James Horan: Cillian O’Connor injury an opportunity for others

‘He’s out for the foreseeable future, so that will probably be the season. It’s a blow’

Mayo manager James Horan - in the third championship season of his second coming - is taking plenty of positives from the league. File photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Mayo manager James Horan - in the third championship season of his second coming - is taking plenty of positives from the league. File photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

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They say from every crisis comes some opportunity, and – fulfilled or not – James Horan signs off on that note when assessing the loss of Cillian O’Connor. Mayo have a football championship match to play in Sligo this Saturday, with or without the top scorer of all time, so now is the time to focus on the opportunity and not the crisis.

The news last week that O’Connor required surgery on his injured Achilles tendon effectively meant his 2021 football championship campaign would be over before it even began, and the Mayo manager has now confirmed as much: only a minor miracle will see O’Connor play any football this summer.

“He’s out for the foreseeable future, so that will probably be the season,” said Horan. “It’s a blow for Cillian, at a personal level, but we’re lucky in one way we have a lot of players who are playing very well, in training, a lot of young players coming through, and one of those are going to have to step up. We’re just looking forward to getting going now.

“You saw the clip, he just went to push off, one of those bizarre things, no build-up, no. But he has undergone a procedure, and there is quite a bit of rehab involved. Cillian is also one of those players if someone else was injured, he’d be the first one to ask who is going to push up, step up, and that’s the way it is at the level we’re trying to play at. It’s an opportunity for someone who maybe was knocking on the door, had a role model in Cillian in the way he played the game, they can learn from that.

“And what we’ve seen in training since, we’ve a number of guys pushing incredibly hard. There’s no doubt he will still have a huge role to play, off the field, he’ll definitely be involved in some capacity.”

Neat combination

O’Connor sustained the injury shortly before half-time in the Division Two play-off against Clare in Ennis last Sunday week, which Mayo won 2-22 to 2-18, securing their return to Division One next season. O’Connor scored 1-4 (a neat combination of penalty, a mark, a free and two points) in what was his 100th appearance for the county.

He was about to set out in his 11th championship senior season and, of his 100 championship appearances for Mayo, 60 have been in the championship. O’Connor was also central in Mayo’s progress to the All-Ireland final last year, contributing more than half their scores, extending his position as the football championship’s all-time record scorer, finishing with a total of 30-377, including 4-9 in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary at Croke Park.

Still, his loss won’t necessarily change Mayo’s immediate style of football, beginning with Saturday’s Connacht football championship quarter-final against Sligo in Markievicz Park (4.30pm, Sky Sports).

“We do have a certain way we like to play, the key principles of our game, and they will certainly remain. Traditionally, going up to Markievicz, in a one-off game, a team with nothing to lose, all that can stack up into a fired-up performance. It boils back to us building on the league, trying to get better, and I feel we’re doing that. We’re in a strong place.”

The question of who will take up the free-taking role in O’Connor’s absence is as yet unanswered. “Well, the team hasn’t been picked yet, but if you look through the players we have, Paul Towey coming in against Clare, Ryan O’Donoghue is a very good free-taker, Conor Loftus last year took frees, Jason Doherty, Darren Coen, so we’ll see how things play for team selection and take it from there.”

Despite losing his marquee forward, Horan – in the third championship season of his second coming – is taking plenty of positives from the league.

“Definitely, there were some tricky fixtures there, we tried multiple players and got a huge amount from it. I think we’ve seen huge development of a number of young players in a very quick time, so delighted with that.

‘Speeded up’

“They still had the experienced guys there, particularly last year, who showed them the ropes, and it was brilliant by the older guys. They really did mentor the younger guys that came in, passed on their experience. That definitely speeded up their development, and we got a great kick off that last year.

“We’re still a little rough around the edges, definitely trying to get better at those, but excited for the season ahead. The number of young players that developed quickly was definitely a pleasant surprise.”

Horan is looking at the softer side of the provincial draw: Saturday’s winners play Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final on July 11th, two weeks ahead of the Connacht final against the winner of Roscommon and Galway. Knock-out or otherwise, Horan still has faith in the provincial system.

“Because I’m in Connacht, it is very competitive, I think it makes for a great series. You look up to Ulster too. From where I’m at, I think it’s a good system, I think winning Connacht championships are brilliant. There may be a better system out there, but looking at it from a completely selfish perspective, I’m happy where it is.

“The last two seasons have been mad, you didn’t know when you could train, when games were going ahead, all that stuff swirling around. It definitely changed the mindset a little, that you’re delighted to be playing games. If we play well at the weekend we get to play another game, so it’s simplified it a little bit. We’ll be giving it our best shot every chance we get.”

O’Connor’s younger brother Diarmuid was also injured in the win at Cusack Park, coming off with what appeared to be an ankle strain, although he should be okay for the Sligo game.

James Horan was speaking at the EirGrid announcement of its five-year extension as official timing partner of the GAA

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