Mayo’s days of Croke Park choking are long gone
Sunday’s NFL semi-final clash with Dublin is seen as opportunity to test themselves against the form team at the top venue
Cillian O’Connor (right) sees Sunday’s NFL semi-final as great preparation for the All_Ireland champinship. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Once upon a time some Mayo footballers would come to Croke Park crippled by the fear of losing rather than fired by the possibility of winning, at least if titles were on the line, but things have changed.
Indeed Dublin and Kerry are among the teams they’ve beaten in Croke Park in the last 12 months; this time last year Mayo took Kerry down in an extra-time thriller of a league semi-final, and later, held on to beat Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, ending their reign as champions in the process.
So, while there will always be mixed feelings on Dublin getting home advantage in Croke Park, Mayo forward Cillian O’Connor reckons it’s worth conceding it for the chance to play in Croke Park.
“As players, it’s where we all want to play,” he says, “and you like to think you’d be back later on this summer. I’m lucky enough to have played here before, but there are some players on the panel who haven’t. So from all our players’ point of view, it’s an ideal venue.
“Dublin do always get that advantage anyway, are always going to be here in the championship; that’s not really going to change. But I think this Mayo team has come to love playing here because, we’ve had a couple of good results, beating Cork here in the championship (in 2011), we beat Dublin last year, Kerry in the League.
“It might have been said before that Mayo didn’t like coming to Croke Park but I don’t really think that’s the case now.
“Sunday is a great opportunity to mix it with a form team on the best surface and the best stadium in the country. So we can’t really complain.”
It helps that O’Connor is in the best form of his young life (he doesn’t turn 21 until next month): last Sunday in Cork, as Mayo walked a tightrope between relegation and making the semi-finals, he stepped up to kick two superb sideline balls (from opposite sides, too) to end Cork’s interest, allowing Mayo leap-frog above them.
“Sure, there was a strong a breeze going straight down the field,” he notes modestly. “As soon as the ball went over the line, I just said, ‘we’re desperate for a score here so I’ll chance it . . .’
“But I think a result like that will lift confidence and morale going back to training during the week, because it was tough enough conditions and Cork needed the win as well.
“It would be a totally different feeling in the camp if say, we were looking at Division Two football next year. Now the chance of playing at Croke Park against the Dubs in front of their own crowd is an experience that will only help us come championship.”
Indeed Mayo’s championship opener against Galway on May 19th is not far away, especially compared to last year, when they weren’t out until June 20th; O’Connor is also sure Dublin are the perfect benchmark, and Sunday’s game will tell them exactly where they stand going into the summer (assuming it does eventually arrive).
“Training is grand,” he says, “but it’s not the same as measuring yourself against teams like Dublin, and players who’ve been lighting up the league so far. And they have been the form team. They have added more players to the panel, are very dangerous all over the field, everywhere.
“We’re going to have to play for 70 minutes on Sunday to have any kind of chance. Their scoring burden doesn’t really rest on anybody now because you have scores coming from everywhere now, including the half-back line and midfield.
“I think a lot of teams would love to take on Dublin, in front of their own crowd, on the best pitch in the country.”
None of this disguises the fact Mayo would love to win the league title outright, with O’Connor aware that until they win a big one, probably the All-Ireland itself, they will always be the doubters.
“Sure it’s hard to change people’s opinions unless you go and win and All-Ireland.
“I think we’ve gained a bit of respect over the past couple of years from just the way we’ve played and a couple of big wins we’ve had but until you get over the final hurdle there’s always going to be people doubting you.
“But for every person that praises you there’s going to be another person doubting you, so within the panel it’s not something we would place huge emphasis on really.”