‘This is the first time I’ve had a right run of it’ – Mayo captain on move to full-forward

BACK IN FEBRUARY, James Horan and Ciaran McDonald approached Aidan O’Shea at training with a plan to play him at full-forward.

Mayo coach Ciaran McDonald chats with Aidan O’Shea.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

O’Shea has frequently occupied the position before over the years, famous scoring 3-4 in the 2015 Connacht final against Sligo and grabbing a goal against Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final en route to collecting at All-Star at number 14.

But too often in big games, if the ball wasn’t going in, he’d quickly find himself switched back out the field. He still feels midfield is his most natural position but has no qualms about doing what’s best for the team.

“Ciaran and James came to me in February and said it was something they were looking to do, but that they weren’t going to fire me in there and take me out,” says O’Shea.

“It was, ‘We want you to be in there and play it, and not if we lose a ball or two to be calling you out, and then going back in.’ It was to be a bit more consistent to the approach. 

“I’m really enjoying being in around there. This is the first time I’ve had a right run of it.”

As it happened, Breaffy employed O’Shea on the edge of the square during the club championship, giving him time to get used to the role.

“It definitely took a bit of adjusting for me, going from touching the ball maybe 30 or 40 times in a game to touching it 12, maybe 15 times.

“There’s a bit of patience required. It just coincided that the club decided to play me there for the whole campaign and I got a lot of practice. I’m really enjoying it, having that run and the time to grow in there and learn as much as I can.

“I think it helps my team-mates as well, they know I’m going to be there and we can work around that too instead of in for five minutes and out for ten, or vice-versa.”

He has formed a potent full-forward line alongside Tommy Conroy and Cillian O’Connor. They’ve scored 6-22 from play and marks between them across four championship games, while also contributing to Mayo’s high turnover count in the opposition’s defence.

“As I told Tommy and Cillian after the game, it was 4-14 between us against Tipperary,” laughs O’Shea.

Aidan O’Shea in action during the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Look the guys are going really well. They complement each other. Cillian, obviously that break he probably needed that for his own body. People outside our group wouldn’t realise what he has done to put himself on a football pitch to try and put himself on a football pitch over the last five or six years to continue to contribute.

“To see him being free and being able to get out there and express himself the way he likes and being able to train week-in, week-out you see the fruits of it on the football pitch and what a player he is. I’m just delighted for him in that regard.

“Tommy on the other side, he’s just your kind of modern day corner-forward, isn’t he? He’s got a bit of everything, he’s got both feet and once he gets it he wants to go at you. He’s a real eye for goal, he’s a really good player and a really good addition for us.

“The two guys are doing a huge amount of work for us up front and it’s not just in possession; out of possession Cillian and Tommy’s tackling has been a feature for us as well. It’s a different proposition against Dublin and we will have to make some adjustments around that too but they’re definitely two players who are going really well for us.”

Of their defensive duties, he adds: “Myself and Cillian would have prided ourselves on it for a long time. The group enjoy that side of the game; it’s kind of part of the way we play. But it’s also because of the transition from the traditional full-forward line, maybe 20 years ago it was not really their job.

“Now you are absolutely involved in the defence and you are as much responsible as what happens out the field as the scoring side s, yeah, it is something that we discuss and talk about a lot. Definitely it is as much in the forefront of our mind as scoring and we take pride in it.”

12 years into his senior career, O’Shea has known plenty of heartbreak on big championship days in Croke Park. He was on the losing side in the 2012, ’13, ’16 and ’17 finals, in addition to semi-finals in ’14, ’15 and ’19.

And while they never went into one of those finals as favourites, they put themselves into winning positions on a couple of occasions but ultimately fell short.

O’Shea runs at Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

He insists he has “not thought about” the possibility that his time to win an All-Ireland is running out.

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“I have been lucky to play in quite a few of them [All-Ireland finals] and a lot of people would have said that this opportunity would not have afforded itself again,” he says.

“I book in one year after another and I see us as having a chance every year to get where we are because of the quality of player in Mayo.

“The future is strong. In terms of Cillian, Leeroy [Keegan] and myself we will be moving on shortly but you see the core group that is coming, the young lads who have come in are pretty strong characters. So I think there is an opportunity there every year but you need to capitalise on them when they come around.”

O’Shea admitted in the past he felt the opportunity to skipper Mayo had passed him by before Horan handed him the armband at the start of 2020.

“To be asked was huge. When I was asked at the start of the year, no more than any other player, the plan was to go on and win an All-Ireland title so that would have been at the back of my mind.”

He won’t have a speech prepared on Saturday but if Mayo do wind up lifting the Sam Maguire, he won’t be found wanting for a few words.

“I have not even thought about it. The fact that there is no crowd I did not prepare one for the Connacht final. They told me it was up to myself whether I wanted to make one or not. I am sure if the opportunity affords itself I will be able to improvise in that moment. There is a cupla focal in there somewhere.”

More often than not, trips to the final meant facing this all-conquering Dublin side who also dumped them out in last year’s semi-final. After a demanding qualifier run, Mayo emerged from the Super 8s but ran out of gas after leading Dublin by two-points at half-time.

“At half-time we were quite content,” reflects O’Shea. ”We were probably a little disappointed with a couple of the scores they got in the first-half but in terms of where we were and in terms of executing the game-plan we were probably close to where we wanted to be.

“At half-time it was [a case of] more of the same but that is not how it transpired unfortunately. They got a free from the throw-in and from the next play we went down the field and Paddy [Durcan] had a shot into Cluxton’s hands. Then they went down and got the first goal. People’s memory of it was that there was complete domination in that period. 

“There was, I suppose, but we had opportunities in possession which we coughed up too easy and we did not get ourselves down the other end of the field to try and counter at all. We just kept coughing up possession and their execution in that period was sublime; Paul Mannion kicked a couple of scores from distance and from the wrong side. Yeah, look, it was a bit of a whirlwind couple of minutes.

O’Shea is tackled by Mick Fitzsimons.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Mayo are much-changed from that 2019 encounter. Horan handed out debuts to 19 youngsters since. Of the 21 players that featured last year Dublin, nine saw game-time against Tipperary in the semi-final.

“Last year was funny in terms of that we were under pressure, patching a lot of things up week on week with the qualifiers and Super 8’s and we probably went into that championship game with very little work done,” says the Breaffy man.

“I think we are a little bit further along in terms of our development as a group. There has been a huge injection from last year to this year, there is a huge change in personnel, there is a lot of freshness, we have had eight/nine debutantes this year in the championship which is huge and it does feel totally different outfit that we have. 

“I would like to think that we have a better understanding of what we are about, both individually and as a collective and I think we have shown that over the past five, six, seven weeks.”

Had it been a normal year, streams of Mayo fans would be flying in from all over the world to support their team in the final.

The Mayo support remain never much in the players’ thoughts, even if Croke Park will be almost empty on Saturday evening.

“We are privileged, and we mean this, appreciate the opportunity we got over the past two or three months. A lot of people have not been able to do things that they would like to have done, meet family, get home for Christmas, it is a huge thing in people’s lives that connection.

“And no more so than in Mayo, the messages are really nice. I am working from home at the moment but usually you would have a lot of well wishes from work and I know there would be bus loads of people going from work but they can’t get to games.

“We are trying to represent them as best as we can on the pitch. I hope we brought a bit of joy into their sitting rooms, whereas it is in Mayo or across the rest of world in the last couple of weeks.

“Hopefully we have shortened the winter and this pandemic for them and we can continue to make them proud on Saturday week.”

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