Sunday 21 July 2019

Summer with a difference helps O'Connor to appreciate big occasions all the more

Mayo's Cillian O’Connor. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Mayo's Cillian O’Connor. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Three days after Mayo's qualifier exit to Kildare in Newbridge at the end of last June, Cillian O'Connor found himself seated in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow watching England's World Cup quarter-final shoot-out with Colombia unfold.

For the first time since his impressive breakthrough on to the Mayo team in 2011 he had time to himself in July and even August and was determined to put it to good use.

When the opportunity to go to Moscow came up, it was the perfect getaway to dilute the disappointment of a first career failure to reach at least an All-Ireland semi-final, having got to the penultimate stage at least in each of his seven years as a Mayo senior.

There was a 10-day trip to Bali too, taken in with friends who do it regularly during the summer.

"I nearly have to delete them off Snapchat when they are away because it is just annoying. That was nice, switch the phone off and have the craic for a while," he recalls.

Knocked It's another life but not one he would readily choose over what he has had for much of the decade. Time away has convinced him of that.

"It was the silver lining of being knocked out, to rest and link in with family and friends you haven't seen in a long time.

"You don't miss family events for a change, don't miss bits and pieces like that in your social life. But I will be glad if I can't make those same arrangements this year.

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"The grass is always greener. When you are out there then, there are times when it pops into your head, that you would rather be in Croke Park.

He kept in touch with the 2018 championship but didn't immerse himself in it.

"Whatever the outcome it was always going to be hard but it won't be lost on him or any of his colleagues that they were missed!

"There would have been no easy way to look at it. Had a team pipped them in a semi-final or a final, that would have been torture as well.

"The disappointment of not being there is such a big thing, so regardless of who wins it after that, you are just going to be sick that you are not involved in some way."

The urge to get going again quickly was evident. Even when James Horan asked the most experienced players to attend trials in October, O'Connor didn't see an issue with it.

"Once it was announced, all the senior players who knew him knew that would be the case anyway.

"If you know the way he would be, the presumption is everyone fit and not injured would have been playing in those games, so it was no surprise to us, and being out since the end of June, just to get back into the dressing room and get the boots on, get chatting with fellas you haven't see for months.

"I don't think there was any issue. Now, it's easy for me to say I wasn't there, but I don't think the boys minded.

"Even for this launch, (O'Connor is an eir ambassador and was present in Dublin for the launch of their live TV coverage) just putting on this jersey felt good."

O'Connor has since had a knee operation, having concluded his club activity with a Connacht final defeat to Corofin and is expected to miss a couple of Mayo's early league games.

As for diminished expectation after their early exit last year and the concern over ageing team, O'Connor is wise enough to know that it's only ever one performance away from taking off again.

"There is still going to be that talk about this year and last year and near misses.

"That conjecture and speculation - 'what are they going to do' - that's always going to be there so maybe it will reduce the pressure a small bit but maybe I'm so accustomed to the 'will they, won't they', 'how good are they', 'how far will they go' that you just try and have it all parked as much as you can all of the time," said O'Connor, who paid tribute to a Mayo support he believes has grown despite their recent anguish.

"If you are relying on reduced expectation and we go and put up a big performance, be it even in February, the roller coaster could take off again, crazy stuff again. So you don't want that to unsettle you."

Barrier A successful league shouldn't be beyond them either, despite the last two years when their survival went down to the last few minutes against Donegal.

"The east/west split in the squad during winter and spring and the logistical challenges that brings has often been put forward as a barrier.

"It is something that I don't think should stop you being competitive. It's just an obstacle, a little challenge.

"Counties have different stuff that they have to deal with. I think we are better off focusing on how best we can organise it to least impact performance.

"I remember James' last time involved, we had a league final against Cork in 2012 when we lost by a couple of points.

"Maybe it's not absolutely ideal but it's not an excuse for losing a game."

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