O’Connor and Mayo focused on clearing another major hurdle
Cork are next up but All-Ireland glory remains the sole goal for James Horan’s men
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor enjoys the big occasions at Croke Park. “We have had two huge disappointments there but we have had some of our best performances there too.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
In January of 2011, Cillian O’Connor wrote down a brief set of personal goals for the football year ahead. He had just graduated from minor ranks but saw no harm in setting a few grander ambitions.
They included appearing and scoring for the senior team in the upcoming FBD league and even making an appearance in the league. Anything beyond that would have seemed outlandish too him.
By the end of the month, he had scored 1-06 in his first winter game and finished the season by pilfering 1-3 from the Kerry defence in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final. By then, the nomination for Young Footballer of the Year was a foregone conclusion and he won the award.
If O’Connor hasn’t reflected much on his football life since, it is because there has been no time. Mayo have rattled through the seasons since with hell-bent commitment since he made his debut, appearing in two All-Ireland finals after bowing out in that match against Kerry.
Last year’s final had the nagging backdrop of a shoulder injury which O’Connor suffered in the semi-final win over Tyrone: nobody was quite sure if the Ballintubber man would be fit to play and, if he did, whether he would last. -He played the 70 minutes, scored 0-8 from frees and Mayo lost by a point in what was the county’s disappointing day since the epochal loss to Meath in 1996.
In October, O’Connor had an operation to fuse the shoulder on medical advice and it was April when he returned for Mayo in a league tie against Westmeath.
“It is brilliant,” he says of the simple fact of playing without managing what was a constant and low-grade irritation.
“It is great to have a couple of months of injury-free training under your belt. Even just mentally, to have that you start enjoying your football more and you are not strapping your body with tape or having to mind yourself . . . We have always had a few injuries – Andy Moran had the leg break and cruciate injury. But every county has those distractions and every player has to deal with them at some stage . ..”
A thousand ifs and buts permeated Mayo thoughts through the winter after the latest All-Ireland defeat. When a team loses a match by a point, there is no question that they were good enough to win it.
O’Connor played well but wasn’t quite the radiant figure he had been earlier in the championship and it was impossible to quantify if the injury had, in some way, diluted his effectiveness. He grimaces slightly when that is put to him and it is clear that nine months on he is battling to answer that satisfactorily for himself.