By night-time on Tuesday April 20th, Mayo captain Aidan O'Shea was coming to terms with the realisation that his season was over. A knee injury on the first evening of collective training was the cause, and news of the potential disaster for the county was already seeping out.
“I came home that night thinking that my season was more than likely done, unfortunately. That was the prognosis and opinion of the medics: worst case and I was out for the season; best case and it would be 12 to 15 weeks. I was very, very lucky. It turned out that I’d rattled my knee really badly and had bruising at the base, which took a bit of time.”
Fast-forward three months and he was in Croke Park last Sunday, getting presented with the Nestor Cup and – more valuably in these days of one-shot championships – a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
It was a typical performance by the captain, energetically moving between centrefield and full forward, distributing well and getting in one particularly artful dispossession on Galway captain Shane Walsh.
He set up the play that earned his team the penalty that made an immediate dent on the half-time deficit of five. In between, there had been a traditional “tunnel incident” (“handbags”) and a collision with Seán Mulkerrin that ended up triggering – however briefly – further anxieties.
“It was an accidental clash of heads. I was in hospital for a couple of hours on Monday morning getting it scanned. It’s a facial fracture but it doesn’t require an operation and it won’t keep me from playing or anything.”
He’s in his third decade playing for Mayo seniors, having made his debut 12 years ago, but for the last 10 seasons he’s been a fixture on the national scene, a central actor in the great melodrama of his county’s apparently eternal quest for a first All-Ireland since 1951.
In 10 of the past 11 years he’s reached at least the last four of the championship, five times taking it to the last day of the season and going home empty-handed. His view that he doesn’t “look back” may be predictable, but it’s pragmatic and framed by bullish optimism.
Captain for the second year, he says his role within the team is changing in the context of the younger players who have come through since manager James Horan’s return.
“In the past 12 or 13 years I’ve been in good situations and bad situations and there’s not much that I haven’t seen. The thing that’s always changing is the players and there’s been a real changeover over the last two years or so.
“There’s an enjoyment factor because you’re building relationships with new people again, and in my case I am that little bit more experienced. I’ve probably opened myself up to helping the young guys rather than for a long time when I was hellbent on winning and getting better and maybe closing myself off in the process.
“I’ve definitely realised that my place as I get that bit older is to help these guys because they’re going to be doing it for Mayo for a long time after I’m gone. Anything I can do to help them develop as serious intercounty footballers I’m happy to do.”
It was noticeable on Sunday how dynamic the team was – athletic, fast and strong. Players like Oisín Mullin, Tommy Conroy and Ryan O’Donoghue already have All-Ireland final experience from last year, even if it was the weirdest year to acquire it.
He’s also had to cope with the absence of his peer Cillian O’Connor, the championship all-time top scorer, whose injury, acquired in the league, means that he misses the championship season.
“We’ve lost a brilliant player,” says O’Shea, “and a player very underrated outside of our four walls. We haven’t lost him in terms of his influence. He’s still as involved as ever, helping the boys whether it’s giving them a call or sending them clips of analysis as well as giving feedback.
“The group needed to adjust – not just whoever was replacing him – to cope.”
Evidence of that was reassuring at the weekend when O’Donoghue, designated as the replacement free-taker, didn’t miss a free and hammered in the penalty that O’Shea set up by winning a ball in the square and passing to the incoming Matthew Ruane, who was fouled.
“Even prior to Cillian’s injury they would have practised a lot together. You’d often see them out kicking frees – so Cillian was unknowingly prepping him for the eventuality. Ryan has grown significantly over the last 18 months as an intercounty footballer. In last year’s final he was excellent and he’s willing to step over those frees – no problem.”
They will face the Leinster champions in a fortnight in the All-Ireland semi-final. In all likelihood that suggests a 10th meeting, including replays, with Dublin in 10 years – all in semi-finals and finals, with Mayo winning just one.
“I’m looking forward and believe my best playing days are ahead of me. I feel really good and we’ve got a really good, young team. These couple of years can be as successful – and better – than anything I’ve done so far.”
- Aidan O’Shea was speaking at the launch of the 10th anniversary of Pair Mobile, the Irish, family-run tech repair service for laptops, tablets and smartphones with six branches nationwide.