Tomás Ó Sé: Aidan O'Shea not in same league as Michael Murphy and it's high time the Mayo man delivered
I was in Derry last week for the official opening of Dungiven's new bar and something that was said to me has been bouncing around my head since.
A glorious, sunny evening filled with the sounds of kids on the field and there was I thinking to myself how I could almost sense everyone carrying that little extra energy on the doorstep of championship. So I tossed out the inevitable question. Nineteen years after their last Ulster title, what was the Derry vibe this year?
Well, I might as well have asked about Serbia's chances of winning Eurovision.
"We're a club before county county here!" I was told.
It's an expression I never heard before. But the message was loud and clear. The big dance looming held little enough interest for them. Derry are something like 14/1 to win Ulster this year, 250/1 to lift Sam. In anybody's language, that means they're long shots. And being so big a long shot has a habit of translating into indifference.
In Derry, the club scene is hugely competitive. They've got massive underage talent coming through. But right now they've a senior inter-county team that just doesn't capture anybody's imagination. And you know something? That puts them in the broad majority.
I'd estimate roughly 70 per cent of county teams don't have access to all of their best players because some just can't be bothered putting in the crazy time investment now considered obligatory at that level. It's obvious that more and more are slow to commit to regimes they know won't be successful. You might call it the 'Why bother?' attitude. People in Dungiven are fiercely proud of their club.
Powerful The clubhouse was built by local tradesmen in their own time. They have a sense of identity and place as powerful as anything you could come across.
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But they're not tuned into what's coming down the tracks for Derry. It's as if they don't really care. And that, surely, is a massive problem for the GAA.
Because it's the old story with this championship. Maybe you run the risk of being disrespectful by saying it, but the real stuff will only begin in August. The rest is just separating the wheat from the chaff. We need a two-tier championship here, but I won't be holding my breath.
Look, I loved this time of year when I was with Kerry. It was when I really narrowed my focus, when a familiar selfishness took over. The league was done with and it was time to plot a course towards September. In my case, that involved shutting out the outside world. Maybe becoming closed and one-dimensional.
I sometimes find myself wondering how players cope with the scrutiny today. We live in an age of immediate information so even someone becoming a virtual recluse like I used to do would struggle to sustain a degree of privacy. I'd hate that, the sense that the smallest thing can catch fire on social media and become "a story".
Like Aidan O'Shea didn't help himself (or Mayo) turning up at that commercial gig recently and tossing a few stones in the direction of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly. Surely he's around long enough now to realise that until and unless this Mayo team gets their hands on Sam Maguire, they're wasting their time fighting this kind of fight.
I don't doubt Stephen Rochford (above) will have told them that. Maybe O'Shea just didn't listen.
He's a marquee player but if I had a choice between him and Michael Murphy, I wouldn't have to think about it too long. Murphy, for me, was probably the player of the National League. He's phenomenal. He makes a difference every day. To my mind, he gives Donegal what it's probably high time Aidan O'Shea gave Mayo.
Right now, I just don't have O'Shea down in the same league. I can't. I think a lot of Mayo supporters feel he still has it all to prove. The big players are the ones who do it on the big days. Like I could count on one hand the bad games Seamus Moynihan played for Kerry. Murphy's the same with Donegal. He walks the walk. There's a competitive honesty to him that's probably fairly rare.
If it sounds like I'm being hard on O'Shea, it's only because I believe he can be THE man for Mayo. It's probably a small enough thing that could get Mayo over the line and, given his potential, even a five per cent improvement from O'Shea might be enough. But that improvement has to come with consistency.
I'd love to see that happen but, as I read things, Mayo are running out of time now. I don't doubt they still believe themselves that they're capable of getting over the line, but whether or not they're good enough is a different matter. Do they have the forwards? Honestly? They certainly have the defenders. Look at Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle in the half-backs. Good as anything you'll see.
But beyond that, especially from ten to 15? Is there an All-Ireland for Mayo in those numbers? I'm not sure because if they have the killer instinct, the truth is they've yet to show it. And that's a question that never gets properly asked until they meet a Dublin or a Kerry.
We need to see something different from the Mayo forwards this year. I suspect the personnel with be largely the same so it's up to them to come up with something new.
Incidentally, I was in Dungiven on Joe Brolly's invitation and he took to asking me about the Gooch. "He won't be sour with me, will he?" he wondered, now that they're going to be colleagues on 'The Sunday Game'. "Are you having a laugh?" I replied.
"Do you honestly believe Gooch pays a blind bit of notice to you?"
But, seriously, I've been thinking about Gooch and how he's facing into a difficult summer. Everywhere he goes, he'll be hearing, 'Jesus you could still do a job!' That man brought something to the game that the rest of us could only dream about and even non-Kerry people will be feeling his loss to this championship.
