How bringing it all back home and a new man in charge helped Aidan O’Shea kick on for Mayo
Returning home to live in Mayo and James Horan’s winning mentality has changed everything
Routine. Routine. Wake. Work. Rest. Eat. Train. Play. Sleep.
Wake. Work. Rest. Repeat.
This is Aidan O’Shea’s life now. It wasn’t his life then. Up until he finished college last year, his day was like a scrapbook without the glue. All the bits and pieces he needed were there for him, he just struggled to get around to sticking the right bit with the right piece in the right place at the right time. “It’s not that I don’t like Dublin,” he says. “I love Dublin. But maybe for the wrong reasons.”
The wrong reasons weren’t necessarily bad reasons. This wasn’t life as seen through the bottom of a pint glass or the awning of a nightclub smoking balcony. Nothing so drastic. No, it was more that city life was stretched and sprawled and messier than it needed to be. Certainly messier than he needed it to be.
“I’m not saying I was a loose cannon or anything,” he says. “I’m not one who’d be out all the time. I enjoy a night out but that’s not what I mean. It’s just that my pattern of life was all over the place when I was living in Dublin. One day you’d be sleeping in until 12 o’clock and going to college at one, then coming home and going for a kip in the afternoon. I wasn’t doing the right things.
‘Hard to control’
“Now that I’m at home, I get up at half-six every morning. I go to work. I’m home from work at five every evening. I have four or five hours before I go to bed where I can do whatever I want.
“Whereas when I was in Dublin, I might be home at seven in the evening. Then I have to sort out my dinner, work out how I was getting to the gym – it might take an hour to get there and then you have to park the car and after the session it’s too late to cook proper food. There were too many things that are hard to control.”
It’s a life that can be tolerated by plenty of intercounty footballers, he’s just not one of them. His brother Séamus is one of a dozen players in the Mayo panel who spend most of their year in Dublin either for work or college.
They all handle it with varying degrees of success but O’Shea had long since decided he’d had enough. It was affecting his body shape, affecting his recovery when he got injured, affecting his game in general. It had done so from the start.
“I moved to college and just I didn’t deal with the transition well. I found it hard to control what I needed to be doing to be as an intercounty footballer. Some boys will laugh at me saying this because some boys find it very easy but I found it very difficult. I probably could have stayed in Dublin and worked but I had always planned on going home.
“From the minute I moved to Dublin I was thinking, ‘The second I get my degree I’m out of here.’ I’m probably better equipped now and I suppose working is a big help because you’re more regimented. You’re up at half-six in the morning, you’re eating at the proper times. It’s much easier.
“I had football in my mind when I moved. I don’t plan on going anywhere for the next 10 years but Mayo.”
In another era, in another Mayo, he might have stayed where he was a while. His size would have carried him, his ability would have sustained him. Plenty have done it and entirely respectable football careers were maintained along the way. No reason his couldn’t have been another one on the pile.
“There’s a comfort in being an intercounty footballer if you want there to be,” he says. “If you don’t want to be ambitious and you don’t want to go and win things, you might still get by. But James [Horan] came in on day one and said, ‘Look, there’s no doubt that we have the footballers to win the All-Ireland.’
“I think we have changed. One of the things the squad has done under James is change the standards within Mayo football and within the squad. Before it was too easy. He has changed what is expected of players and that’s made a huge difference to people. You’ve seen a few boys fall away and the boys that have stood the test of time are still here and that’s the difference.
“You always have self-doubt. It’s part of everybody’s life. There was definitely that for me in 2010 when things weren’t going well. I needed to have a look at myself and look at the things I was doing off the pitch and on the pitch and what I was doing and where I was going. James came in that year thankfully and things have been good since then.”
Never better than this year. O’Shea is well clear in the betting for footballer of the year, a status that owes much to the lordly afternoon he put in against Donegal. The feeling that it was only then that most people sat up and took Mayo at face value picked at them a little. For O’Shea, it was what it was supposed to be. No particular reason for everyone to be so shocked by it.
“People were saying after the Donegal match that we had played so well because it was Donegal and because of last year’s final. But that wasn’t the case at all really. It was far more because we were sick of being told that we had come through Connacht having played nobody. We were coming to Croke Park that day to put in a performance. So if had been Dublin or Kerry or whoever else that day, that performance would have been there.”
And though it looked like they took a while to find their sea legs against Tyrone, he insists that there was never a chance of the ship going down.
“We were always going to come up against a side that were going to pack the defence. We thought it would be Donegal because they did it against Laois in the round before us for the first 20 minutes but that didn’t quite materialise.
“I think we played Tyrone and hadn’t played anyone like that since the league – we had been running through boys and it was easy and we could do what we wanted. And that was no good for us either.
“So it was perfect for us, what happened against Tyrone. It made us think on the pitch. We were 0-6 to 0-2 down and we had to think our way out of it. And I think we did, we sorted ourselves out on the pitch. Ten minutes before half-time was the winning of the game – Leeroy [Lee Keegan] went up and got a point, Chrissy Barrett went up and got two points.
“And we changed how we played, we settled and got a bit more composure. Yeah, we missed a few chances but we haven’t missed much all year, we were due to miss one or two.”
This is how Mayo players talk now. In every sentence, an affirmation of the latest bit of progress. No cute hoorism, no ah-sure. O’Shea is the alpha of the herd. Out front and up front. He’s playing in an All-Ireland final next week at least in part because he believed at the start of the summer that he would be. Whether you think you can or you think you cannot, you are right.
“It’s something we have come to expect, be it the Donegal game or even the Galway game back at the start. Coming into that game people were saying Galway should win this and we were like, ‘Hold on a second, they shouldn’t be winning this game. We should be winning this game.’
“We embrace it, there is huge confidence in the squad because of what we have been through and the additions we have made. You look at guys and last year we might have been picking from 19 or 20 players but now we are picking from 26.
“Anyone who’s in the match day panel could get called upon to play and that’s huge. You saw that against Tyrone, the boys who came on made a massive difference and that’s where the confidence comes from. When I started there was too much comfort in the 15. You made the 15 on the first day of the championship and that was it.”
Piece by piece, Horan has built them up and turned their face to the sun. Getting their heads around the doability of an All-Ireland has been gradual, like taking chewing gum off the underside of a school desk. Some came immediately, some got stuck a little longer. Some weren’t even ready this time last year.
“It might have taken some boys a while to realise,” says O’Shea. “It didn’t take me too long but it might have taken a few boys until even last year’s All-Ireland final coming off the pitch to realise it. After that game, a few of them might have gone, ‘Hold on a second.’ That has all fallen into place for the boys by now.
“There was definitely wallowing for a few days. But there was a realisation after the game – and not take anything away from Donegal – but it was like, ‘Jesus we let something slip there.’ Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t deserve to win the game. Donegal were deserving winners by a mile. But we didn’t perform and we were in the game for long stretches and we conceded two ridiculous goals.
“I don’t know how many of the boys watched the game, I presume a lot of them did. But I have watched it a lot of times and it didn’t take too long to get over because you kind of get that realisation of, ‘Well, there’s no reason why we can’t be the Donegal of next year.’ And it has turned out that we have that opportunity.”
It hasn’t come by accident. It hasn’t come by luck. They have their opportunity because in a thousand different ways, each of them changed a little of what a Mayo footballer could be and could expect to be. Aidan O’Shea did. They all did.
Wake. Work. Rest. Eat. Train. Play.