The outrageous crime of ‘Being Aidan O’Shea’
Whatever about not winning the All-Ireland with him, Mayo haven’t a hope without him
Aidan O’Shea in action against Michael Murphy in the Allianz Football League in Castlebar in April. Photograph: Tom Beary/Inpho
Of course Aidan O’Shea isn’t starting for Mayo against Sligo on Sunday. Hasn’t the man spent the last 48 hours sitting in stocks and chains outside the courthouse in Castlebar while the cognoscenti pelt him with day-old muffins and the dregs of smoothies?
What has he done to deserve this? Kieran Cunningham of the Star summed it up best on Friday when he tweeted: Aidan O’Shea is to blame for global warming, ransomware, avocado toast and man-buns.
Yes, the Breaffy man’s sins are apparently many but can basically be distilled to the outrageous crime of Being Aidan O’Shea. The most recent reported travesties include O’Shea breaking away from a team-huddle after a challenge game(!) up in Meath so he could sign autographs for the few dozen youngsters who had wandered onto the field looking for his John Hancock.
Several Meath gods of yesteryear were watching this unfold from the shadows and they saw dark omens in O’Shea’s individualism. Bernard Flynn shared the damning conclusion on RTÉ Radio: “That’s exactly why Aidan O’Shea plays the way he does.”
Mmmmh. So the logic is that O’Shea is squandering his talent because he obliges youngsters with autographs? The guess here is that O’Shea has put his name to maybe 10,000 autographs over his years playing for Mayo.
Certain GAA players are swamped after every game. Cooper. Murphy. Brogan. McManus. They are either the guys who score the most or the guys who appear on the billboards and TV ads most often.
You see them after every league game, sometimes standing for up to 15 minutes and getting cold until every last programme or jersey or scrap of paper is signed. O’Shea is one of those. He is one of the bigger men in Gaelic football.
The GAA has modernised in many of its attitudes but to be big is to remain a target and to risk the wrath of smaller, angrier men. Ask Liam McHale. (And he, don’t forget, was big, helplessly tanned, incapable of playing thuggish and also played basketball in winter. In 1980s Ireland! He couldn’t have drawn more derision had he taken the field wearing a pink headband.)
O’Shea carries himself with a way that may be perceived as swaggering. Again, that’s asking for it in the GAA. Brian O’Driscoll once sent into the ether a tweet expressing envy at the coolness of O’Shea’s championship haircut. You can bet that that got under several skins.
Occasionally, O’Shea does product-connected radio interviews in which he reveals himself to be honest to the point of outspoken and unafraid to acknowledge that he is a big cheese in the world of Gaelic football.
At the age of 17, he wrote an outrageously confident (and highly entertaining) column about sitting the Leaving Certificate for these pages. He tweets often and enthusiastically. He has been known to wear baseball caps backwards, which, in fairness, is indefensible for anyone over the age of six.
He participated in the TV show in which big-name GAA stars get to try their hand at foreign codes: O’Shea spent a week in balmy San Diego and Houston getting ready to play tight end in an NFL combine trial. And yup, he drove with the top pulled down and the Ray-Bans on.
He also showed phenomenal athleticism, bro-shook to beat the band and generally behaved like a well-mannered Irish lad on a J-1 agog at the plentiful nature of Uncle Sam.
There’s a strand within the GAA who would have angered themselves watching O’Shea rushing for 10 yards in the Texan heat while his buddies were slogging it in the rain under floodlights until they at last snapped, choking on their tea and Hobnobs as they shouted at nobody in particular: “Who does that ****er think he is?”
And, of course, the other thing which gets people riled up is that O’Shea hasn’t, you know, gone and won an All-Ireland for Mayo. He hasn’t ‘done it’.
The player with whom O’Shea most often draws unfavourable comparison is Michael Murphy because both are big, imposing men with play-anywhere skills and potential.
Tomás Ó Sé, for instance, last week noted in what was a fair column that he felt O’Shea hadn’t delivered for Mayo in the way Murphy had for Donegal. It is a reasonable argument to make but it does lead to the following question.
While praise for Murphy has been consistent down the years, it has been, shall we say, careful rather than lavish. There has been a notable absence of the most obvious thing to say about him, which is this: Michael Murphy is the standalone football player of his generation.
He is among the very, very best the game has ever seen. You watch Murphy sometimes and it’s almost stupid what he does on the football field. It’s something of a black joke that he has never won the footballer of the year award. It’s unlikely he gives much of a toss but still.
If you were to tell Jim Gavin and Éamonn Fitzmaurice that in addition to their enviable squads, they could have one player from outside the county for this summer only, the guess here is that they would both have Murphy’s digits on speed-dial.
Ever since he went to town on Cork in 2009, Murphy has been double and triple marked. He ships dog’s abuse because in GAA culture he’s a big man and should be able to take it.
He kicks gargantuan frees, is a pre-eminent midfielder, runs from D to D, obliterates defences when he ball-carries, can score gorgeous points, works like a demon and, if anything, he cares too much about his county. Murphy’s influence on that summer of football in 2014 was rare and profound. As they say in praise of LeBron James, he is a freak.
Is Aidan O’Shea in that league? No, because there is no league. Murphy stands alone. Put it another way. If Murphy was to do a Pádraig Brogan on it and elect to play for Mayo this summer, would it shorten the odds on Mayo winning its first All-Ireland since 1951? Without question. That’s the effect Murphy has.
So asking Aidan O’Shea to achieve that kind of omnipotence is unrealistic and unfair. And yet, O’Shea was the dominant figure when Donegal and Mayo met in the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2015.
And in the recent league meeting in Castlebar, O’Shea rumbled into the action with 20 minutes to go and essentially put the entire match into reverse-thrust with a brutal and brilliant display in a game in which Murphy had been absolutely lording it. O’Shea won that game on his own.
And here’s the thing about O’Shea. Whatever about not winning the All-Ireland with him in their XV, Mayo haven’t a hope in hell without him. If O’Shea gets injured, it’s over. Like Murphy, he has become used to opposition players taking lumps out of him because he is bigger and stronger.
He is a rare player. And the critical thing for Mayo is to to get him on the ball early and often and running at speed at the opposition goal because that’s when he causes havoc.
It may well be that the best chance for this Mayo team of winning an All-Ireland has already come and gone. But they still have a real chance this year. Most counties don’t.
Defining a clear role for Aidan O’Shea and sticking with it is key to that success. The criticism of O’Shea won’t go away whenever they fall short. He is going to be the fall guy because he is big and laconic and does his own thing.
So you’ll be seeing him on those live pre-match shots on the Sunday Game, exiting the team bus and wearing his headphones and looking all that. Hope he has got Zack de la Rocha on his playlist, hope he has the volume at 10 and hope he plays with just that rage all summer long.