Cillian O’Connor keeps his eye firmly on the prize

Mayo’s managerial purge was painful but never personal for the star forward

 

“Well, you can’t be certain. You can’t be certain about . . . nearly everything,” reasons Cillian O’Connor when asked how he can’t be sure that Mayo wouldn’t have won this year’s All-Ireland had the players just stayed with the same management.

It is late on a bright Wednesday afternoon in the Spa Hotel in Lucan. Outside, traffic on the N4 freeway is thickening and the other Mayo players living in Dublin have departed on the bus that will transport them to the Elysian Fields – or at least to a Tuesday night session in MacHale Park. O’Connor won’t miss the return journey: the motorway is a lonesome road in January at midnight – but he is itching to get back to football.

He hasn’t kicked a ball since his operation on November 2nd to rectify a patella tendon problem and he can’t be sure when we will see him on a match programme again. Recuperation was estimated at somewhere between two and five months. “It is pretty vague. I am hoping it will be somewhere in the middle.” Since he was laid up, Mayo football went through a very public mid-winter revolution that led to an emotional resignation by Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly after the players’ vote of no confidence in their management ticket.

You only have to listen to the sombre note in O’Connor’s voice to appreciate that there was nothing frivolous or gung-ho about the collective decision. And that it was never an attempt by the players to absolve themselves of responsibility.

“There is no guarantee. It has been argued that it is completely in our hands and only for us, only for our errors, we would have been in the All-Ireland final and all of that. That could well be the case. Our actions are by no means us wiping our hands of our shortcomings. I know some people paint it like that but we don’t want it to be like that. We are responsible for a lot of what happens on the field but I suppose the question we wanted to answer, overriding everything, was: what gives us the best chance of winning the All-Ireland next year? That is what I kept reminding myself of in the midst of everything.

“Given the situation we were in, the answer to that was a change of management. There are probably a million different ways of looking at what was going on. But to clear up the clutter: that was the simplest way of looking at it.”

It was, he concedes, a heavy time. In 2014, Mayo had explored new galaxies of drama and heartbreak in their All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry in Limerick in a stunning occasion that proved to be James Horan’s encore as manager. Kerry went on to become champions. Last summer, Mayo took Dublin to a replay and seemed to have the city team looking wobbly and disorientated after O’Connor’s 44th minute goal. But the Dubs rallied and went on to win the All-Ireland. It was as if beating Mayo propelled both teams to glory. Mayo are clearly on the threshold without quite getting there. Yet. It is safe to say they are the team that most counties want to see win the All-Ireland. The assertion of player power hasn’t diminished their popularity but it means the wattage of interest will be even brighter than usual.

Just a village

The GAA eco-system is complex. On the surface, the Mayo football team is a motivated, disciplined high-profile sports team that has played in front of the biggest live attendances in the world. Break it down though and they are teachers – like O’Connor – or students or in business. And they are local. Like all counties, Mayo is just a village. They know people who know people. What happened was uncomfortable for everyone.

“It was. At home, it was difficult. You build up trust and a relationship. You build up a rapport with the management. There was a tightness within the squad and management, a camaraderie. And when that has to be broken apart – certainly in the manner it was – it is terrible.

“I know I have massive respect for Pat and Noel because they are two great Mayo soldiers and people we would have looked up to when they were playing in the 1990s. That doesn’t change. I would expect the two lads would have been extremely disappointed and hurt by what happened but I would hope that there is still a respect from managers to players after what happened. It was never personal. It is not what we wanted to happen at the start of the year and it is not a situation I want to go through again. Nobody enjoyed it. There is no set way of going about something like that so it was into the unknown for a few weeks. When we were in it we just wanted to get a resolution.”

That the situation was successfully managed by all parties – and the dignified statement by Holmes and O’Connor helped to facilitate it – was indicative of the way Mayo GAA conducts business now. O’Connor has been emblematic of the quiet confidence and determination that has made Mayo the most stubborn and consistent team of the past five years.

Spectacular

His emergence was as a marquee forward has been spectacular: he had to erase the goals he set himself in 2011 – to maybe get a few minutes in the national league – after he finished as Mayo’s top-scorer and with the Young Footballer of the Year All Star award – which he retained in 2012. He seemed to arrive on the scene as a fully formed leader with a terrific temperament. Since his debut – he was introduced as a substitute in Ruislip when Mayo were losing to London – he has played and lost in two All-Ireland finals and in those riveting semi-final replays.

