On the morning after Mayo fed Donegal through the wood-chipper in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final, Aidan O'Shea was king of the world. Well, he was king of the social media world, which amounts to more or less the same thing when you're 23. The Mayo midfielder's display the previous day had Brian O'Driscoll tweeting that he needed to get himself an Aidan O'Shea fringe.
O’Shea himself was thanking one Dublin night spot for looking after himself and his friends on the Sunday night and snarkily thanking another for turning him away. By mid-afternoon, the manager of the one that turned him away feeding the beast by apologising for the faux-pas. More tweets, more hits, all a good harmless bit of laugh-along to pass an August Monday.
Just over a month later, Dublin were getting ready to face Mayo in the All-Ireland final. O’Shea had had a reasonable day against Tyrone in the semi-final but the Donegal game was still his signature tune and he was going into the final as the short-priced favourite to become Footballer of the Year. Inside the Dublin camp, lips were being licked and blades were being sharpened.
In public, they sloughed O'Shea with butter, with Denis Bastick saying he was in line for Footballer of the Year at a press event three weeks out from the final. Behind closed doors, however, their view of O'Shea was much less kind.
One member of the backroom staff later admitted that they had him lined up from a good distance out. They felt he was a little too readily drawn to the limelight, as evidenced by his tweet about not getting into a nightclub after a match. They asked the question among themselves – would a Dublin player go looking for publicity like that?
More pertinent onto the day, they felt he was putting up several pounds overweight, especially for a midfielder. Donegal had made him look a world-beater by dropping kick-outs onto his head all afternoon. Dublin decided to have Cian O'Sullivan run him all over Croke Park and for Stephen Cluxton to kick to the wings so that O'Shea was constantly having to chase after balls he was never going to get. Some day, treat yourself by typing Cluxton Masterclass into Youtube to see the execution.
Long story short, if you think Dublin are considering pitching up tomorrow without a bespoke plan for Aidan O'Shea, you haven't been watching them since Jim Gavin took over. For sure, it won't be a Tyrone/Monaghan/Donegal job – Gavin takes a fair amount of flak for some of his quasi-management-speak but when he says that Dublin play along traditional lines with an attacking philosophy, there's generally no great cod-psychology at play.
But just because they won’t line up with a blanket defence doesn’t mean they’re going to leave Rory O’Carroll out there on his own, gamely trying to stop a dumptruck with a lollipop pole. Gavin believes in attacking football, yes. But the memories of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal are raw still and it would be a dereliction of duty to be caught out by such a foreseeable threat a second time.
To set about stopping O’Shea, you have to first define what it is he brings. John O’Mahony was the first Mayo manager to play him at the edge of the square. As soon as he came in for his second stint in charge of the county, he went to O’Shea and his parents and told them even though he was still only just 18, he was ready to play senior intercounty.
“He was still at school and there was a lot of talk of him signing up with an Australian club,” says O’Mahony. “I wanted him and them to know that he was a big part of Mayo’s future. He was doing his Leaving so I wasn’t going to put any pressure on him to come in and give all the commitment that everyone else was but there was a spot for him on the panel and I wanted to make sure he knew that. By the end of that league, he was our first-choice full-forward.”
O'Shea was a revelation that spring of 2009. He took Conor Gormley for 1-1 against Tyrone, Finian Hanley for the same against Galway. Their championship opener was against New York in the Bronx in early May and the muinteoir in O'Mahony wasn't mad about bringing O'Shea across the Atlantic a month short of his Leaving Cert.
O’Shea wouldn’t be denied though and went on to lay waste to the New York full-back line, scoring 1-2 on his championship debut. Six weeks later, he knocked in a goal and set up another against Roscommon just 24 hours after putting the pen down on his last exam. It has taken until now, all of six years later, for that early ghost of a promise at full-forward to be made flesh.
“I tried doing it with Liam McHale the first time I was Mayo manager,” says O’Mahony. “But it didn’t work because Liam’s basketball background meant he was more comfortable facing the goal. Aidan is comfortable with his back to goal, he likes taking on men, getting turned and scoring. And he’s great at bringing other players into it as well.
