Darragh Ó Sé: Mayo must make the most of Aidan O’Shea
Joe Brolly was wrong about Donegal, but he could goad the Dalai Lama into an argument
Aidan O’Shea gets away from Donegal’s Neil McGee and Mark McHugh during Saturday’s quarter-final: the Mayo player passed a big test in Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
I was briefly talking to Joe Brolly after the Mayo-Donegal game on Saturday. Now, I have a lot of time for Joe but he talks some rubbish at times. After watching Aidan O’Shea, he said it was the first time anyone had targeted Donegal in the air since Colm O’Neill scored 1-5 in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, as though everybody had missed a trick somewhere along the way.
I mean, where do you start with that? Even Joe can’t know whether he’s coming or going sometimes. One minute, the McGees are these magnificent defenders who can’t be beaten; next they’re on the scrapheap after one game.
One minute, the Donegal system is impossible to break down; next it was staring us all in the face the whole time. And as for nobody targeting them? I must have imagined Kerry’s first goal in last year’s All-Ireland final so.
The thing with Joe is that he is addicted to arguing. And when you argue so much with so many people, you can’t be expected to stick to one point of view the whole time. There is no doubt that if you went back over just the last five years of things he has said, you’d find him contradicting himself countless times. The best thing about him is that he doesn’t take it seriously.
He just likes getting a rise out of people. I’d say if he met the Dalai Lama, he’d goad him into an argument. Peace, love and tolerance only goes so far, after all. Half an hour in a room with our Joe and I’d say the bould Dalai would have him in a headlock, lamping away for all he was worth. Joe would come out of it with his nose broken but laughing away to himself.
The McGees got a chasing from Aidan O’Shea on Saturday but that doesn’t mean they’re a busted flush. Let’s be honest: not many defences would have handled him. I’ve always admired them because they are pure defenders. I’d have had a soft spot for them anyway because they’re Gaeltacht men but beyond that, they’re honest players who play a brave, manly game and don’t go crying about it when they’re beaten nor gloating about it when they win.
The reality is O’Shea is a beast at the minute and he’s looking to clear everything in his path. With the level of dominance Mayo had around the centre of the pitch, the Donegal defence could have taken a far worse hosing than it did. Neil McGee actually was on top early on and got out to the first couple of balls that came in. But it’s like that old saying: O’Shea only had to be lucky once, Donegal had to be lucky all the time.
A few things impressed me about O’Shea against Donegal. If people are looking at what has changed with him this year, the most obvious thing is his positioning. But I wouldn’t say it is as important as it’s being made out to be. It’s very possible that he could have been played a full forward for each of the last four years in Croke Park and not made the impact he’s making this time around.
To me, his change in attitude has been far more crucial. With a player like him who was physically big from a young age, you would always keep an eye on him to see how he develops.
Those players will stand out among their own age group, so it’s always interesting to see what they’re like when they’re playing against men.
It often struck me that as a player, O’Shea could be a bit too quick to get discouraged. He was a boy with plenty of ability and no end of strength but if you won the first few balls against him, he’d start to get down on himself and lose energy and spark.
That can happen to a young player. I was sometimes a bit like that myself in the early days. A few kick-outs would go against me and I’d lose concentration because I’d be worrying about how all this was looking from the sideline. Or I’d be thinking that maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. One way or the other, my mind would drift from what I was supposed to be doing.
With O’Shea, I’ve looked at him sometimes and seen that confidence ebb away long before the game has been decided. Even just go back to two years ago in the All-Ireland final against Dublin. He came into that game on the back of a majestic performance against Donegal in the quarter-final. He cleaned them out at midfield and seemed to grow bigger and more dominant with every kick-out that came his way. He was super in the semi-final against Tyrone too. He was seen as Mayo’s key man going into the final.
So what did Dublin do? They kept the ball away from him. They ran him from one sideline to the other while Stephen Cluxton kicked the ball all over Croke Park– just not to the parts where he was. It wasn’t that they targeted him, it was more that they targeted his confidence. It was a masterclass in killing a player’s spark and draining the life out of him.
When Neil McGee won the first couple of balls against him on Saturday, I moved forward in my seat waiting for the next one to come in between them. Right so, Aidan, what have you got here? It’s all very well mowing down some poor unfortunate Sligo full-back but this is big school now. Let’s see you stand up.
Composure is what separates good players from great players. Any county footballer can solo the ball at full pelt. But can they see everything while they do it? That’s the litmus test. O’Shea got out in front of Neil McGee to catch that ball but he still had to get turned, get past Mark McHugh and pick his spot in the corner of the net past Paul Durcan.
If you panic doing that, you’ll miss. If you’re not confident, you won’t catch the ball properly. If you’re not thinking clearly, you’ll hit it at the first thing you see, which will be the goalkeeper. To get set, take aim and find the corner of the net takes real composure. With that in his game, O’Shea is a massive weapon for Mayo.
But they need to help him. The ball in needs to improve. People are wondering how Jim Gavin is going to prepare for him but I think it’s pretty straightforward what Dublin will do. It would be a big change of direction for them to play a sweeper, so I expect them to go man to man with Rory O’Carroll given the job. But their big emphasis will be on pressuring the ball out of the field and making sure Mayo don’t have time to put it on a plate for O’Shea.
What people don’t get sometimes is that catching the ball as a midfielder and catching it as a full forward are two completely different skills. Think about the catching O’Shea had to do around midfield for the past few years. The trajectory of the ball from the kick-out is nothing like it is in on the edge of the square.
Whereas the ball kicked in from the wings or midfield to a full forward comes in all shapes and sizes. Even a perfect ball comes in at a different velocity and trajectory. It comes in flat and driven, the sort of ball that if nobody touches it will keep running on for another 30 yards. But how often will he get that? Once a game? Twice?
It’s far more likely that the ball coming in will be kicked under pressure. It won’t always be kicked off the laces so it will be spinning and swerving. There will be no consistency and the full forward will have to adapt and make the best of each one. And he’ll be up against a full back that doesn’t give a damn where the ball goes, only that it goes away from his patch. Mayo’s job between now and the semi-final will be coming up with scenarios to buy time to play better ball into him.
For O’Shea to be thriving under patchy quality of ball says an awful lot for the way he has developed. He didn’t have the patience or confidence to do that as a younger player. But he passed a big test in Croke Park last weekend and left the McGees trailing in his wake. When a guy is in this sort of form, the Donegal lads are entitled to feel no disgrace in that.