McKenna Cup education will help my game - O'Connor
MAYO All Star Cillian O'Connor is furthering his education on and off the field at Ulster University, Jordanstown - and that will soon include a debut in the Dr McKenna Cup.
O'Connor (22) is looking forward to playing with the college when they open their campaign against Monaghan at Clones on January 4.
The Northern link arises through his attending UUJ for a Masters degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science, which means January outings against Monaghan, Cavan, and Down, followed by a crunch Independent.ie Sigerson Cup clash against DCU.
The Ballintubber clubman's game time with UUJ has been relatively limited due to club commitments, but he's enjoying the experience of a new football environment.
"Playing in the McKenna Cup will be new for me. It will be good to test myself against some of the best players in Ulster and in a new competition. It will be interesting," he said.
"It's good to mix with lads from different counties who have been exposed to different coaches and who have been brought up maybe playing a slightly different way.
"You pick up different ways of defending, different ways of positioning, different strategies, so it's been interesting to learn about them.
"If I can pick up one or two things and improve my game, it's a bonus."
An improved O'Connor would be a force to be feared by opponents in 2015.
There was not much wrong with his personal contribution to Mayo in 2014 as O'Connor finished up as the leading scorer in the championship with 51 points (5-36).
He also won the Mayo senior title with Ballintubber and helped the club reach the Connacht final for the first time.
Unfortunately for O'Connor and his team-mates, Corofin of Galway ultimately halted the Ballintubber bid for provincial glory.
It was a long season, and O'Connor will not have much time for rest and relaxation before the action starts again.
"I had a long enough year with Mayo and then the club carried on, but once I finish (today), I'm going to take a bit of rest and switch off for ten days or so and then get back training with the college," he said.
"When the season finishes, you think you want two months off but after only ten or 14 days you're already turning your attention to next year.
"A little lay-off, a little rest, and switching off for a few weeks is all you need. Once the batteries are re-charged you're itching to go again."
UUJ commitments will ensure that O'Connor is kept busy for the early part of the season but he's also mindful of his Mayo commitments.
New joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connolly will want to put their stamp on the county set-up and O'Connor expects a good response from the players.
"With the new management there's going to be a bit of freshness and regeneration. Lads need to impress all over again," he said.
"In that regard, it's probably a positive that nobody is sure of their place on the team and the squad, so we're going to have to lift it.
"I think that will bring positives. Hopefully we can bring in some new young lads and get some good performances in the league."
James Horan's contribution to the county and to his development as a player is highly valued by O'Connor, who hopes the squad can develop from the foundations laid down by the former manager.
"James brought me in there four years ago. Mayo had a poor season the year before that, so to look back now and say we've got to the top of the province, and we were able to win the four in a row in Connacht which hadn't been done for a long time, that was certainly a positive," he said.
"There were big disappointments, but despite those disappointments we've had some good days in Croke Park as well.
"Some of our best performances have come in Croke Park, so the goal for us, as I'm sure it is for other counties, is to get out of the province and do all we can to get back to Croker.
"For now it's about getting a good footing in the league and getting off to a good start.
"Obviously Galway and Roscommon and Sligo will be gunning for us.
"We just have to try and get to our best, and be back playing in Croke Park at the right end of the championship."
A graduate of St Patrick's Drumcondra with a Bachelor of Education degree, O'Connor sees the year-long Masters at UUJ benefiting him in his sport and his future career, particularly the sport psychology element.
The mental game used to be a taboo subject in many codes, but O'Connor reckons that has disappeared as players and teams seek ongoing improvement.
"The level that sport has gone to, particularly in Gaelic football, means that the gap between the top teams is now very small.
"If there's anything at all that's going to give you that extra little edge, you're going to take it," he said.