In January of 2011, Cillian O’Connor wrote down a brief set of personal goals for the football year ahead. He had just graduated from minor ranks but saw no harm in setting a few grander ambitions.
They included appearing and scoring for the senior team in the upcoming FBD league and even making an appearance in the league. Anything beyond that would have seemed outlandish too him.
By the end of the month, he had scored 1-06 in his first winter game and finished the season by pilfering 1-3 from the Kerry defence in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final. By then, the nomination for Young Footballer of the Year was a foregone conclusion and he won the award.
If O'Connor hasn't reflected much on his football life since, it is because there has been no time. Mayo have rattled through the seasons since with hell-bent commitment since he made his debut, appearing in two All-Ireland finals after bowing out in that match against Kerry.
Last year’s final had the nagging backdrop of a shoulder injury which O’Connor suffered in the semi-final win over Tyrone: nobody was quite sure if the Ballintubber man would be fit to play and, if he did, whether he would last. -He played the 70 minutes, scored 0-8 from frees and Mayo lost by a point in what was the county’s disappointing day since the epochal loss to Meath in 1996.
In October, O’Connor had an operation to fuse the shoulder on medical advice and it was April when he returned for Mayo in a league tie against Westmeath.
“It is brilliant,” he says of the simple fact of playing without managing what was a constant and low-grade irritation.
"It is great to have a couple of months of injury-free training under your belt. Even just mentally, to have that you start enjoying your football more and you are not strapping your body with tape or having to mind yourself . . . We have always had a few injuries – Andy Moran had the leg break and cruciate injury. But every county has those distractions and every player has to deal with them at some stage . .."
A thousand ifs and buts permeated Mayo thoughts through the winter after the latest All-Ireland defeat. When a team loses a match by a point, there is no question that they were good enough to win it.
O’Connor played well but wasn’t quite the radiant figure he had been earlier in the championship and it was impossible to quantify if the injury had, in some way, diluted his effectiveness. He grimaces slightly when that is put to him and it is clear that nine months on he is battling to answer that satisfactorily for himself.
“ I would like to think it didn’t hinder me. The only thing that did play on my mind was the training. You like to get your two or three weeks quality training in before a big game, even mentally to get your touch in and my training was probably disrupted. I wasn’t able to do everything up until the final week.”
In the weeks leading up to the final he was shielded from all the speculation.
“I only realised it after the game when I looked back at everything that was talked about. . . . I was either at home or in my house in Dublin. . . I kept away from a lot of things and didn’t read any of it. My only focus was on getting it right and getting home . . but after the game I saw the level of attention it got.”
The master class of ball winning and nimble, economical score-taking which O'Connor gave against Galway in the Connacht final was the latest illustration of just how important he has become to Mayo.
If a poll was taken on which player James Horan could least afford to lose to injury, O'Connor's name would probably top the list. He has a goal-poacher's instinct to match the metronomic free-taking ability but above all that, he has become an easily identifiable leader on the pitch.
Mayo's defence has been the engine room of their revival under Horan and its midfield stable is nationally envied. But the attack is an evolving thing. Because so many of Mayo's attacks originate in raids from their defence, linking with storming defenders like Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins is a vital role for any forward.
Within the attacking unit, nobody is quite sure what central role veterans Alan Dillon and Andy Moran could or should play this year. The half-forward line is a work in progress. Mayo have a number of skilful if similar corner-forwards. So O'Connor is the constant presence and the attack revolves around his lean frame.
In 2012, he finished 7th in All-Ireland top-scoring charts. Last year, he hit 6-22 in five games and was comfortably the highest scorer, averaging 0-8 per game. There was a national sense of disappointment after Mayo’s recent two failures and when the analysis kicked in, the fingers were pointed at the forwards. In the off-season chatter it was suggested that Mayo needed a ‘Michael Murphy’ type forward.
Given the scores Mayo posted last summer – 4-16, 0-21, 5-11, 4-17, 1-16, 1-14 – pinning failure on the forward line seems unfair and too obvious. But they posted their lowest total in the most important match of the year. O’Connor is is aware that there is a debate going on and smiles at the idea that he might find himself trawling through online forums to find out what people are saying.
Although O’Connor is still just 22, there is an iron-like sense of self-possession.
“It doesn’t bother me. I would have heard people say that but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest . . As long as the Mayo management team think I am playing well and am worthy of a squad position then I am happy. They would be the only ones I am trying to impress. After that you have take everything with a pinch of salt.
“ The people in the loop – genuine football people can weigh things up themselves. . We will have our own review and that is all that matters for us.”
Talk to anyone involved with Mayo now and self-reliance is the abiding theme. They have insulated themselves from Mayo’s harrowing run of All-Ireland defeats to a degree that is admirable, using analysis and Horan’s investment in logic to rationalise their failures and then return the next season even more hard-bodied and strong-willed.
It seems none of them are paying much attention to what has happened in the other provinces this summer. O’Connor played for Ballintubber against Crossmolina on the day of the Ulster and Leinster football finals and just didn’t watch them.
“Watching them can be a distraction, I would say . . . we would look to the next training game we have ourselves . . . . We are just worrying about our own game.”
O'Connor has yet to reach his full potential but even so can feel the ground shift beneath him. Just the other day, he found himself thinking that it was strange that all the kids he knew from U-16 or minor were now playing senior football. He has watched the startling progress made by players like Stephen Coen and Adam Gallagher.
His brother Diarmuid is fresh off the All-Ireland-winning minor side and in the Mayo squad. Their presence is a reminder that another year has passed. None of his brother’s generation wants for confidence.
“They have that confidence and it is great. They bring it to the senior set-up and even the build up to big games and the crowd and how to block out the chatter...they have been there before. Diarmuid is always trying to look for an edge. I have played maybe four times with him in the club and four or five with Mayo. It is strange. He is hungry and the way you are at 18 or 19, you have no respect for reputations or big names, they are just mad for playing and that they are the kind of people you need in there.”
This weekend is the point of no return for Mayo. Their goal at Croke Park is an All-Ireland title – nothing else.
The venue has provided some bleak days but also some good ones. “I think it is a brilliant place to play and I love it there,” says O’Connor with conviction. “We have had two huge disappointments there but we have had some of our best performances there too. And hopefully we can get a 70-minute performance there on the 3rd.”