When the kids file on to the field at the full-time whistle after any Mayo game, he’s the one that most of them flock towards and he’s invariably the last one to make his way to the dressing room after signing jerseys and posing for photographs, fresh after the battle. Being marked out for stardom in the GAA since he was a minor sensation is something that Aidan O’Shea has had to live with for the past number of years and at the age of 24, he’s in his sixth season as a main stay in the Mayo team and he admits that in his break-out year of 2009 it came a little to easy for him.
“My game’s not changed to much, when I came into the panel, I played full-forward and never really planned on staying there. It probably came to easy to me in my first year and probably took things for granted and probably lost a good year in 2010 from my own development, then from there on in things have improved for me year on year, bar the year with injury. But things have gone well, not much has changed than we got better.”
His performance in last year’s All Ireland quarter-final, where Mayo dismantled Donegal with ease, was one of the stand out performances of last years championship, but it was just another day at the office for him according to O’Shea.
“I said after the game, that the only difference between that and a couple of other games I played was that I caught a few balls and if I didn’t catch them and the boys won the breaks the same thing would have happened. It was a game I played well in, but I’m sure there are other games in that I played just as well.”
Looking back on Mayo’s last meeting with Cork in the All Ireland quarter-final back in 2011, when Mayo knocked out the defending All Ireland champions, it was a huge step in the evolution of the this current team O’Shea feels. “The start stands out because I was at fault for one of the goals, I took the ball into the tackle and bang they got a goal straight from it. I don’t know what we were down, we were way down. We came in at half-time and said don’t panic and look, Kevin McLoughlin got the goal just before half-time, a cracker of a goal and I think we shut them out in the second half bar John Miskella’s point, it was a massive step for us a team and with it being James’ first year, it was a big step at the time.”
In the Connacht final against Galway, O’Shea was pushed further up the field by James Horan into the marquee centre-half-forward position, the change from the middle of the park to number eleven is something that came very easy to O’Shea he explained. “It’s not anything new to me, I played a lot of my underage career there. So it’s not something I find new, it’s something that James asked me to do against Galway. I found a lot of space, because Gary O’Donnell wanted to stay back the pitch and protect their defence, that benefited us I suppose.” He went on to explain that, “I suppose my work is 25 to 30 yards further in the pitch which helps, when I’m fouled, it’s probably in scoring range for Cillian and obviously it’s about having a presence on the half-forward line, getting ball into the boys inside. I suppose it’s another kick-out option as there’s not much chance of a centre-back following a so called midfielder out the field.”
O’Shea who uses the Twitter handle @aidoxi feels comfortable in the number 11 shirt and he’s got plenty of slagging from his team-mates about it already, “the boys would slag me anyway, with XI being my Twitter handle so it does matter (Laughs ). But no, I think the number 11 on the Mayo team is a different role to maybe number 11 on the Kerry team or Dublin. It differs from game to game and I’m sure if I’m wearing number 11 against Cork it’ll differ again.”
This year has seen Mayo get over a difficult Roscommon challenge in the semi-final in Hyde Park and O’Shea was just happy to get out of there with the win. “We looked dead and buried with ten to go and Roscommon deserved to be in the place they were at the time, but you don’t win four-in-a-row’s easy and if we’d let it slip it would have been disappointing. To get out of the Hyde, I hope they don’t mind me saying, but I don’t like playing there, it’s a horrible pitch to play on and we don’t seem to ever win there and coming from three points down was massive and huge relief.”
As for the Connacht final against Galway, he was happy with the win, but knows that Mayo can improve a lot more over the next few games. “Looking back we were very, very controlled, very comfortable, never in trouble and we’ve a lot more gears to get into though. That’s something that we definitely, didn’t get into fourth gear I’d say. But as I said very solid and composed team performance.”
Mayo have been building slowly this year through the championship compared to last year where they battered down the door of every defence put in front in Connacht and O’Shea feels they are where they need to be at this time of the year. “We’re happy, we’re building very, very nicely. People might question is it by design or not, but we’re coming at the in the right way at the right time of the year and we’re hitting Croke Park with a lot more to give.”
The Mayo players didn’t have long to rest on their laurels after their Connacht final win over Galway as they were out in club championship action the next weekend, leaving only the weekend just gone for the them to get back together and get their heads set for Sunday’s challenge. It’s something that O’Shea doesn’t see lasting much longer in the future. “I think it would have been more beneficial for ourselves if we were able to regroup after the Connacht final. But it is what it is, we came through the games with no injuries so that’s the most important thing, but it did eat into our time before the quarter-final.
“It’s a difficult one, I think you’re probably going to see something like maybe cricket in England, where the club plays away and then the county players play when available or are let back. Club championship will be different, I think for league games, county players will play to much of that any more. For my own club four of us are on the panel you take the four of us out of it and were losing games, it’s not a nice thing to see your club-mates not have their full complement, but at the same time our club players are very important and they have to get their games played.”
As for getting back to Croke Park on the August Bank Holiday weekend it’s where O’Shea wants to be. “It’s pure excitement, it’s what you wait for all year. The football championship only really kicks off on the Bank Holiday weekend, what goes beforehand kind of goes out the window and I can’t wait for it to be honest.” And as for getting out on the big open spaces of the Jones Road venue, O’Shea loves playing there. “I prefer playing there than playing anywhere else, very comfortable there, best pitch on the country, great atmosphere there.”
Mayo will face Cork on Sunday at 4pm in Croke Park.