Understated Diarmuid O’Connor a vital cog in Mayo machine
Ballintubber man says Mayo still striving to ‘nail’ a complete team performance
Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor after receiving a cut to his face during the Connacht championship quarter-final against Sligo. at MacHale Park, Castlebar. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile/Getty
When Mayo met Sligo back in May, Sportsfile photographer Stephen McCarthy took a memorable photograph of Diarmuid O’Connor leaving the field with a nasty and messy blood injury.
In the first half, the Ballintubber man had bounced off two Sligo defenders on his way to nailing the goal which broke a tense championship match open. But now, his day looked done. He was a mess.
Aidan O’Shea was sent in as a temporary substitution which everyone assumed to would become permanent. Instead, O’Connor returned to the pitch a few minutes later to resume what has become a low-key if vital role in the Mayo attack: a hugely industrious runner with a habit of getting big scores.
It was quickly forgotten, in all the hoop-la over the Kerry-Mayo series, that O’Connor was the player who got his glove onto the speculative ball to score a huge goal for his county.
In the never-ending debate around the quality of Mayo’s forwards, O’Connor holds a distinct position. He is, of course, the younger brother of Cillian, Mayo’s metronomic free-taker and the player who has shipped the scoring burden in recent years.
But his performances with Mayo made him untouchable in the Young Player of the Year category in 2015 and 2016. Only one other player has received the award in consecutive years: his brother. He is so firmly established now that it is easy to forget that he is only 21. But for all the accomplishment and plaudits, O’Connor isn’t prepared to allow age or experience to colour his evaluation of his season to date.
“Whatever role I’ve been asked to do for the team I try to carry it out as best I can,” he says carefully.
“Individually inconsistent would probably be the big word, no more than the team performance, its kinda been up and down and hasn’t been as consistent as I would have liked. After every game I review my own performance no more than the team’s performance and just see what I can improve for the next game.
“Then I just forget about the game and work on whatever I can improve on. Some games I’ve been inconsistent for whatever reason. I can’t put my finger on why. It’s the same with a lot of players early on; no one would have put their hand up and played the best they can play. I don’t think it has changed since. There are always bits that we can improve on. I’ll be looking at what I can improve on for the final and just working on the next few weeks.”
Like Stephen Coen, Conor Loftus and the brigade of emerging footballers who excelled at minor and under-21 level, O’Connor is accustomed to winning titles. The group bracketed their minor All-Ireland title in 2013 by winning the 2016 under-21 title. They beat a Dublin team which included Con O’Callaghan in the semi-final. O’Connor, though is wary of attaching much relevance to past games.
“I wouldn’t tend to dwell on past years, whether it’s a good experience like the 21s or the bad experience like losing last year’s final. I wouldn’t think much about them. If you’re asking does that [under-21] extinguish the fear of beating Dublin or losing to Dublin, I don’t think there is any fear, we all know how good Dublin are.
“We’ve come close the last few years but they’ve raised the bar again this year. We’re just going to focus on our own performance. Even the last day beating Kerry was a good performance but there was still a lot of areas we can improve on so we’ll just be focusing more on that and trying to make sure that come Sunday we each nail our individual performances and nail our team performance.”
When Ballintubber won the Mayo junior championship in 2007, nobody predicted how that win would influence the county scene in the coming years.
James Horan was manager that day and the team he put together won its first senior title in 2010 and added two more in 2011 and 2014.
Cillian O’Connor scored 0-2 in an 0-8 to 0-5 win over Castlebar in that first final. In the coming seasons, he established himself as an extraordinary young marksman and set an incredibly high standard for his younger brother’s minor colleagues. But as far as Diarmuid O’Connor is concerned, there is no hierarchy based on age or experience in the camp.
“He’s experienced a lot more, he’s been there a lot longer than I have,” he says of his brother.
“No different than any player. We just help each other out. I wouldn’t go to him more than anyone else. We’re all comfortable to go to each other. Older players come to the younger players. Everyone is comfortable going to each other and asking each other for advice. It’s not really something we talk about. It just comes naturally.”