Record breaker O'Connor looking to point Mayo to victory

GAA: All Ireland Senior Football Championship Final

On target: Cillian O'Connor celebrates after scoring a goal against Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile.

On target: Cillian O'Connor celebrates after scoring a goal against Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile.

It might not have been the 6-12 he joked last week about that he scored against Davitts in an underage club game back in the day, but the 4-9 that Cillian O'Connor netted in the All Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary was another record in the ledger for Cillian O'Connor - but there is one piece still missing that Ballintubber man craves from his roll of honour.

Since he first burst on to the scene as a talented minor in 2009 who went all the way to the All Ireland final before a defeat to Down in Croke Park he was marked out as one to watch.

Two years after that he burst onto the senior scene picking up the first of two Young Player's of the year awards on the trot as part of James Horan's first Connacht title winning side, his goal in Mayo's All Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry one of the early highlights of the potential that the Ballintubber man had in his first season as a senior player.

Marked out from early on

As soon as he walked into the Mayo set up those already there knew there was something special about him. Speaking on the Second Captain's Podcast last week Andy Moran said about a young O'Connor when he first arrived into the Mayo set up: "In 2011 we were a poor team if the truth is to be known, we had this kid who we were pinning our hopes on and he literally came in and just rose the standards of everyone.

"He made me train harder, he pushed everyone, kicking ball out there by himself. I remember him before a Dublin game doing visualisation by himself, he is just a standard driver."

Another man who saw the rise of O'Connor as young player was Ray Dempsey who managed him as a minor for two years and as an u21 after that for another year. The Knockmore man who guided his club side to a famous county title win this year could see from early on that O'Connor was a man who would take the right option on the field, something that you need at the top level.

"He'd play his part for you, when it came to Cillian he would always do his part whether that was kicking a score or playing an assist. He was a clever footballer, he took the right options on the ball nine times out of ten that is another one of his strengths."

Mixing both the selfish and the selfless is something else that O'Connor does very well, according to Dempsey. "He keeps defenders guessing, he is not a selfish player, but he can be selfish when you have to be selfish.

"If you are going to be involved in a team that wants to be the best in Ireland, every forward that presents themselves in a scoring position has to have a belief that they can score or be sure they get it off to someone in a better position to score."

The pace with which he moved on to the senior side from minor straight into the big leagues was managed very well by James Horan with O'Connor: "It was natural progression for him was to move on, he was a freetaker and had a lot of the qualities you'd be looking for.

"It was about managing him which James Horan did very well, James would have had him with the club before that and he managed him very well coming into senior - you have to manage lads well because there is a lot going on with college and everything and make sure they have the appetite to perform when asked by Mayo."

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Nerves of Steel: Cillian O'Connor nails an injury time equaliser for Mayo against Dublin in the 2016 All Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

Getting over injuries and back to his best

O'Connor has had his fair share of injuries to get over during the past number of years and this year he looks to be moving better than he has for a long time after the break from action this year due to Covid. The work that he has had to put in at times to get himself fit for action is something most people won't have seen according to his teammate Aidan O'Shea. "Cillian with that break, he probably needed that break just for his own body.

"People outside of our group would not understand the things he’s done to try and get himself on the football pitch over the last five or six years and continues to do to contribute.

"To see him being free and out there and able to express himself the way he would like and be able to train week in week out, you can see the fruits of it on the football pitch and what a player he is and I’m just delighted for him."

Those sentiments were echoed by Moran on Second Captains when he said: "For him to do this (scoring 4-9 in the semi-final ), I think this is his greatest achievement if I am being honest.

"Because his body was shut, it was gone, he was struggling with his knee, struggling with his hamstrings and in the club championship this year, it didn't look good for him and then all of a sudden he just turns around and puts in this performance and I think this is probably his greatest achievement."

O'Connor himself said he is feeling probably the best he has for a long time this year saying in the build up to the final: "I do feel really, really good.

"It’s hard to put a finger on when you feel better and when you don’t. I know going back 2013, before the shoulder injury I felt really good and then in 2014 I had a clear run at the whole year so I felt great those times too but yeah.

"I think it’s a combination of physically having a good few months of training, having a really good set up in my club over the summer as well where we trained hard and then I think part of it is down to the mental side of it too and the fear there for a while of not having season and realising, ‘Jesus, what are you going to do here if there’s no Championship?

"What are you going to do at the weekend or what are you going to be structuring your week around?’ And then you nearly get a bit worried that you’re going to lose it and then, when you get it back, you’re just so appreciative and so excited, you’re nearly like a child again.

"It kind of brings back that raw joy when you get to go and kick a ball around. We’d be doing keepie-uppies before training and playing little tiki-takas and one-touch and I think that part of it has probably added to the form and the whole thing.

Making sure his mindset was right while rehabbing from injury over the Winter and into the Spring was one of the toughest things to ensure he got right he added.

