Wednesday 24 January 2018

Mayo’s main men for the long road

Cillian O'Connor has missed just 19 minutes in 2017, David Clarke has been ever-present

Cillian O’Connor runs out for the drawn All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against Roscommon during Mayo’s long march to the third week in September. Photo: Sportsfile
Cillian O’Connor runs out for the drawn All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against Roscommon during Mayo’s long march to the third week in September. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When Cillian O'Connor took down Stephen O'Brien in the 51st minute of Mayo's All-Ireland semi-final replay win over Kerry, an offence that merited a black card, he was bringing to an end an incredible sequence of 1141 unbroken minutes of league and championship action for his county in 2017.

In Mayo's previous eight championship and seven league games, O'Connor had featured for every minute, not an injury, fatigue or a tactical substitution once forcing his withdrawal.

The figure above does not incorporate added time at the end of either half which, on current averages (seven minutes per game) could add more than 100 more minutes to his record of service.

Those missing 19 minutes at the end of the Kerry replay leave goalkeeper David Clarke as the only player to have played every minute of championship action in a nine-game sequence that culminates in a fifth trip to Croke Park in this campaign for Sunday's All-Ireland final.

Ended

Between two 20-minute periods of extra-time after their qualifier games against Derry and Cork had ended level, Mayo have been in action for 670 championship minutes (not including added time).

Like O'Connor, Clarke also played every minute of all seven league games.

O'Connor's importance to Mayo as captain and primarily as free-taker is reflected in his ever-presence on the field.

Stephen Rochford clearly appreciates the necessity of having the Ballintubber man in the game at all times given his capacity for clutch scores like last year's All-Ireland final equaliser.

While the others have been eased into games and rested at the other end O'Connor had remained on the carousel until that black card.

He's an inside forward but regularly drifts into deep positions and, for a forward, is one of the most aggressive and regular tacklers in the game. So his style of play does not always lead to energy conservation that helps him to last the distance in games.

It is a phenomenal contribution which, if he stays on for the full 70 minutes on Sunday, will be the most minutes accumulated in a championship campaign from an outfield player in the qualifier era, given that the 40 minutes of extra-time bring them past Tyrone's 700-minute 2005 campaign. In that campaign Sean Cavanagh, Conor Gormley and Stephen O'Neill featured throughout without being substituted.

When Meath played 10 games in the 1991 championship, two against Dublin went to extra-time giving them a total of 740 minutes but added time allowed by referees was much shorter then.

O'Connor and Clarke are among a group of 13 Mayo players who have played in all nine games in their remarkable run, either from the start or as substitutes. Defender Chris Barrett is the only other player to have crossed the 600-minute threshold with withdrawals for him in the Derry, Cork and Roscommon (replay) games.

Mayo have taken themselves through a challenging season with virtually the same names that have had their shoulder to the wheel for the last six years, once again underlining their economy of resources to remain at the top of their game for so long.

From 27 players used, only two, Fergal Boland and Caolan Crowe, were debutants and as the season progressed their contributions became more limited. Conor Loftus stepped up against Derry and Kerry the last day and Stephen Coen has continued his progress but in terms of personnel they continue to draw from much the same pool who have put the county in a such a position of prominence in the first place.

On Sunday they are likely to have nine starters who were also in place for the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final in the early stages of this cycle as opposed to Dublin's five, provided Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly remain in reserve.

The Irish Independent ran a feature on Mayo's 'heavy lifters' at the outset of the season, focusing on the appearances in the five seasons between 2012 to 2016 when this team established themselves as one of the game's foremost powers.

Little could we have thought then that, within four months, a 31-game stretch could have increased to 40 and many of the same names had added to their considerable load.

Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle were among a quartet who had played in all 31 games up to that point but now McLoughlin and Boyle stand alone on the 40 mark with Lee Keegan losing out to injury in the replayed Roscommon All-Ireland quarter-final and Keith Higgins' suspension for the Derry game, after being sent off in the 26th minute of the Connacht semi-final against Galway, leaving them both on the 39-match mark where they are joined by O'Connor, Aidan O'Shea and Donal Vaughan.

Take out those 134 minutes that he sat out because of his moment of madness in Salthill and Higgins has spent every other minute in battle, an illustration of how indispensable he is too. He has a full complement of league minutes accumulated, starting and finishing each one of the seven games Mayo played, a feat McLoughlin also achieved.

Punch

McLoughlin came off injured against Sligo after 26 minutes to punch a considerable hole in his time on the field but he too has contributed heavily in terms of minutes played. For Higgins and McLoughlin they too have clocked up more than 1,000 minutes playing for Mayo between league and championship.

This season has allowed Andy Moran to join an exclusive club of inter-county footballers to have played 70 or more games for their county.

Moran will play his 72nd championship match for Mayo on Sunday which will take him to 10th on the overall list.

The withdrawal of Boyle has raised a few eyebrows and for the Galway game he came in with just two minutes of normal time remaining but he still managed all 90 minutes against Derry and full games against Clare and Roscommon in the replay, giving him 516 minutes overall.

Vaughan has played for 357 minutes this summer but has been involved at some stage in all nine games.

Aidan O'Shea's league contribution was limited to just two appearances off the bench due to an injury sustained playing basketball, and because of groin trouble he didn't start a game until Derry in the qualifiers but since then he has been close to ever-present too.

For the heavy lifters no load, it seems, is too great.

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