Galway in Croke Park will be first real test of Ryan O’Donoghue’s credentials

Filling the gap left by Cillian O’Connor’s injury is crucial to Mayo’s hopes this summer

On Sunday, for the first time in 12 years, Mayo will play a championship match in Croke Park without Cillian O'Connor in the line-up.

It hasn't happened since their All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Meath in August 2009, which O'Connor missed on the entirely reasonable basis that he was 17 years-old and still a month short of heading into his Leaving Cert year in St Gerald's, Castlebar.

Since that day, Mayo have played 27 championship matches in Croke Park. O'Connor has started every one of them and he has kicked the frees in every one of them. He hasn't always finished the games, it's true. he did his shoulder early in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, leaving Alan Freeman and Kevin McLoughlin to fill in from placed balls.

There was also a black card in the 2017 semi-final replay against Kerry, after which Jason Doherty had to see out the last 20 minutes in his stead.


But basically, for all but mere minutes of the past decade, Mayo have never had to expend a single cell of brain power on what they were going to do if they got a free in Croke Park. It was all very simple - they were going to leave the ball for O'Connor to trot out to and they were going to get in position to defend the kick-out. That peace of mind is unavailable to James Horan in his absence.

The job falls now to Ryan O'Donoghue, the 23-year-old former schoolboy soccer international from Belmullet. Still in just his second season in the team, O'Donoghue went to Horan after O'Connor got injured against Clare and touted for the role of taking over the frees. As a one-time Connacht champion boxer, the worth of being the first to the middle of the ring wasn't lost on him.

O'Donoghue wasn't the obvious candidate. Conor Loftus has been around longer and has filled in on occasion in the past. There was also a classic Mayo rumour that went around the week of the Sligo match to the effect that Darren McHale had been seen practicing frees on his own down at the Knockmore pitch. But O'Donoghue got the gig.

"I think it is his general play that has got him the position," says Billy Joe Padden, late of Belmullet and Mayo and once - literally just once - a freetaker in a Connacht final against Galway, away back in 2005. (The free went over, by the way, his only recorded score from a placed ball for Mayo).

“What he has done in his time with Mayo so far has made him a nailed-on starter. And he would be, even if Cillian was able to play. Whereas some of the other candidates for the role, you can’t really say that about. Conor Loftus can be in and out, he didn’t play a lot of the league.


“But the other thing I would say about him is that his personality completely fits with what you need from a free-taker. Ryan backs himself, no matter what happens. He deals very well with mistakes and setbacks on the field, more so than some other young players would. He has a great ability to forget. James Horan probably sees a bit of that and knows that you need that as a free-taker.”

O’Connor is so much more than a freetaker, of course. But it’s only because we take his excellence from the placed ball for granted that it’s the obvious place to begin when assessing what Mayo will miss in his absence. In the decade since he arrived fully-formed straight out of minor, O’Connor has scored 0-242 from frees and 0-13 from 45s in championship football. That makes him responsible for 82 per cent of their scores from frees and 45s since the start of 2011.

In Croke Park, O’Connor has been money in the bank for them. Across those 27 games, he has kicked 0-113 from frees and 0-5 from 45s. You have to go back to that Kerry replay in 2017 to find the last Mayo player who scored a free or a 45 in Croke Park. Doherty kicked them both that day. But ever since, nobody else has had to give it a second thought.

Until now. Galway in Croke Park will be the first real test of O'Donoghue's credentials. He couldn't have asked for a gentler ease-in, not just in the shape of the opposition in both Connacht Championship games so far but also in the level of question on the exam papers.

Against Sligo and Leitrim, Mayo were awarded eight kickable frees and a 45. Loftus took the 45 against Leitrim and struck the post with it. O'Donoghue has taken all eight frees and has nailed seven of them. But of those seven, six were little more than tap-over affairs from the 20-metre line. Only his fourth free against Sligo, kicked from the right with his right foot 35 metres out, was anything more than a gimme.

His only miss so far came late on against Leitrim, around 43 metres out on an angle from the right-hand side. He initially tried to take a quick one out of his hands and keep the play moving but the referee whistled him back to allow treatment for an injured Leitrim player.

After a long wait, O’Donoghue kicked the free from the ground but the extent to which he was out of his comfort zone told in the shot he took. He snatched at it and the ball barely rose above head height, scudding towards the edge of the Leitrim square.

Substitute James Carr was quick to catch it and tap it over the bar so Mayo lost nothing in the transaction but it was a clue as to where O'Donoghue's limitations may well lie.

He hasn't had to kick a free under real pressure yet. He hasn't had to fret over the consequences of missing

“I think even with that one,” Padden says, “it shows his decision-making has improved. The fact that he wanted to get moving and keep playing - he would have quickly thought, ‘Okay, let’s get to a better spot here and there might be a goal on.’

“The interesting thing with him is that in general play, he can often be more comfortable coming out the field, winning frees, setting up the play. He’s a terrific tackler, he’s a hard lad having been a boxer, well able to handle himself. If you look at the Sligo game, the first two Mayo goals come from him breaking up the play and setting Aidan O’Shea away.

“But I get the feeling that Horan wants more from him inside. He can do all the dirty work, absolutely. But Mayo need him to be able to do the 15 minutes of damage inside as well. That’s what makes Cillian so devastating.

Next stage

“It was noticeable that Ryan stayed in the full-forward line a lot more against Leitrim. Can you stay in there for 15 minutes and get four or five possessions and get 1-3 out of them? That’s the next stage. As much as the frees, that’s what Mayo need from him.”

In their two Connacht Championship games so far, O'Donoghue has had 16 shots and scored 1-11. He has put up 0-7 from eight frees, kicked two wides from play, dropped one short and drawn a fine save from Leitrim goalkeeper Brendan Flynn. He has had the last pass for a further 2-5 and has regularly been the first runner, making the ball stick in the Mayo forward line. It hasn't been pristine stuff but it was enough to get him man of the match in the semi-final.

But again, everything up to now has been preamble. Sligo and Leitrim put up minimal resistance - they weren’t even canny enough to foul in spots that would present him with difficult frees to take. He hasn’t had to kick a free under real pressure yet. He hasn’t had to fret over the consequences of missing. That will all change tomorrow.

On the morning of the Sligo game, O’Connor sent O’Donoghue a voice note on WhatsApp, encouraging him for the day ahead. There was nothing touch-feely in it, no go-get-‘em-kid or anything like that. It was just a reminder to stick to his routine. Nobody has done it better for Mayo. Very few have done it better for anybody, ever.

That’s the leap O’Donoghue has to take now. Mayo’s summer won’t stretch out overly far if he falls short.