The Ballintubber man was there the day the Mayo and Meath footballers played that now famous challenge match in Mullingar. When Aidan O’Shea accommodated a few kids with some pictures and scribbles as his teammates congregated in a huddle nearby, nobody apart from Bernard Flynn seemed to take a blind bit of notice.
Certainly not O’Connor, who was carrying a knock and didn’t tog out. By the time the post-match non-drama unfolded, he was already back in the clubhouse “eating sandwiches … sorry, I mean drinking protein shakes!”
Just another day. Or so they thought.
“After the league and before the championship starts, there’s that sense of anticipation and everyone wants the football to finally start. From this point on, football is discussed; goals and points and wides, and tactics, and the stuff that everyone is interested in,” says O’Connor.
“I think, maybe, the lack of games might lead to…”
Nonsense, basically. Silly season.
Mayo’s crime for being better than all bar one of the other counties in the All-Ireland in three of the last five championships has been a level of attention, scorn, and condescension that seems to have been funnelled at times squarely in the direction of O’Shea.
That can’t be easy.
“Anyone who is getting some stick that they might feel is unmerited or a bit over the top, it’s hard to completely be a robot and block all that out. Having said that, Aidan is experienced, he’s been around the block and playing senior inter-county football since he was in Leaving Cert.
“He’s won plenty of things, won plenty of medals,” said O’Connor. “Sure, we’ve come up short last year and in years gone by, but I don’t think he’s getting sidetracked and spending his evenings going through all that’s being said. Well, I do know, because I’m usually there.
“He’s been focusing on getting his fitness and his training and skills work right. This isn’t a complaint, but we choose to take up a lot of our time with football, so I don’t think he’s going to be delving into finding out what’s the latest dig being thrown at him.”
The same holds for them all. It has to.
The latest dig at their All-Ireland ambitions was thrown from left-field, with Fergus Connolly, a widely travelled sports performance consultant once on Jim Gavin’s staff, declaring in the Sunday Independent that Mayo would not claim Sam in his lifetime.
It seemed an odd statement, one backed up by criticisms of O’Shea’s media profile and a nondescript meeting between members of the Dublin and Mayo backroom teams during the half-time break in a league game five years ago.
O’Connor’s reply when asked about it was devoid of emotion. There was no anger or frustration, or even weariness, just a measured reasoning that there is nothing for them to gain in scanning the papers for “big headlines”.
“Yeah, like, I suppose when we’re in the thick of it we have to be as cold about it as we can and as — what is the word? — ruthless and analytical about it and look at the facts rather than sitting back and making a sweeping generalisation. When you’re involved in it, you can actually see the different components to games and where you did well and where you didn’t do well. They’re the things that we have to focus on, they’re the things that the other teams are focusing on. Tiny percentage gains.
“You seen it here in the league final, the Kerrys and Dublins that competed in that game. They have it down to a fine art. We’re trying to make sure that we’re focused on those things, the tiny little gains that we can make in our performance or preparation,” says O’Connor, knowing nothing will silence their critics short of an All-Ireland title.
Mayo continue rolling that boulder up the hill on June 11, when they meet Galway in the Connacht semi-final at Pearse Stadium. Kevin McLoughlin, who retired before half-time in the win over Sligo with a back injury, is doing some training and closing in on full contact sessions. Barry Moran, Alan Dillon, Aidan and Seamus O’Shea, and Diarmuid O’Connor are others currently carrying injuries.
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