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Moving on from Connelly and Holmes saga, penalty pressures and Tipperary test

Mayo star Cillian O’Connor has been reflecting on a number of issues ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland senior football semi-final against Tipp.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT’S NOT EASY being a Mayo footballer at the best of times.

The weight of expectation to deliver a first All-Ireland senior crown since 1951 has been too much for generations of talented players and an acrimonious player heave that led to the departures of former joint-bosses Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly last year ratcheted up the pressure even more.

When Mayo fell to Galway in the Connacht SFC semi-final, the cynics sneered that it was no more than they deserved as they wondered if Messrs Holmes and Connelly were wearing wry smiles that night.

But Mayo’s response since then has been impressive and central to it has been ace forward Cillian O’Connor, the championship’s top scorer in 2014 and 2015.

The Ballintubber man knew that the wider public would link any setback to what happened last Autumn but as a group but O’Connor says the Mayo players were ready for any flak that might come their way.

“I think at the start of the year, after that, we kind of knew that that’s what that was going to mean, that should we lose a game again now, this will be brought up again, should we struggle in the league this will be brought up again, should we lose in the Connacht Championship, this will be brought up again.

“I think we got comfortable to that idea very early. We kind of put it to bed because as Aidan (O’Shea) said at the start of the year, there’s enough pressure on us anyway.

“We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves, on the group.

Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes Former Mayo joint-managers Noel Connelly (left) and Pat Holmes. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I don’t think it makes any difference because the way the boys are, any time we take to the field and Stephen (Rochford) gives us the jersey to go out and represent Mayo, before thinking about anything else there’s an enormous pressure, I think, to go and deliver and do the jersey justice.

“I think the pressure we put on ourselves is about the jersey and it’s about going and trying to see what we can achieve in the future.

Obviously it was difficult at the start of the year but I don’t think that’s what it’s about for us.

“I don’t think it’s about looking back at something and trying to draw motivation from something that has gone on previously. I think the boys, thankfully, are all kind of motivated by what’s ahead of us and what can be ahead of us and what can be achieved.”

After losing to Galway, Mayo’s qualifier run took them past Fermanagh, Kildare and Westmeath to a quarter-final meeting with Tyrone.

But the Fermanagh game was fraught with danger before O’Shea earned a disputed late penalty and O’Connor converted.

Aidan O'Shea wins Mayo's crucial penalty against Fermanagh. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I think there probably was a fleeting moment where I thought about how important it was. I try to just zap that out of my head all the time.

“No, that came into my head for a second but then it was back to ‘how am I going to hit it’ or ‘where am I going to put it’.

“You just think about what you have to do in that particular moment and get back out for the kick-out.”

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Any doubts about Mayo’s potential to challenge for Sam Maguire again were dispelled by victory against Tyrone.

And O’Connor admits that there were some ghosts rattling through the players’ heads before the game.

“Look, we were confident in our ability but at the same time when you haven’t played a really good, solid 70-minute performance all year you’re going to have those little bits of doubt.

“For sure, they were probably in the back of our heads coming into the Tyrone game as well, that’s probably why it was such an important game for us.

“Being able to do it in Croke Park when the pressure was on and being able to trust new players and some lads who haven’t much championship experience and who haven’t been there for the last five or six years, for them to come in and be trusted to make big decisions in big games in important times and for them to come out on the right side of it, that has to give them confidence going forward.”

Aidan O’Shea celebrates with Cillian O’Connor Cillian O'Connor (left) and Aidan O'Shea draw breath after seeing off Tyrone. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Connor’s building up his own head of steam in recent outings, with his scoring stats making for impressive reading:

  • v Fermanagh 1-5 (1-0 pen, 0-3f, 0-1 45)
  • v Kildare 0-2f
  • v Westmeath 1-5 (1-0 pen, 0-2f)
  • v Tyrone 0-7 (4f)

Peak form is coming at just the right time following a long injury lay-off that left him playing catch-up.

O’Connor underwent knee surgery late last year and while he was expected to miss the entire Allianz League campaign, he returned as a sub against Roscommon and kicked a late free in March.

“I came back training just before the Roscommon game and ideally I probably wouldn’t maybe have featured until later on in the year.

“So, like you said, that’s exactly what it was, I was definitely playing catch up in the fitness and sharpness stakes for the first five or six weeks, trying to get myself right for London.

Cillian O'Connor takes to the field Cillian O'Connor returned from injury against Roscommon in March. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I got myself back in decent physical shape for that but didn’t obviously get 70 minutes that day.”

O’Connor was black-carded against the Exiles and he smiles: “I shouldn’t have brought up that black card should I?

“No, it was just so soon. I can’t really remember but it was an innocuous enough challenge and after the preparation and coming over to Ruislip and getting ready for a game, it was after five or six minutes, it was frustrating.

Probably somewhere in my head was added to that that I of all people wanted to play 60, 70 minutes and I wanted the fitness hit that was going to come with that and didn’t get that.

“I had to train afterwards with the subs which is just not as enjoyable as playing the game so, yeah, maybe set me back a few days.”

But now O’Connor and Mayo are exactly where they want to be – preparing for a sixth successive All-Ireland semi-final.

Stephen Rochford Current Mayo boss Stephen Rochford. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

And while there was natural euphoria following the Tyrone win, O’Connor revealed: “I’d say the relief and satisfaction we had lasted about 15 minutes.

Before we had our boots off the focus had already turned to Tipperary in terms of planning for training sessions and recovery sessions, video analysis sessions, everything shifted to Tipperary before we’d left the dressing room. Stephen and the lads were banging onto us about Tipperary before we’d even got onto the bus.

“There’s a good bit of experience in the squad that won’t allow any idle talk or soft talk about anything like that.

“So I’d hope the the younger lads as well are smart enough too to realise that any team in the last four of the championship is there on merit and they just need to watch any of their (Tipperary’s) games to realise what a challenging test it is going to be.

“But it is just great to be competing against a last four team, 21 August in Croker, it’s just brilliant and it is brilliant for the younger lads who haven’t been in that situation before to get to this level now and I can’t wait.”

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