No fear factor in Croker, says Mayo star Cillian O'Connor
THEY have had more heartbreak there than Mayo people would care to remember, but Croke Park is, Cillian O'Connor insists, a home away from home for his side.
On their seasonal reappearance at HQ, the stadium found another way to confound the Mayo footballers as 14-man Dublin staged a last-gasp smash and grab raid. The game ended in a draw, but after leading by six points with just over 10 minutes to go, it must have felt like a defeat for Mayo.
They head back there on Sunday for their NFL Division 1 semi-final clash with Derry and, despite the scars, O'Connor insists his team always relish the trip to the capital.
"Some of the final losses in Croker here in the last couple of years have been highlighted, but we've won an awful lot of games in Croke Park as well," O'Connor said.
"If you look back, some of our best performances have been in Croke Park. We like playing here and we look forward to playing here. The way we play, especially the half-forward and half-back lines, it suits an awful lot of our players with the open spaces and the high tempo the boys play at."
Mayo have mixed the good with the bad so far this spring, with a win over an experimental Derry team securing their place in the last four. At times, they have looked impressive, but it was that performance against Dublin where they failed to see out the game that garnered most commentary.
"Sometimes we're labelled as cynical and other times we're labelled as naive. You have to kind of take everything that comes your way with a pinch of salt.
"There was an opportunity to close out the game, with an extra-man. You know, game-management. Some would suggest you're right to hold on to the ball and run down the clock. There are different ways of looking at it."
The Ballintubber man is a doubt for Sunday's clash with a glute injury, but he believes the recurring shoulder injury that has dogged him for the last two seasons is completely healed.
"We've done a lot of work on the training field on how to just land and how to tackle and stuff like that. It is completely out of my head now. And I don't worry about it."
Despite losing the last two All-Ireland finals, O'Connor believes the "drive" remains within the Mayo squad to secure ultimate honours.
"It was very hard for us after last year. It was awful disappointing. But we regrouped and we knew we had a good squad. The attitude of the lads was brilliant, there was no hangovers or hang-ups. Everyone just got back into it," he said.
"We reminded ourselves that we love doing it. After a couple of shaky performances in the league we got a pep back in our step. We're back in the swing of it now.
"We have a good squad, good age profile and a good strength and conditioning programme that we have done for three or four years. The drive is still there within the squad. We need to keep injury-free and strive for consistency across the full 70 minutes and we will be in the shake-up."