Mayo have learned some hard lessons along the way to get here

GAA: All Ireland SFC Semi Final

The attacking gatekeeper: Cillian O'Connor will be looked to for leadership on the field on Sunday. Photo: Sportstfile.

The attacking gatekeeper: Cillian O'Connor will be looked to for leadership on the field on Sunday. Photo: Sportstfile.

This Mayo team have never shirked away from a challenge, they have shown over the past six years they will give it their all. After having to swallow the bitter taste of defeat for the first time in the Connacht championship in more than half a decade against Galway they faced some hard truths. Cillian O'Connor recounted some of those sessions in the lead up to Sunday's All Ireland semifinal against Tipperary last week. "It wasn't enjoyable, it's not easy to go through things when they have gone wrong but you have to just face up to them, you can't hide away and hope they fix themselves so we just got back training," the Ballintubber ace recalled.

When the final whistle went against Galway back in early summer, reaching the last four looked a long way off for supporters, and players too, he acknowledged, "We didn't look that far to be honest, it was just real, real, bitter disappointment that we hadn't performed and done the jersey justice really that evening and it was hard pill to swallow. But the lads in fairness didn't wallow in self pity or anything, we were frustrated and a little bit annoyed. We got back on the pitch on Tuesday and young lads, old lads, everybody, put their shoulder to the wheel and got the heads down because we had no choice."

Being the team's captain this year, O'Connor is the man looked to for leadership and guidance on the field, but he did not need to put any extra pressure on himself to gee things up after that game he said. "I didn't take that much persuasion to be honest, everybody collectively felt really disappointed as how it had gone down and that we had let each other down, and that we had let the people down by the performance, and didn't close out the game that was probably there for us in the last 10 minutes and we were properly beaten, just beaten by a better team on that day, but we got back in the pool the next day, were back on the pitch the next Tuesday, analysed the game and painfully went through some things on it and took whatever positives we could, but took a lot of lessons from it and tried to put it in practice for the qualifiers."

Now on Sunday, the beaten Munster finalists and the surprise story of the championship summer stand in their way of making it back to a third All Ireland final in six years, with Tipperary being in uncharted territory at this stage it does not make it any different from Mayo's preparation point of view according to O'Connor. "I don't think it does make any difference, I think we'll approach it the same way we would the other semifinals we played in. I suppose there's a bit of a novelty in that we haven't played them before in recent championship. It doesn't change too much, it's a bit of a novel pairing but we'll approach it the same way as we would any. Stephen and the lads will do the homework and come to us with what we need to do and practice.

Mayo's greater experience at this level is something that a lot of observers expect will see them through on Sunday, but while they have not been mixing it at the top level of the senior grade, there is plenty of experience at the top of the game at underage level that Tipp bring with them according to O'Connor. "I think experience is important, mentally getting yourself ready for it and keeping your focus on the opposition, there are other distractions that could take your mind off it, if you were a bit younger or a bit less experienced maybe. But you can only win the game in the 70 minutes, although they might not have played any senior semifinals, a lot of those Tipp lads would have had to play high pressure stakes in minor semifinals and finals and u21 finals. They would have been put to the pin of their collar in those games and had to make high pressure decisions in those games so they'll be well used to that."

While Tipperary have surprised most with their progress this year and they have impressed all watchers with their brand of football, there will be no real surprise in the way they approach the game, they have shown how effective they can be on the field and O'Connor knows they have to be respected. "Everybody has seen what they can do and what they are capable of. I would have seen a little bit of their game against Cork, when they really should have beaten them by a lot more that day. I didn't see the Munster final yet, saw the big score they put up against Galway and it could have been over with 15 minutes to go and they could have got a few more goals, but without being overly familiar with them, I would have kept an eye on them through the minor championship when I was 18 and a couple of those lads went through and had a lot of success at u21 level later on, a good chunk of that team, but a good few of them are used to competing at the latter end of the championship, so they won't feel in any way out of their depth."

Mayo's path through to the semifinal is a new experience for this group of players, having to navigate the qualifier system to reach this stage, as for the long route being one that has been more beneficial to them, it has its pluses and its potential minuses according to O'Connor. "Possibly, to win the Connacht championship was an aim of the squad, to win every game we played in the championship is, as it's fallen with the benefit of hindsight, we got an opportunity to play a few of the younger players who had no championship experience, play a few players coming back from injury including myself who benefited from 70 minutes three times in four weeks and the likes of Chris Barrett and Tom Parsons coming back from knocks among others, the way it's worked out there were flaws in our play that needed fixing and thankfully we were able to keep tweaking and fixing them without paying the ultimate price and be knocked out. If you told me the morning after the Galway game, we'd play four games and be back in the semifinal, that would be the ideal situation I would have said, when I woke up the morning after the Galway game it did seem a long road back. 

"It was thrown at us for the first time this year, I hadn't played in the qualifiers before and I suppose because we came through them, it all seems rosy and great, at the time the turnaround was pretty quick. Had we picked up a couple of deadlegs or rolled ankles and lads were missing injured and out of a game, I wouldn't be singing about it. We were probably lucky coming out of the right side of the result first, but we didn't pick up any knocks coming out on the short side of those games, we were a little blessed."

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