Aidan O’Shea finally moves from minor part to leading role

A star at underage level, O’Shea has finally found his feet as a senior with Mayo

They come along every so often; teenage stars of Gaelic games who appear on the field like man-children and seem as helpless as their peers in their utter domination of the game. Mayo, with an almost unbroken tradition of producing strong underage teams down the decades, have had more than their share of prodigies.

Followers of the Mayo game of the early 1980s can still marvel at the unstoppable grace and power which Páadraig Brogan stamped on games in the colours of Knockmore, St Jarlath’s College and Mayo but those vivid recollections are always tempered by the nagging suspicion that all that youthful success and the ease with which it came did him no good as a senior footballer.

Brogan was the obvious comparison for Aidan O’Shea when he came bursting out of the Breaffy underage ranks with a physique that apparently skipped the adolescent stage.

O'Shea was just 13 when he was selected on his club's minor side, a startlingly precocious debut about which he was able to laugh in the run up to last year's All-Ireland senior final.

On the team
"I was talking recently to my Dad about that," he said, "he was a selector but he wasn't officially the manager. But I reckoned I should be started on the team. I suppose that was youth for you."

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The remark was typical of the attitude which O’Shea has carried through his football life: at once breezy and light-hearted while placing football at the centre of everything he is about.

As a football county, Mayo was still coping with the cataclysmal disappointments of the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland senior final collapses against Kerry when O’Shea began to announce himself as the fulcrum for the next generation.

His performances for Mayo through the All-Ireland minor season of 2008 were exceptional and underlined the central trait of Mayo football which is too often ignored: they keep coming back. Still licking the wounds from those All-Ireland defeats and uncertain where to go at senior level, here they were pushing for more All-Ireland glory with a new generation of talent.

They went to that year’s final against Tyrone and many match reports from that drawn match refer to O’Shea’s height and physique as he stood speaking with reporters. He collected man of the match that day in Croke Park despite being a doubtful starter having fractured a thumb in the semi-final win over Kerry.

“There was a bit of a loss of concentration just before half time. . . we let them get a run on us for 10 or 15 minutes but we knew coming out for the second half we had a chance,” he told his audience then.

“Sure, we put ourselves in a position to do it but we just failed to execute in the last few minutes. There is more to come from Mayo.”

The sentiments sound strikingly similar in tone to James Horan – a cool and logical analysis of the games – even though at that stage few were thinking in terms of Horan as a Mayo manager.

As it happened, Mayo were beaten in the replay and O’Shea had his first keen taste of the bittersweet experiences that come with playing for a county which contests a lot of All-Ireland finals.

Within a year, O'Shea had been sprung into senior action by John O'Mahony and responded as though the task was a piece of cake: 1-3 in his championship debut against New York in Gaelic Park announced an intimidating presence on the edge of the square for Mayo.

Wonderful debut season
It was a different role to his minor days, when he ran the show from centre half forward but he enjoyed a wonderful debut season, ending with 1-1 in an All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Meath.

During that summer he participated in an amusing Leaving Certificate diary for the education pages of this newspaper, during which he riffed about the joys of answering questions on Elizabeth Bishop and the relentless demands of trying to concentrate on both football and schoolbooks. It was clear – as he joking alluded to more than once – the game was at the heart of it.

By November, he was in Melbourne for AFL trials with Richmond and the Western Bulldogs and for a few weeks, Mayo football people feared he was going to go the same way as Pearse Hanley.

The Australian experiment ended with his return but by the following spring, the regulars at MacHale Park for Mayo’s spring programme couldn’t but be alarmed by the marked decline in O’Shea’s form.

He had evidently slumped and, perhaps having gotten it into his head the full-forward line was not for him, cut an aimless and frustrated figure.

O’Mahony gave him every chance, opting again and again not to substitute him in the hope he would play himself out of his slump. Mayo fans had, for the first time, reasons to be fretful or pessimistic about O’Shea’s future ... reasons to wonder if all that potential might just fizzle out.

But the entire squad was flat that year, crashing out of the Connacht championship against Sligo and then disappearing from the championship when they came up against Longford. At that point, Mayo's insatiable quest for an All-Ireland title seemed more doomed than ever.

On the bench
By the following summer, O'Shea was on the bench for Mayo's first championship match under James Horan, an away trip to Ruislip. The origins of London's gallant season may be traced to the afternoon when they gave Mayo the most terrific scare: two points down with four minutes left and facing an unprecedented humiliation.

O’Shea was sent in at midfield after 43 minutes: Mayo survived after extra-time. In the weeks before hand, he was chosen at midfield for challenge games against Antrim and Offaly, with Horan clearly thinking of reshaping him as a midfielder. It was during that frantic battle in Ruislip the new phase began.

“I’m not really comfortable with my back to goal,” he said around that time. “I think after my U21 performance against Roscommon at midfield I propelled myself into contention for that area on the senior team. I like playing around the middle of the field. James has been playing me at midfield and at centre forward recently and it has been going okay.”

By the business end of the summer, he and his brother Séamus had taken a wrecking ball to the vaunted midfield of All-Ireland champions Cork as Mayo announced they were contenders again.

Kerry had too much craft and experience for the Connacht champions in the semi-final of that year.

But last summer, O Shea was again a hugely influential figure during Mayo’s run to the All-Ireland final despite the fact his season was hindered by a lower back injury which debilitated his movement and required a long lay-off.

Before last year's final against Donegal, he shrugged off questions about the Mayo's long and sometimes tortuous wait for the Sam Maguire.

The credit
"If we win it the next day, people will say, "Ah they were bound to win it eventually. You're not going to get the credit anyhow so it doesn't make any difference to us."

And if it was true the focus after Mayo’s semi-final win was more on the insipid 50 minutes by defending champions Dublin than on Mayo’s irrepressible form, it was clear they had reached the All-Ireland final on merit. And apart from lightning concession of two goals during a nervous opening period, there was nothing between the teams.

Now, Aidan O’Shea finds himself back at the definitive point of what is his fifth championship season. It is doubtful any Mayo team has looked as lean and focused as Mayo did in their evisceration of Galway in Salthill. What was noticeable during that 4-16 to 0-11 demonstration of intent was how efficient and low key O’Shea was in his approach.

It was only in the final quarter of the game he gave himself the luxury of a gallop forward, casting two maroon shirts aside as he did so.

But all afternoon, taking care of possession at midfield and getting Mayo’s rampaging half-backs on the move had been his primary responsibility. The carefree minor who lorded it on the ball and even kicked frees on occasion was nowhere to be seen.

There is no question the Galway team which Mayo met on that afternoon was a very different unit to the Galway side which exited after an exquisite performance against Cork last week. And there is no disguising the fact that behind the breezy confidence, O’ Shea is acutely conscious of the depthless craving for an All-Ireland within the county.

In one of his Leaving Certificate diaries, O’Shea talked about those nerve-wrecking hours when there was nothing to do but wait.

"In my final hours I've chosen to just lie back in my messy bedroom on my messy bed in the shadows of a picture of the All-Ireland final team of 1923."

1920s team
Is there any other county footballer in Ireland with a photograph of a 1920s team on his wall? The reference was pure Mayo – even if O'Shea's family heritage is Kerry. Horan and his backroom staff have done a marvellous job of distancing themselves from the legacy of previous teams and of concentrating on business.

But it was an acknowledgement from O’Shea of the fact that the Mayo tradition is inescapable.

Five years on, he is in the heart of it, locked into the certainty that this year, above all years, must be the year.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times