Cillian O’Connor is not about to talk down the prospect of winning a national title at Croke Park while vanquishing Galway at the same time. Sure that’s about as fine an afternoon out as Mayo folk could hope for in early April.
So, for all the talk that the prestige of the Allianz League football final has been diminished due to the commencement of the championship the following weekend, O’Connor doesn’t see either Mayo or Galway engaging in a phoney war this Sunday.
“There is loads of chat around that and whether teams want to win or lose or whatever,” agrees O’Connor. “But I think any time you take to the field you have to be trying to win, because you are always working towards something bigger.
“You are always trying to get your place on the team, so if you are given the jersey you can’t go out with a half-baked attitude, you have to go full-on for every ball, so I think it goes out the window once the game starts.
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“As a player you kind of trust that the S&C [strength and conditioning] coaches and the management have a plan and have us training a certain way. They can look at the calendar and plan different bits and pieces, but as players you have to go headfirst into it. This is the only game we are thinking about now.”
Mayo will face Roscommon in a Connacht SFC quarter-final at MacHale Park on Sunday week, April 9th, and that fixture has fed a narrative that Kevin McStay’s men will try to strike a balance.
If so, then O’Connor might well be caught in that equation, because he is doubtful for the Allianz League final as he recovers from a lower hamstring/knee injury. The Mayo management, with an eye towards Roscommon, could well opt for caution with the county’s all-time top scorer.
But O’Connor missed the 2019 league final through injury, so the Ballintubber clubman would like to feature against Galway.
“I’ll definitely be putting my hand up,” O’Connor confirms. “That said, it’s the physio who will ultimately make the call, if he deems that it’s high risk of hurting myself then he’ll just pull it. I’ll try my best, but I won’t get a word in.”
There are some who at the outset of the season felt Mayo wouldn’t have a decisive say in this year’s championship, but after a very encouraging league campaign any suggestions of a team on the slide seem already to be outdated.
If anything, Mayo have looked reenergised. Aidan O’Shea has been reinvigorated, several new players have made their mark while Mayo’s spread of scorers has alleviated the pressure on the likes of O’Connor to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
All of this progress despite losing two of their most important players – Lee Keegan to retirement and Oisín Mullin to AFL.
“You’re always going to miss good fellas that step away,” says O’Connor. “They are two great fellas as well and they are missed around the dressingroom.
“But I think every team that takes to the field is always in transition. There’s always a new player or a new tactic or a new position. In one sense you’re always moving on and trying to get better.
“Thankfully we didn’t feel the losses of the two lads immediately when we were able to get the couple of wins early on the board in the league. Then the confidence came from there.
“But if the boys want to come back anytime, that’s not to say we wouldn’t welcome them with open arms!”
O’Connor, while pleased with Mayo’s form so far this season, is keen to stress that everything remains to be played for in 2023. A string of defeats in the weeks ahead and the picture might look very different for Mayo than it does on the eve of Sunday’s league final.
“I would have always thought with the group we have and the younger players coming in that if we had a good off season, a good competitive club championship, no major injuries and a good preseason with Kevin and the lads, that we would be competitive again come January and February,” he says.
“But, to be honest, it still remains to be seen really, we have played a couple of games but it’s still only getting to the serious stuff now, in a sense.
“I think, as a team, we still have lots to prove and we want to keep getting better because there were plenty of tight league games, a couple of draws that could have gone either way.”
Mayo had sought for the league final to be moved forward 24 hours to Saturday April 1st, in an effort to have one extra day to prepare for their Connacht SFC clash with Roscommon.
Galway could have aided their cause by calling for the same, but the Tribesmen didn’t do so and were happy for the fixture to remain on Sunday.
“It probably would have had a few hours of difference alright (if it was on Saturday), but for me it doesn’t make much odds,” says O’Connor.
Still, you’d be an April Fool not to think others in the Mayo dressingroom might see things differently.
*Sunday’s Allianz League Division One final at Croke Park between Mayo and Galway throws in at 4pm.