Wednesday 26 October 2016

'We can't stay the same and expect to win'

Cillian O’Connor at Mayo’s press conference ahead of Sunday’s clash with Tipperary. Pic: Sportsfile
Cillian O’Connor at Mayo’s press conference ahead of Sunday’s clash with Tipperary. Pic: Sportsfile

For a player who is still only 24, Cillian O'Connor has squeezed a multitude into his Mayo senior career. Sunday's tilt with Tipperary will be his sixth All-Ireland SFC semi-final - or eighth if you include replays.

Perhaps, then, harsh experience has taught the wise-beyond-his-years Mayo captain that 'to keep, on keepin' on' is not the wisest route to Sam Maguire.

"We can't do what we did last year or play like we did last year and get to the same levels as we did last year and expect to win," he stresses.

"Every other team around us is improving and adding players or adding more strings to their bow; so if we were staying the same, we were obviously going to get caught."

O'Connor was speaking in the context of Stephen Rochford's hot-seat elevation and his embrace of a new game-plan as the eternal pretenders chase that elusive final step.

"To hear new ideas or whatever he wants to change, players are all ears," he says.

Yet the subtext is that Rochford arrived in the wake of a player heave that effectively forced the resignations of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly after just one season. This upped the ante for the new manager but even more so the squad that he inherited.

And when things started to go wrong - such as early in the Allianz League, or more pointedly against Galway in June - those players knew what was coming.

"At the start of the year we kinda knew what this was going to mean ... that should we lose a game again now, this will be brought up again. Should we struggle in the league, this will be brought up again. Should we lose in the Connacht championship, this will be brought up again.

"I think we got comfortable to that idea very early. We kinda put it to bed because, as Aidan (O'Shea) said at the start of the year, there's enough pressure on us anyway.

"Any time we take to the field," he expands, "before thinking about anything else, there's an enormous pressure to do the jersey justice."

Up until the would-be watershed of their quarter-final triumph over Tyrone, Mayo have only been doing that in staccato fits and starts.

There have been many frustrations, collective and personal, with O'Connor playing catch-up since knee surgery last November to correct a patella tendon problem. "It was just short of a five-month lay-off. I came back training just before the Roscommon game and ideally I probably wouldn't have featured until later on in the year."

But Mayo desperately needed the league points and, thus, O'Connor entered that late-March quagmire off the Hyde Park bench.

Top-flight safety secured, he set about "trying to get myself right for London. I got myself back in decent physical shape for that but didn't obviously get 70 minutes that day..."


Barely seven, in fact. "I shouldn't have brought up that black card, should I?" he says, smiling.

"It was just so soon. I can't really remember but it was an innocuous enough challenge and after the preparation and coming over to Ruislip and getting ready for a game, it was after five or six minutes, it was frustrating. Probably somewhere in my head was that I, of all people, wanted to play 60-70 minutes ... I had to train afterwards with the subs, which is just not as enjoyable as playing the game."

We know what happened next against Galway in Castlebar. Mayo were now in fraught new territory.

"I thought a lot about that, tried as best I could to put a finger on what it is that went wrong. Our preparation before, I thought, was good; I still think now it was good," he insists. "I think the game was there for us with ten or 15 minutes to go, if we had played with the required aggression and intensity."

But they didn't, and a few weeks later O'Connor was back in Elverys MacHale Park, standing over a 65th minute penalty (notoriously awarded, but let's not go there) with Mayo trailing Fermanagh by a point. In that frozen-in-time moment, you wonder if he felt it was score-or-bust?

"There probably was a fleeting moment where I thought about how important it was. I try to just zap that out of my head all the time," he explains.

"No, that came into my head for a second but then it was back to 'How am I going to hit it?' or 'Where am I going to put it'?"

He duly buried it.

That tunnel-visioned focus, adds the Ballintubber man, is crucial not just for penalties but every free.

"Ones that I would have missed, they're the ones where I would have found myself thinking about the gravity of the kick or the consequences of missing ... when I start thinking about that, I find I don't connect as well."

Mayo's erratic form continued against Kildare and Westmeath; but, just as O'Connor has found his groove in Croke Park (1-5 against Westmeath and 0-7 versus Tyrone, with a combined 0-6 from play), Mayo look to have belatedly found their mojo.

To be back in a semi-final is "as good an outcome as I could have expected" when he awoke on the Sunday after the Galway debacle. "If I could go back and change it, I'd obviously go through the front door," he says, "but given where we found ourselves on the Tuesday evening after that defeat, I think we've done well."


But now they need more. The "relief and satisfaction" experienced after edging past Tyrone "lasted about 15 minutes. Before we had our boots off, the focus had already turned to Tipperary ... Stephen and the lads were banging onto us about Tipperary before we'd even got onto the bus.

"There's a good bit of experience in the squad that won't allow any idle talk or soft talk, so I'd hope the younger lads as well are smart enough to realise that any team in the last four of the championship is there on merit."

Including, by hook or crook, Mayo.

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