When he finished his speech on the steps of the Hogan Stand, Aidan O'Shea put down the microphone and grabbed the Nestor Cup to bring it to his teammates waiting on the pitch below. He didn't get far. A nice woman in a luminous Croke Park steward's vest tapped him on the shoulder and informed him that the cup wasn't his to pass around. Covid regs, don't you know.
And so there followed a faintly comic scene in which she carried the cup down ahead of him, holding it out in her two hands like an altar server at a benediction. The Mayo captain trooped along behind her, faithfully keeping to the rules but also seeming half-embarrassed by it all. O'Shea has been a big man since his early teens – it's probably 20 years since anyone carried anything for him, never mind a woman half his size.
There isn't a match steward in the world who's so much of a jobsworth that she won't allow a one-year-old sit in a cup her daddy has just won
Once they got down to the pitch, he had one final captain’s duty to perform. The other players came over to get a hold of the cup but he had to get in and cut them off at the pass, forming them into a semi-circle for the photos. The steward was very clear – nobody was to touch the cup only her and O’Shea. She would place it down on the ground for the photo and that was that.
Child in the cup
All of which was fine and dandy until Lee Keegan came strolling into shot with his one-year-old daughter and plonked her straight into the cup. You can have all the covid regulations you like but there isn’t a match steward in the world who’s so much of a jobsworth that she won’t allow a one-year-old sit in a cup her daddy has just won.
She let Kevin McLoughlin do the same with his little one before pulling the plug immediately. Connacht secretary John Prenty had the cup away and gone out of the stadium before the Mayo players had even left the pitch. O'Shea could finally stand down, his work for the day done.
Mattie Ruane took the man of the match award here and Ryan O'Donoghue was the sparkiest of the Mayo forwards. It was a good day too for Oisín Mullen, Conor Loftus and, particularly, McLoughlin who came on at half-time. But each of them left Croke Park owing at least a portion of their good day out to O'Shea.
"He's phenomenal," said James Horan afterwards. "You saw his tackling out there. He targets key turnovers and turnovers are huge. He got a great one off Shane (Walsh) that created a goal chance for us. He's very, very good at that and he drifts around the place. Very clever player.
“He did well in the first half. A couple of metres this way and there could have been a few goal chances from some of his passes. I think him going inside and spending some time inside at the start of the second half definitely stretched Galway a bit more and gave us a bit more room to use our pace. He has huge leadership ability.”
Not for the first time, the thought occurred here that nobody in Gaelic football takes more unwarranted shit than O’Shea. A quick – and yes, obviously, ill-advised – surf through social media after the game revealed that the verdict of people who weren’t in Croke Park was markedly different to those of us who were.
Far from the pivotal presence in the game it appeared to anyone in the stands, he was dismissed online as overrated, a diver, a row-starter, as well as various and plentiful other unmentionables. Even allowing for the general putrid swampiness of the internet, it was jarring to see him so blackguarded given how good he had been.
O'Shea was the one Mayo player who had nothing to reproach himself for at half-time. He pulled off one glorious steal from Walsh to set up a chance that Tommy Conroy over-carried. He speared two Diarmuid Connolly-style passes into his full-forward line, only for Conroy to make a hash of his and for Stephen Coen to spray his mark wide. He caught one ball on the edge of the square but clashed heads with Seán Mulkerrin and lost possession (this was the supposed dive).
Heart of everything
After the break, he was at the heart of everything that turned the game Mayo’s way. It was his gather and pass that set up Ruane for the foul that drew the penalty. A couple of minutes later, he repeated the dose to send Diarmuid O’Connor in the clear, only for O’Connor to take a mad thrash at the ball for no apparent reason. He dropped back to pull off another fantastic steal in midfield to set up the move that ended with O’Donoghue pushing Mayo two clear.
He has gone through the wonderkid stage, he has endured the unlimited heartbreak days, he has kept trucking through it all and now he's back in another All-Ireland semi-final
It was, in so many ways, a typical O’Shea performance. He did what he is good at – winning ball, distributing it, making tackles, sucking men in to make space for his teammates. He did not do what he is not good at – no shots at the posts, no attempts to solo past Galway defenders. You can castigate him for not having developed into somebody who does those things or you can appreciate the fact that he has put in a decade at the top of the game despite those limitations.
He turned 31 last month. He has gone through the wonderkid stage, he has endured the unlimited heartbreak days, he has kept trucking through it all and now he's back in another All-Ireland semi-final. One by one, his old comrades have fallen away. Of the team that started his first All-Ireland semi-final in 2011, only he and Rob Hennelly started yesterday. McLoughlin and Keegan were around back then, Cillian O'Connor too.
But O’Shea has been a constant. Always there, always doing his own lifting and lugging, and that of plenty of those around him too. It has brought him and his team this far. It might yet bring them further. Maybe, finally, all the way.
Stupid talk, of course; Kerry look awesome, Dublin have always had their number. But Mayo have never cared about any of that. And if O'Shea is back up those steps next month, neither will he care who carries the cup down ahead of him.