"That's probably the toughest thing, obviously when you're rehabbing on your own for the spring it's pretty tough, when you're missing league games that's tough.

"The big challenge then is when you're back and when you're playing and you've been cleared to play but you know you don't have a bank of three months of training and you know, 'Right, I might be at a certain level here but if I'm putting my hand up for selection, I'm going to be judged and rightly so, as if I'm 100 per cent.

"I'm going to be asked to do jobs for the team that require a really high level. Maybe you have these doubts in your head then that, 'Well, I can't do this run' or 'I can't do that run' or 'I need to tailor my game'.

"At inter-county level it's already so difficult to perform so you don't want those doubts in the back of your head. And the second thing in those seasons is that when you have team-mates who are really flying, or younger guys or less established guys who are really playing well and they know that you've got a bit of a niggle or they know that you're only back a few weeks.

"You have the dynamic of you maybe coming on ahead of them or getting selected ahead of them, it can be difficult to manage that as well. Because you'd be talking to them away from the pitch and chatting about your rehab and where you're at.

"I did often struggle with that, you know, team-mates who are fully fit and flying and then potentially the two of us sharing a position or swapping or coming on and off for eachother, the dynamic when they might be doubting you ever so slightly or you might be doubting yourself.

"It's nice to have a clean slate and not to have those thoughts in your head the week of a game and just playing with freedom and just getting on with it.

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Personal achievement: Cillian O'Connor was named as the PWC/GPA Player of the All Ireland semi-finals for his showing against Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile.

Having a break from it all

The covid enforced lay-off something that has benefited himself in making sure he was ready for action when the inter county championship came back in October rather than in May as per normal he believes, and for the team as a whole to be able to take their minds off it for a while.

"I definitely think there's a silver lining to it, there are definitely positives in it, and it's the same for lots of other club players and county players, jeez, I'm not alone here, but if you have a long club season and if you have surgery, if you're unlucky, or if your rehab is delayed until Christmas or January, then suddenly you have the first round of the Championship in your diary and it's a countdown, it's a race to the 13th of May or it's a race to the first of June or whatever and your mind is already subtracting weeks from that to get back and to get fit.

"It was nice to be off that hamster wheel for a little while and to feel physically good, feel healthy, prioritising something else as well for a change, prioritising people's....you know, public health, with the Covid pandemic it was nice to get perspective that, 'Jesus, don't take yourself too seriously, it's not that important, there's a pandemic here that's shutting down the world, you can stop talking about Mayo for a few minutes'. So I think we all enjoyed that break and I think we were refreshed from it."

Learning from the past

Having been in finals against Dublin in 2013, 2016, and 2017 - O'Connor has plenty of experience of playing the Dubs at the final stage of the competition, but things have changed a lot when it comes to the shape of both sides since their last meeting in the showpiece he says.

"I think there’s been such a huge turnover of players on both sides. You know better than me how many players will be playing the next day that were there in 2016 or in the semis in 2015.

"I’m thinking of a few players on our squad who wouldn’t name the Mayo team from the 2016 finals, let alone the Dublin lads. So there’s boys who are so caught up in this season and going week to week, the younger players certainly won’t be bogging themselves down with it.

"For ourselves then who have maybe been around a bit longer, I don’t think there’s anything from those games we can analyse that we haven’t already.

"We would have gone through at the time in the off-season and taken what we can. Then it’s about individuals who will be playing the next day, and I think there are plenty of games this year that we can analyse. The semi, even the Leinster final and a couple of league games even. But I think the most relevant ones are the last couple of games, so I don’t think there’s any more digging to be done on the older ones."

As for what he can take from those previous games there is still plenty there for them that they did right and wrong and to keep working on.

"We know stuff we did that worked really well, and we know stuff that probably let us down as well so no, I think good analysis isn’t biased by the result.

"Something that happens in the 78th minute shouldn’t determine how you look at the previous 77. Games we have lost could have been our best performances and then there’s other times in games we’ve won where people go off all rosy about it and we were shocking.

"So you have to be cold and factual about what we did well, look at the numbers, look at the clips. So there’s loads of positives for us to take from previous encounters, but there's definitely stuff that they have done well and we need to get better at."

“I think there are definitely things you have to learn from them. It’s hard to list them now but the way you plan out your week, the way you plan out your day on the morning of it.

"You can definitely get better at that. I found that there were definitely times when I tuned in to the game and the event too early in the day or the week and you end up wasting energy, playing scenarios over in your head.

"Everyone’s approach is different but I’ve learned to keep myself occupied right up to as late as you can: front-load my week and do my prep early so that I can switch off for the days leading into it.

"Then there’s keeping yourself at the right emotional pitch so you don’t get too high or too low. You don’t want to be too relaxed and half-asleep but you don’t want to be frothing at the mouth either so trying to pitch it right is the challenge.”

 

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