Jim McGuinness: I’m backing Mayo to get over loss of Cillian O’Connor

James Horan’s side have developed a running game and have the players to pull it off

Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor scores their second goal in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Meath in July 2019. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor scores their second goal in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Meath in July 2019. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Players make championships. What has happened to Cillian O’Connor has brought this truth into sharp focus. On the last day of the league, Cillian was playing his 100th game for Mayo against Clare.

Like many people I saw the image of him limping off and didn’t realise the magnitude of what was happening for Cillian or for Mayo. It seemed like a two-week lay-off kind of scene. Then the word began to filter out that he was lost to Mayo – and to the game, to the All-Ireland – for the summer. And I began to think about his influence and what he has achieved.

The strange thing is that there has always been this level of debate revolving around Cillian and the question of whether he is a marquee forward.

Where did it come from? I think it came from the tradition of natural predators – from Peter Canavan and James McCartan, Maurice Fitzgerald, Martin McHugh, Larry Tompkins, Michael Murphy. This archetype of the standout player on an outstanding team. Michael Murphy has been that player for us in Donegal for all of his adult life. You need that player if you are to win an All-Ireland. That is why Kerry are excited right now. Not only do they have a high calibre team they have this singular figure, in David Clifford, who stands out from the crowd.

So how do you acquire that status? Sometimes statistics can be irrelevant but in the case of Cillian O’Connor they illustrate a peerless level of consistency in terms of prodigious scoring. He has played 60 championship games and scored 30-337, 143 of those from play. The numbers are staggering. He made his debut in 2011 and is the highest all-time championship scorer and has the highest individual score in a single game, 4-9 against Tipperary last winter.

He has scored the most goals in the championship at 30 and has the highest championship scoring average at 7.1 points per game. He has been the top scorer in the championship five times in 10 years. But the big one for me is that his average scoring rate against Dublin in All-Ireland games is 7.8, which is higher than his average against other teams. So he has elevated his game against arguably the best team we have seen in matches that were absolute cauldrons of pressure and atmosphere.

Of all those scores, the one I often think about came very late in the day of the 2016 All-Ireland final against Dublin. I watched it again ahead of this column. There was 76.31 on the clock with seven minutes of injury time scheduled. Mayo were a point down. They go short to Keith Higgins on a kick-out and he plays it to Stephen Coen who finds Tom Parsons, who transfers the ball to O’Connor. And he does a quick one-two with Aidan O’Shea. But he is still about 10 yards outside the 45 and there are 14 seconds left in the All-Ireland final. Think about that. This has been an absolutely gruelling and riveting game. The spectators are shattered, let alone the players.

And in that moment, he seizes hold of Mayo’s immediate fate on the biggest of all days. He drives at the Dublin defence, he drops the shoulder to the left, turns onto his stronger right foot and is a good 40 yards out but there is no hesitation or doubt. He lands the ball straight over the bar. It was high, high drama. Those are the kind of moments you dream about as a child. And if he didn’t make that shot, Mayo were gone. And I believe those are the moments that become burnt on to the retinas of the next generation of players. You see that when you are 10-years-old and you are transfixed. It is literally magic.

Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor celebrates scoring a point in the All-Ireland final against Dublin last December. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor celebrates scoring a point in the All-Ireland final against Dublin last December. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Again and again, he has delivered when Mayo most needed him. But leave aside the scoring for a moment. You can talk about his ‘experience’ and what he brings to the team. Well, what is that? He brings an overall organisation and approach to Mayo. He is the first man up – always. After a score or a wide, you see him instantly snap everyone into attention. He is continually putting shape on the players around him. You see it so often: the two finger tips at the temples, pointing at who needs marking, signalling that the last play is over. Next play! Next play! We are back in the game! So the way he led that line and controlled their forward line shaped their thought process and made them be switched on. It was like having a coach on the pitch.

Also, his ability to get up again has always impressed me. I don’t know him but my sense is that he is not a person to feel sorry for himself. How he carries himself and faces the media and embraces the next challenge and the next season are absolutely huge for Mayo. And for me there is so much to be learned from that.