Some lads can step away and become almost invisible overnight, the likes of Tom Sullivan or Mike McCarthy. Brilliant men who you just never hear from again. And I'd say there's a certain comfort for them in that their privacy is never threatened.
That was never open to the Gooch. He's public property. He lives and works in Killarney town where everyone feels comfortable just walking up to him and talking football. Treating him as a friend.
So I'm not surprised he's decided to throw himself into media work because, no matter what he did, there was going to be no escape. Short of pitching tent somewhere like Papua New Guinea, he was never going to just slip into the crowd. So why not embrace the commotion rather than hide from it?
But I can tell him now, he'll find the big days hardest. Say a Munster final in a packed new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Or an All-Ireland semi-final or final in Croke Park. They're the days that questions will start making a big noise in his mind. And, if he's like me, he'll end up lying. Telling people he's still happy with the decision when, in reality, his head is nearly fried.
Magnitude I'll never forget the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay between Kerry and Mayo in Limerick. I went down with my partner, Orla, completely underestimating the magnitude of the occasion. Next thing, we found ourselves swamped in a sea of people on the Ennis Road with a sense that nothing in their lives mattered more than the 70 minutes looming.
Honestly, I couldn't believe it. I'd spent my entire inter-county career inside a bubble, pushing everything away bar training and games. No media, no small-talk. I actually stopped understanding what the game meant to Kerry supporters and the pressure that brings to bear. As a player, maybe cutting myself off was a safety valve. Now the scale of it all took my breath away.
Listen I've been to Champions League games; I've been to Munster Heineken Cup games in Thomond Park, I've been to all kinds of different sports events nationally and internationally, but I can never remember encountering a better atmosphere than that day in Limerick. I was sitting there maybe halfway through the second half, thinking 'Why the f**k did I retire?'
That's what Gooch is about to discover now. Nothing replaces playing. Nothing.
But he'll know too the show moves on, regardless. I remember watching that 2014 final from a box in Croke Park and being absolutely wired. I had a brother and friends on that team. One of my best buddies was the manager. Of course, I wanted them to win.
But, if I'm completely honest, I was also thinking I'd made a right mess of things. That I'd been wrong to retire. Selfish thoughts. 'F**k it, I could have signed off with another All-Ireland!' I went back to Jury's, Ballsbridge after 'The Sunday Game' that night and, heading up to my room in the early hours, there was this Kerry supporter slumped in a chair by the lift. He looked comatose to me, but the moment I touched the lift button, his eyes opened.
And without as much as a hello, he goes, 'You f*****g eejit, if you stayed around you'd have another Celtic Cross!'
Look, his words didn't keep me awake that night, but that thought was definitely there. I wasn't remotely jealous of the lads. But I was wondering. If I flogged myself for one last year...
That'll be Gooch at some point this summer. Because he knows Kerry are in a good place. To beat Dublin in the league final when they didn't have a full squad will have given them a huge lift. The rest?
I suppose you could make some kind of case for Monaghan, Tyrone, Donegal, but how much would you believe it? Winning the Sam Maguire? I can't see it. Monaghan are definitely not good enough to go the whole way and Donegal and Tyrone would have to show us something they haven't shown in the last two years.
I'd put Donegal as maybe the best of the three.
But you're probably talking in this order: (1) Dublin, (2) Kerry, (3) Mayo and (4) Donegal/Tyrone. Deep down, I think I'm saying it's Dublin or Kerry and I've a suspicion the league final defeat might just play into Jim Gavin's hands. It's given him a licence now to question his players, to challenge them.
But Eamonn Fitzmaurice will be using his own kind of psychology. Can we back that up lads? Are we only able to do that to them in the league? You know what they say in Kerry? We'd rather have one championship than ten league medals. And it seems to me Fitzmaurice is getting his tactics right. He doesn't have the firepower available to Gavin, but he's figuring things out tactically. I mean I didn't expect them to win the League. They did it because they were smart.
But you know something? Kerry were brought back down to earth pretty quickly when, in one fell swoop, our under-21s were found out in the All-Ireland semi-final. I didn't see that coming. The defeat by Galway stunk of a young Kerry team basically not respecting the opposition enough. It was a serious wake-up call.
If you don't keep some level of humility about you in this game, you'll be cut down to size.
That's what Dublin have mastered under Gavin. And it's why, if I'm brutally honest, I see only Kerry (and maybe Mayo) as a potential threat to their three-in-a-row. That doesn't mean we won't end up with a classic August or September. But the bigger picture cannot be ignored.
Because for every GAA person absolutely relishing the championship about to start, it seems to me there are two others looking the other way.
And, long term, that just cannot be sustainable.