In a Gaelic football season of plucky plot twists but predictable outcomes, the Footballer of the Year nominations, announced last Friday, stayed very much on script. The shortlist of three saw the 2018 winner, Dublin’s Brian Fenton, joined by his teammate, Ciarán Kilkenny, and the token outsider candidate, Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor.
With Dublin’s dominance showing no sign of abating any time soon, you could predict without fear of ridicule that Fenton, Kilkenny, and probably Con O’Callaghan will likely populate any shortlist for each of the next five years. That’s assuming Jack McCaffrey stays exiled. There will always be one Cillian O’Connor amongst them, and he’ll presumably be called David Clifford. As Gaelic football increasingly becomes monopolised by one dominant force, so do it's individual awards. Which, in and of itself is paradoxical. Dublin are perhaps the greatest football team to ever play. The root of their greatness is the mantra of team uber alles. Nobody is irreplaceable. It is admirable, and, in their execution of it, historically successful. It shouldn't lead to an assumption that they automatically have the best player, however.
As individual performances go, Cillian O'Connor's winter campaign is likely never to be repeated by anyone.
He is the footballer of the year, though the odds are against him.
This is not an emotional argument. Not entirely. The math is easy to prove; O’Connor was top scorer in the 2020 championship. So what? He scored 5-40 (55 points) in five championship games. 5-40. Five games. That’s an average of 11 points per game. It’s 22 points more than the next closest scorer, Conor Sweeney of Tipperary, who scored 2-27 in four games. Ah! O’Connor played one more game than Sweeney, so you can argue it’s a false equivalency? One more game to amass a 22 point lead over his nearest challenger.
Well, close, but not quite. Consider that, against Sweeney’s Tipperary, O’Connor achieved the all-time scoring record in a single championship match, scoring 4-9 (21 points).
His display that day was nothing short of extraordinary. You can argue that Tipperary were out of their depth, so O’Connor’s rampage was easy pickings, but how many one-sided championship matches have we seen in the last decade, and no one player has come close to doing this. On the back of a poor Connacht final display, Mayo were under pressure. O’Connor delivered a masterclass. Dublin played Cavan in the other semi-final, themselves a Tipperary of sorts, again, there was no comparable display.
In a season of knock-out football, O’Connor's scoring feats have added weight; there was no padding of stats in games of no consequence, as can happen with dead-rubber Super 8 fixtures. Every match mattered more than the last.
Ciarán Kilkenny scored 1-20 in five championship matches for Dublin. Brian Fenton hit 0-9 in the same number of starts. Given O’Connor is Mayo’s designated place kicker and scorer in chief, a straight comparison is unfair, but, in the context of his worth and contribution to the second-best team in the country, the Ballintubber man’s all round game is complete. O’Connor complements exemplary free taking with prolific scoring from open play; of his 5-40 scored, 5-12 of it came from play, another 0-2 came from marks. He is selfless, too; Mayo are a team of tacklers, and O’Connor led the side for turnovers this season.
It is often frustrating to see O’Connor play so far away from goal, but Mayo’s style of play demands it, and O’Connor never lets his own status within the team, complacency, or ego diminish his appetite for work. Imagine the example this sets to younger, impressionable players? Nine seasons since making his inter-county debut, he is Mayo’s top scorer and leading tackler. In O’Connor’s five games, he was man-of-the-match in three (Leitrim, Roscommon and Tipperary)
While Tipperary may have been his scoring apex, his kicking performance in extremely difficult conditions in Carrick-on-Shannon in the first round of the Connacht championship was exceptional. Likewise, his first half display in the All-Ireland final against Dublin was immense.
Player of the Year is not a ‘legends’ competition, however. Nor should it be a popularity contest. O’Connor seems to care little of how he is perceived outside of Mayo. He fulfills his media and sponsor duties with the polite air of a detached academic. One can only guess that all the ‘soft talk’ that surrounds Mayo football, all the emotion and sentiment, interests him none. He is, in many respects, the Anti-Mayo.
Kilkenny and Fenton had undeniably brilliant years. Kilkenny especially, deployed in a more advanced role closer to goal, consistently combined playmaking with score-getting. He followed his one poor performance (his opening half against Mayo), with an exceptional second half display, kicking three points when Dublin needed them.
But, Fenton and Kilkenny operate in a different environment; an environment of shared responsibility and a bottomless talent pool. This affects their performance, so it must be taken into account. Jack McCaffrey is a unique player. Consistently brilliant in big games, any other team would find it impossible to replace him, and certainly difficult to be as good without him.
Yet, Dublin did and were. This is not a criticism, but a statement of fact. Should they lose Fenton or Kilkenny, the same would likely be true. Dublin's success does not depend on either of them. They do not carry that weight. They do not have to perform under those suffocating conditions. A poor performance may see them dropped, but their team won’t lose.
If O’Connor’s brow often seems furrowed, it is with good reason. It would be unkind to suggest Mayo are a one-man show, but, without him, they would be nowhere near the force they are (O’Connor missed all but one league game in 2020, a game in which Mayo won, and he scored ten points. In his absence Mayo were relegated).
It’s pointless speculating what he would’ve achieved as a Dublin footballer, but it also somewhat beggars belief that for a decade performing at an unforeseen level of excellence, he has just one All Star.
Next month, he will undoubtedly double that tally. In the Footballer of the Year category, however, he is like an obscure French actor, after delivering the performance of his life, going up against Daniel Day Lewis and Tom Hanks - the darlings of the big studios - for Best Actor.
The odds are against him. The facts are not.