“To do that, you need strength, awareness and agility and he has all three. On top of that, he is a very good finisher. The goal against Donegal showed that. There was only one spot where he could place the ball to beat the goalkeeper and he did it.”
So, short of breaking out the elephant tranquilliser gun, how do you stop him? Donegal didn’t just have Neil McGee back alongside him, Mark McHugh was on patrol as well. O’Shea barrelled through them both. The lesson would appear to be, if you’re going to double up on him, make the second line of defence somebody with a bit more heft to him than Mark McHugh.
“Obviously,” says O’Mahony, “in the modern game, you double-mark him. I think Dublin will probably send someone like Cian O’Sullivan to help Rory O’Carroll out at certain times. That’s the way it needs to be done in the modern game. I would assume that’s the way they will go. Obviously you want to cut off the supply too but that’s a little less predictable.”
Dublin aren't as squeamish about this kind of tactic as it might appear. In the closing stages of the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, Paul Flynn was dragooned into buddying up with O'Carroll to curb the aerial threat of Kieran Donaghy. Though Donaghy played the last 20 minutes of that game, his effect on it was minimal enough.
Kerry launched two particular deliveries in his direction as the clock ran dead and the Dublin approach on both occasions was for O’Carroll to break it and for Flynn to pick up the pieces. They didn’t double-mark Donaghy, per se. But they made it so that he was never allowed to catch the ball and used Flynn – so often a formidable snaffler of breaks out around the middle – to play roadsweeper.
It will be interesting to watch whether they go the same route tomorrow. Certainly, it looks unlikely that they would use the same personnel. Every in-game decision has a context. Donaghy started that 2013 game on the bench and though Flynn’s deputation as an auxiliary full-back was clearly pre-ordained, there’s a big difference between using him in that role for the closing 20 minutes and doing it from the start.
A far more likely scenario is that for the first half at least, Dublin will play Mayo straight up. Their preferred method when dealing with an opposition threat under Gavin has simply been to keep piling on the scores at the other end.
However well Mayo do and whatever damage O’Shea wreaks, can anyone see them outstripping the 3-5 Kerry put up against Dublin in that majestic first half two years ago? All it bought Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side was a two-point lead at half-time. O’Shea is having the season of his life but it’s inconceivable that he’ll put Mayo out of sight by the break.
At any rate, the mood music coming from Dublin is that they like O'Carroll's chances here. In the roll-call of names that are vital to the Dublin cause, their full-back doesn't generally make it into the top five. And yet he is one of only two players in the country (Michael Darragh Macauley is the other) to have been nominated for an All Star for the past five seasons.
“Marking is as much a mental challenge as anything else,” O’Carroll told
The Irish Times
a few summers back. “It’s about concentration all the way through the game. You can’t lose track of the game or your surroundings. It’s concentrating for the full 70 minutes. I’m sure if people were looking closely at some of my games, they’d see I find 70 minutes a long time to concentrate for.”
That last line was thrown in for self-deprecation purposes. O’Carroll is a relaxed kind of guy who, although lacking the sort of bulk O’Shea peddles – and doesn’t everyone? – is plenty comfortable in a physical battle. Expect him to play O’Shea from the front, to get a hand in here and there and to foul when he has to. There will be help available but O’Carroll will want to take charge of the situation himself.
With Cillian O'Connor lurking on the premises as still by a distance Mayo's best forward, Dublin have more to worry about than Aidan O'Shea. The threat posed by them both should curb some of the more devil-may-care urges of Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper. Jason Doherty is having his best year in a Mayo jersey, although you'd struggle to notice it, such has been the influence of O'Shea.
So it goes. It is a primal thing and it’s not overly sophisticated. For all the tactical cut and thrust of modern Gaelic football, deep within everyone is the urge to see a big full-forward carry the fight to a well-matched full-back. At a certain point tomorrow, a high ball will arrow in upon the Dublin square and as it drops, every person watching will lean forward to see what happens.