Aidan O’Shea ready for the main stage in Croke Park
Mayo midfielder feels championship doesn’t start until it reaches headquarters
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea holds offf Cian O’Sullivan of Dublin during last year’s All-Irealand senior football final at Croke Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Aidan O’Shea was playing club championship for Breaffy on the afternoon when Dublin sent tremors of fear across the country by skinning Meath in a way that Meath men are rarely skinned. The highlights were on The Sunday Game when he got home. “I watched 15 minutes and went to bed,” he remembers.
It is only now that O’Shea is permitting himself to turn his thoughts to the capital. On Sunday, O’Shea and Mayo will stake their claim as All-Ireland contenders in Croke Park.
Last September ended with another broken conclusion for Mayo and with Dublin euphoria. Mayo were one point and still 60 years away from winning the Sam Maguire. This year, Dublin have been scintillating as All-Ireland champions, toted as all but unbeatable. But O’Shea and Mayo return for another tilt, unscarred.
“Pure excitement,” he says of his feelings about Sunday’s quarter-final.
“It’s what you’ve been waiting for all year. The football championship only really kicks off on the Bank Holiday weekend so all the stuff beforehand goes out the window and you get down to business. I can’t wait for it to be honest. I’d prefer to play there than anywhere else. It is the best pitch in the country and there’s a great atmosphere there.”
Regardless of what happens, this particular period in Mayo football will be known as the Horan era and O’Shea has stepped forward as a gargantuan figure. The former minor prodigy, a man-child at number 11, has tailored his life around the game.
Last year, he admitted that he had to quit Dublin for his home county because he simply couldn’t get the fitness and preparatory work done. O’Shea is 23 but since he moved west, life has become busier: he has taken up a role as a production planner in a pharmaceutical company in Westport and became a father last November.
When he began playing with Mayo, he used to try and watch every second broadcast of championship but gradually he realised that the clutter didn’t really help his game. He keeps the head down.
“Yeah, I was there,” he laughed when asked if he made it in to work, as usual, for 8am on the Monday morning after Mayo’s fourth consecutive Connacht championship. When Mayo are playing, the Sunday match becomes the epicentre of his week. When they are not, he switches off.
“I spend enough time looking at football and Saturday is my day off so I’ll probably spend time with my daughter and go to the beach.”
O’Shea’s athleticism and comfort on the ball was a shining part of Mayo’s All-Ireland run last summer and marked him out as an archetypal modern midfielder.
In the All-Ireland final, Dublin neutralised his effectiveness by having Stephen Cluxton ping his kick-outs to the periphery, keeping the football firmly away from O’Shea’s radar.
When Galway came to Castlebar last month, the big surprise was that O’Shea was named at number 11. It wasn’t that James Horan was trying to reinvent him as Greg Blaney. O’Shea played as a primary ball-winner and facilitator and as a daunting physical presence whenever he took the notion to carry the ball at speed.
“It’s not really new to me, I played there a lot in my underage career,” he says.
“It wasn’t something new, it something James asked me to do against Galway.
“ I found a lot of space because Gary O’Donnell wanted to stay in the centre of the pitch to protect his defence. It benefited both ways for us. My work is 25 to 30 yards further up the pitch which helps when I’m fouled because I’m in scoring range for Cillian.
“It’s important to have a presence in the half-forward line and win ball. Also it’s a huge kick out option too because there aren’t many centre backs who will follow their man out for a kick out.”
Mayo first posted a serious signal of intent under Horan by thundering past then All-Ireland champions Cork in the 2011 quarter-final. Since then, they have been the most consistent team in Ireland. O’Shea was then at the outset of his conversion from reluctant full-forward to marauding midfielder but pounces when asked what he remembers about the game.
“The start, for me, because I was at fault for two of the goals when I lost the ball in a tackle. I think we were 2-3 down at one stage. I remember coming in at half time and we didn’t panic. It was a massive step for us as a team in James’s first year.”
By the time Mayo destroyed Donegal in last year’s quarter-final, O’Shea had wandered into footballer-of-the-year conversations but he has a more muted perspective on that hour.
“I said after that game was that the only difference between that and a couple of other games I played was I caught a few balls. If I didn’t catch them and the boys won the breaks, the same thing would have happened.”
O’Shea finished the season with an All-Star. He will hope to come up against his ceremonial partner, Michael Dara Macauley, again before the summer is out. But for now, the Dubs don’t even feature on his television set.
“We’re pretty happy. We’re building nicely. People ask whether it’s by design or not but for us it’s by design. We stuttered in the right way at the right time of year and we’re hitting Croke Park with a lot more to give.”