He has been such a crucial figure for the green and red that is hard to reconcile the fact that he is only 23. Despite these disappointments, there has been virtually no public display of anguish by the squad. They haven’t permitted the sky to collapse around them just because they haven’t achieved a magical September. O’Connor is willing to listen to the theory that the mystique surrounding the 1950/51 team somehow adds a burden of pressure on the contemporary squad. It’s just that he doesn’t believe it.

“We have had plenty of disappointments in the past few years, yeah. But we had plenty of brilliant days too. We have had some fantastic wins and some unbelievable individual performances. So from a players’ point of view, the disappointments are bitterly hard to take. But we love playing football. We don’t wallow in self-pity or self-doubt. We haven’t been good enough to beat some of the teams in finals. We have lost semi-finals, lost in replays. I personally don’t see it as a burden or a chore. I am getting to represent my county. The support from the Mayo public has been off the charts. We are in a privileged position and that completely outweighs the disappointments.”

The rights and wrongs about Mayo’s managerial ructions sparked off intense national debate through the quiet off-season. The anti-player argument centred around the period in the All-Ireland semi-final replay when Mayo had built a four-point lead after O’Connor’s goal to leave them 1-11 to 0-10 after the 44th minute. Surely that was down to the players and not the managers?

“It is hard to time your good patch. Andy made a brilliant move to set up the goal: if you could script these things, that would have happened later in the game. Our instinct is to lock it down for a second because the game is so frantic. Maybe we did that slightly, which is a great idea in the 64th minute but not the 44th. And I am thinking of myself: I tracked one or two runners and found myself trying to retain possession inside my own half rather than being a focal point for outlets and 30-yard kick passes which would have stretched them a bit more. There is no reason we couldn’t have gone on later in the game but we just didn’t do it and Dublin are a very good team.”

It was a bleak conclusion to a championship in which Mayo had seemed to be roaring at the right time, eviscerating Sligo in the Connacht final and then Aidan’O’Shea operating at full-forward and engineering the deconstruction of Donegal in the quarter-final. Talk turns to Dublin’s league visit to Castlebar on an Artic night last March, when the Dubs left the Mayo men chasing shadows on their way to a 2-18 to 0-10 win.

Strangely, Dublin visit Mayo again this year, rather than playing host. “Yeah, dunno why, maybe they fancy giving us another trimming down there,” O’Connor laughs. He doesn’t completely discount the idea that a league result of that magnitude can loiter in the minds of players on both sides.

“We were trying to introduce some new stuff that we hadn’t done before that was a bit different for us. We were probably a little bit loose and committed a few fellas forward and then one skill-error, one poor execution of a pass and within 15 seconds it led to goals. Six points from silly mistakes. We were trying to do the right thing. And the Dublin backs were good, Tomas Brady was very good around midfield. It would be painful to watch because we were trying new stuff and we hadn’t got the grasp of it at that time. But we improved from there over the league.”

It will be more painful watching his team-mates warm-up when the All-Ireland champions appear in Castlebar in a fortnight. Lights, a cold night, a buoyant crowd in Castlebar: that was all he aspired to growing up and watching Alan Dillon, his role model and club-mate turning in one luminous season after another. His decision to have an operation was one of last resort. O’Connor’s knee was causing trouble as early as last January and the pain would flare and recede according to the intensity of his playing regime.

Sharp pain

He had to curtail his training and was unable to squat even his own body weight without experiencing a sharp pain. Physiotherapy and rehabilitation work meant that the pain was at a minimum on match days but even so, there were championship Sundays when he had to resort to painkillers just to get through. He kicked a 50 warming up in the quarter-final against Donegal and disguised the minute or two when he was stilled with the pain. It passed and he coped but he was aware that it was a problem that had to be dealt with once the season ended.

On Sunday, he will be training in Castlebar with Mayo’s other injured players while the team plays in Cork. He will be back when he knows that he is right. “I’m hoping to play some part in the national league,” he says. “But if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.”

And that might just be the new hymn in Mayo. Good and bad days happen but nothing ends. Fail better and all that. Here they come again, eye on the prize and they won’t leave this go easy. You can be certain about that.

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