The player stand-off which ousted the management team means that Mayo’s footballers will be under even more scrutiny in 2016. It’s a price that Seamus O’Shea and his colleagues are willing to accept
Early Wednesday morning in The Ballsbridge Hotel, and Seamus O’Shea cuts an imposing figure amid the hustle and bustle of the foyer. The son of a Killorglin man who a long time ago proudly dressed his offspring in green and gold, there would have been a time when it meant something to him that the same hotel was part of the venue for Kerry’s post All-Ireland final banquets in 2014 and ’15. But not now. Obviously.
He won’t make Mayo’s trip to Cork on Sunday — a series of soft tissue injuries which have curtailed his training the last two summers means he’s a GRTP (gradual return to play). Given the week he’s had, the extended break has been welcome. His work as an assistant underwriter with IronShore brought him to a conference in London for a couple of days and he only returned to Dublin on Tuesday night.
He finds himself having meandered his car through the notorious south city traffic to park close to his offices in the capital’s embassy belt from the leafy suburb of Rathfarnham, where he currently lives. Dublin manager Jim Gavin’s abode is in the vicinity. It’s far — almost 240 kilometres, to be precise — from where O’Shea was reared in Breaffy but the capital’s been good to him.
“Nobody ever stops me to talk about football; it’s great,” he smiles. “At home around Castlebar, you could be stopped three or four times to chat about it. In a way, it’s handy, like the last few summers going into quarter-finals and semi-finals and you’re in a world of your own.
I work in finance and the main industry is in Dublin. I’m 28 now so I’m not too sure whether I’ll move home or settle down here. For however long left I have playing football, I don’t think I will have to move home for the sake of it at the expense of my career.” There is convenience for O’Shea in that Mayo’s Dublin training base in Clann na nGael Fontenoys is a five-minute drive from work (former full-back Dermot Flanagan and current Dublin selector Declan Darcy are club members).
It’s there that selector and coach Tony McEntee will put them to work each Tuesday until May when they will jump into a mini-bus and head to Castlebar to link up with the rest of the panel. Fridays remain the same for O’Shea and the Dublin cohort throughout the season: each make their own way to Castlebar for training before more of the same or a game at the weekends.
“You’re heading home on a Friday anyway so it’s not too bad. The Tuesday is the killer. You’re home late around 1am, you’re getting to bed late and you’re probably not sleeping well because of all the travelling. You’re then up at 6.30 or 7am for work and supposed to be doing a gym session that night.”
Over five years now in Dublin, it’s become routine for O’Shea to spread himself but it’s still a pain and he knows full well most of their fellow All-Ireland challengers don’t require such arrangements. “One of the massive advantages the top teams like Dublin, Kerry, and Cork is all their players are generally based around home. Most of the Kerry lads are based in Kerry, Cork, or Limerick so at most they’re an hour up the road. Ourselves and Donegal are probably the only ones at that level that are split up. When Dublin get together on a Tuesday night, we don’t do that until May. It’s a massive advantage and something we have to work around.”
But as O’Shea says, he isn’t moving from Dublin any time soon, even if it is a county that has given him more heartache than any other in his football career. He likes Dublin. Its size, its options. The Dubs too. Their wit, their humour. He recalls making up part of an Off The Ball panel in Parnells club and how a wag in the audience brought up his black card in the All-Ireland semi-final replay. The way the question was asked, he could only laugh.
At the time of the incident, it was torture. Two minutes into the second half, he reacted when Jonny Cooper gave him a dunt in the back away from the action. His was hardly a cynical act but Eddie Kinsella thought otherwise. “The general consensus was that it should have been a yellow card. From my point of view, it was foolish. It was a stupid thing to do but I thought it should have been a yellow card. It was my fault.
“It was a first for me because my disciplinary record is generally good. I certainly haven’t been sent off for Mayo and I think I was more annoyed that I reacted stupidly.
“Jonny had a bit of a cut off me off the ball, there was nothing in it really and I reacted to it. To me, there was little in it but I suffered as a result of it. I should have kept my cool, which I usually do.”
O’Shea doesn’t like shirking responsibility. Steer the conversation towards the semi-final replay in Limerick in 2014, and it’s the Mayo players he holds accountable for the loss, not Cormac Reilly.
Some might think otherwise but he attests their move against Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes was founded in duty too. He knows if Mayo fall later this year it won’t be Stephen Rochford that will be in the dock, but those who cross the whitewash.
“If we lose a final or semi-final, somebody will come back at us and say we were closer the year before. Ultimately, the decision wasn’t made because we want to win the All-Ireland in 2016. Obviously, we do, but the decision was made because we felt it was the best for the team.
“It mightn’t mean winning the All-Ireland but as long as we’re putting ourselves in the position to play to the best of our ability, we have to take it. Not everyone is going to agree with us. To do something as drastic as that, not everyone is going to say ‘Well done, you did the right thing’. Traditionalists wouldn’t be happy with what happened and that’s fair enough. For the most part, I haven’t fallen out with anybody over it.”
Not surprisingly, the resolve of the players has grown.
“I think it probably has (tightened the group). It was a difficult thing to do. To get 30-odd fellas together to do something like that, to go through something like that, it’s going to bring fellas fairly close.”
For the older players like O’Shea, they couldn’t countenance the threat of another lost season.
“The guys of my generation don’t have five or six years left and we’re fairly conscious of it. Andy Moran and Alan Dillon are back and they’re around a good while. As a team, we still have a young profile and a lot are still in their mid-20s but we have a lot of important players who are pushing on so the next few years are important for us.”
Change of management has meant a change of plan.
Rochford and McEntee believe the first syllable in football to be the most operative. O’Shea foresees a kicking game featuring the strongest elements of the legacy they’ve inherited.
“You can see it from Corofin and Crossmaglen that they liked to kick the ball. In Croke Park, if you can kick the ball 40 yards it’s much better than running with it 40 yards. It’s not something we’ve done a huge amount over the last few years.
We’ve been playing a support game. Stephen has spoken about the style he prefers. I enjoy both. You have to play to your strengths. Lee (Keegan) is the best wing-back in the country so there is no point in saying to him ‘we don’t want you running’. You have to be careful in playing to the strengths of the individual players. I’m sure whatever way we set up it’ll be thought through.”
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