So why, then, is there this contradictory argument about Cillian? I think the question as to whether he is a ‘marquee’ player is at once unfair and inevitable.

It is unfair because the statistics show that he is the best there has ever been in terms of his scoring return. But I think the question has arisen because Mayo have yet to get over the line and win that All-Ireland. The marquee players I mentioned have done that. Once Mayo do that, those debates all evaporate. If you add an All-Ireland title to Cillian’s 10 years, the numbers take on an entirely different gloss. The achievement is the same. But the perception is different. There are no questions to answer. Everything is rubber-stamped. The jigsaw is complete. Cillian is regarded as the most prolific individual forward of all time.

Could he have won it this year? Well, he would have had a big chance. And his absence is a huge loss for Mayo. To see him exit in what was ultimately a forgettable league game is a shame.

And it raises the more general question about the profusion of injuries we have seen over the national league. The big debate is the time frame in which the teams are operating this year. Were they given adequate time to prepare? Diarmuid O’Connor is also injured. Michael Murphy has missed most of the league for Donegal. Odhrán MacNeilis is out injured. Darragh Canavan is one of the most exciting young talents for Tyrone and Ronan McNamee is also injured. Dublin lost John Small but to be fair they are best prepared to absorb an individual loss

Most teams cannot cope so easily. Some of the strongest teams revolve around the force of influence and personality of their standout players. What are Donegal without Michael Murphy? What would Kerry be without Clifford if he suffered an injury? And most relevantly, now: what are Mayo without Cillian O’Connor?

We need to ask why the preparation time was reduced. There have been a lot of hamstring and Achilles and quad injuries reported throughout the league. Kieran Donaghy said recently that Armagh had five soft tissue injuries after their game against Tyrone. Did we really need to play the All-Ireland in August in another Covid year? Could it not have been pushed back by two or three weeks?

Oisín Mullin offers Mayo another running threat. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Oisín Mullin offers Mayo another running threat. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

It has opened up an old debate – but in reverse. After years about the welfare of club players, we now have to ask about the welfare of the county players. These are the best of the best, the players that light up stadiums and television screens and in many ways, they light up our spirits. That was never more true than last winter. So surely those players deserve adequate time to be ready.

So with the championship about to begin, it might be time to acknowledge the importance of individual players not just on how their teams fare but on the quality of the show we all get to enjoy.

Let’s return to Mayo. Where are they now without Cillian O’Connor? It is a fascinating question. Some people feel they were already pushing a boulder uphill with all the high-profile departures in the winter. To add Cillian to that list of absentees would appear to leave them in an impossible place.

And yet! I have this nagging feeling that they will soak it up. What county has ever been better at laughing at the odds and logic? One certainty is that irrespective of how the summer goes, we will know how good their cohort of young players truly is. This setback forces them to grow up fast. Can they carry the heavy load? Can they deal with the intensity? Can they cope without the talisman, the marquee forward? Can they rise above all that is said?

My gut feeling is that they will do something. Arguably, no team has kicked the ball more often than Mayo over the last decade. But they have a new breed of players like Oisín Mullin and Eoghan McLoughlin and guys like Paddy Durcan and Lee Keegan, ball carriers with immense power who go very direct.

It has been evident in their performances that Mayo are developing a strong running game. It is an addition to the Mayo kicking tradition and to me it is welcome. These are explosive and powerful athletes who can run the ball. Lee always had that quality but now they have six and seven guys with the athletic profile to trouble teams with hard running. In a tight game– say against Galway in a Connacht final – you don’t have to kick the ball inside coming down the stretch.

You have the power under the bonnet to accelerate from both defensive lines and transition in straight lines. I think James Horan is still strongly rooted in the Mayo kicking philosophy but he has seen these hyper athletes come in and it makes sense to use them. Who is going to catch Oisín Mullin if he drops the shoulder and goes? It all makes me feel that they have this unknown quality within the group. They need to reinvent themselves now.

Does Aidan O’Shea wear that 14 jersey? Can they take him out of midfield? Who will make up for Cillian O’Connor’s prolific scoring? Time will tell. One thing is beyond debate. The championship is a poorer spectacle without him and we wish him well.

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