, 5-1 from play. Whatever the terms and conditions, whatever restrictions imposed, O'Connor is so talented and mentally strong, he just gets the job done. Mayo are just glad to have him back because early-season game-time has never been a prerequisite for O'Connor to have a productive summer. For a number of reasons, primarily injury, O'Connor has only featured in 15 of Mayo's last 32 league games over the last four seasons.
His personal statistics wrapped up in those numbers, though, illustrate just how important he has become to Mayo. When O'Connor played, Mayo had a 64pc win rate. When he didn't, that figure plummeted to just 29pc.
Supreme preparation remains his mark and master. After three shoulder dislocations in nine months, O'Connor focused more on strength and conditioning and nutrition last year to make himself fitter. He ended the season as the championship's top scorer with 5-36.
Getting better, becoming better has always been O'Connor's core philosophy. After graduating with a teaching degree from St Patrick's, he spent last year doing a Master's in Sports Exercise and Psychology in Jordanstown. His summer is taken up with completing his thesis.
Ambition underlines everything about O'Connor. His focus is unrelenting and unwavering. He has been so brilliant and so consistent now for five seasons that it's easy to forget he is still only 23. By 20, he had become the first player to win successive Young Footballer of the Year awards. He could have been an All-Star in 2013. He was a nailed-on All-Star last year.
Mayo's year, though, ended in disappointment in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry. O'Connor was brilliant, Mayo's best player, scoring 2-5 on an evening of furious beauty, tension and drama. A clash of heads with Aidan O'Shea, which cut into the bone of his eye socket, forced O'Connor to sit out part of the match. He was taken down for a converted penalty by Shane Enright, which should have resulted in a second yellow, or black card. O'Connor was sent off himself deep in extra-time for drawing out at Killian Young.
"I was wrong and I regret it," he says. "It was a stupid thing to do, but a few things had riled me. It was a build-up of frustration at how the game was getting away from us. Plus, two attacks had just been prevented by professional fouls and there was no black card.
"The defeat was very disappointing. It took me a while to get over it, but the biggest lesson I took was that there will be frustrating times in games. Decisions will go against you. You will disagree with certain things. I just have to make sure they don't get the better off me, that I don't lose my cool, that I don't lash out like I did."
O'Connor immersed himself with his club Ballintubber afterwards. They won their third county title in five years before losing the Connacht final to Corofin. He took a break for the whole month of December. He tried to switch off from football. He needed to disconnect.
"I do think over the last six to eight months, I have taken a step back a bit and looked at the bigger picture," says O'Connor. "I've just thought that you can't get too down about the defeats, you can't get too caught up in how you play in certain games. I just tried to recover from the Kerry game as best as I could. I kept an eye on my studies. I did a little bit of national school teaching. I spent some time with the family. I've tried to keep everything in perspective. You have to keep everything fairly balanced."
His leadership skills mark him out as much as his footballing class, but his maturity has always been a natural extension of his personality. He was vice-president of St Patrick's College Student Union in 2013. When Andy Moran didn't start some games last summer, O'Connor captained Mayo.
O'Connor is a warm and engaging character, friendly, polite and extremely humble. He has a nice, dry wit but he has so much steel in his bones and ice in his veins that he almost transmits the image of himself as a robotic machine, oblivious to age or anxiety.
"Plenty of people perceive me in that way," he says. "I don't know if it's a compliment or not, maybe it means I'm no craic and I need to loosen up. That's just me in my football life. Outside of football, I'm definitely different.
"In terms of football, the reason that probably comes across is that I was school captain when I was in Leaving Cert. I felt I had to be the lad not going on the lash and lead by example. When I was captain of the Mayo minors, I just became conscious of showing a good example. There were other temptations, but you had to check yourself because younger lads were looking at you. I probably started letting on that I was more level-headed and mature than I was, kinda fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude.
"Even when I went in with the seniors and started taking frees, I wanted to fill everyone else with confidence, even though I was often nervous myself. You had to exude confidence to reassure your team-mates and manager. There is an element of it, too, for the opposition, that they are thinking, 'This guy's ice-cool, we can't foul him because he'll nail frees'. That might lead them to standing two yards off you and you get a couple of shots off from play. If you can get a few extra per cent by how you carry yourself, you will do it."
A new season brought a new start for Mayo, especially O'Connor. From when he was 16 after breaking onto the Ballintubber team, right throughout his Mayo senior career, he had been coached and managed by James Horan. After the Kerry defeat, Horan stepped down. Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly took over.
"James was brilliant, but a new management has been good, even for myself, from a freshness point of view," says O'Connor. "It was good to see a different perspective, a different way of setting up a team, different training, to hear a different voice. I think the lads benefited from that as well. There is always a little bounce with a new management.
"We knew after last year that we weren't far away, but there is always a fear when you've had a couple of disappointments in a row. I think the change of management countered that. Pat and Noel were so eager to have a good start that they brought that energy and hunger that we were afraid we might not have for the first few weeks of training.
"They've tried a few new things. They brought in some new lads. Some of the U-21s were brought through. Some of them have All-Ireland minor medals. They have no baggage, no fear. We had some good games in the league. Since then, training has been good. I think we're in a good place."
The year to date has been about new faces and new experiences. In Jordanstown, O'Connor shared a house with Tyrone's Richie and Mattie Donnelly and Kieran Hughes from Monaghan. Jordanstown were beaten in the Sigerson Cup by a DCU team that included O'Connor's brother Diarmuid.
"It was strange," he says. "I hadn't played against him before. I didn't get a good rattle at him during the game. There was one break I kinda swung for him but I missed."
At that time, O'Connor knew there was trouble brewing, that his body was beginning to bend under the heavy load. After playing three Dr McKenna Cup games for Jordanstown within eight days in January, he developed a pain in his knee at the end of the month. It was diagnosed as tendonitis in his patella. After the DCU game, O'Connor rested it for a while, but the discomfort never went away. After being taken off against Derry on March 8, he was advised to rest for two months.
Throughout all that time, everything was geared towards Galway. When Mayo wiped Galway out in 2013, O'Connor set the tone that day with his tackle and turnover count.
He was involved in the construction of Mayo's four goals. When the sides met last year, he ended with 0-8 and a big assist for Mayo's opening goals.
Tomorrow is a big game for Mayo. It will offer an accurate gauge of where they're at, of how their season may unfold. Mayo are always wary of Galway but they're certainly more at ease with O'Connor on board.
"It's been a difficult enough year with how little I have played, but I think this is a great way to start the year for me now," says O'Connor.
"The Galway game last year was a good day for us. It was a good day for me personally. I just hope now that I can try and get that kind of performance out of myself again. I'm fresh and hungry. I'm itching to play. I'm ready for road."
Watch out. Here he comes.