in the spotlight
Aidan O'Shea continues to defy criticism and lead Mayo's charge in rebirth under McStay
The Breaffy star is in resurgent form under Kevin McStay.

FOR AIDAN O’SHEA, the 2021 All-Ireland semi-final was a day of contrasts.

aidan-oshea-reacts-after-missing-a-point-chance-from-a-mark James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Beating six-in-a-row All-Ireland winners Dublin was possibly the greatest day in modern history for Mayo GAA. It was fitting that the Dublin dynasty should fall under Mayo’s sword after the many years that the Green and Red had spent under the heel of their nemesis. The manner of their unlikely comeback from six points down at half-time added to the significance of the day as well.

Indeed, O’Shea played his part, but it was not a game that will be remembered among his greatest hits. He struggled to have a positive influence, and by the 49th minute, he had been called ashore. The infamous shot he missed from in front of the posts after claiming a mark in the first half summed up his drab display.

Despite that colossal result, Mayo still failed to end their All-Ireland hoodoo as Tyrone ended up lifting the Sam Maguire that year instead. O’Shea didn’t find any redemption in that final either.

Many have been writing his inter-county obituary ever since, but it’s almost two years later, and he’s still here. And at 32, he’s still central to Mayo’s game. On Saturday night in Castlebar, he found himself standing in front of the posts again, and this time he didn’t miss. With the help of a deflection off Tyrone’s Frank Burns, O’Shea scored a goal which helped his side maintain their unbeaten start in Division 1.

The trajectory of O’Shea’s career is comparable to that of retired Galway hurling star, Joe Canning. Their exact number of individual accolades might not align figure for figure, but their names have been widely known from when they were young. In a sense, they grew up under the spotlight.

When their respective teams shine, the result is attributed largely to their input. And when a game ends in defeat, O’Shea and Canning often become the lightning rod for criticism.

O’Shea started out as sensation at minor level, and progressed seamlessly onto the senior squad, making his debut in 2009. He’s been a mainstay ever since. Even throughout all the revolutions, changes in management and player turnover, O’Shea has remained a cornerstone figure in the team. Some of Mayo’s finest have exited the dressing-room in recent years, including the great Lee Keegan, but O’Shea is still carrying the torch.

His longevity is complemented by his versatility in the team; he has played in almost every line for Mayo. Typically, we tend to see him playing in attacking positions, either on the ’40 or at the edge of the square operating as a target man. But he has also played at midfield and even in the full-back line.

When Mayo were facing Kerry in the 2017 All-Ireland SFC semi-final and pondering who should mark Kieran Donaghy, the then-Mayo boss Stephen Rochford turned to Aidan O’Shea for both the draw and the replay. The experiment was declared by many to be a failure in the first game, as Donaghy scored a point and was involved in the creation of 2-4.

But Mayo persisted with the O’Shea v Donaghy gameplan the second day and were rewarded for their patience. Donaghy failed to score and O’Shea nullified his influence to the extent that Donaghy’s day finished with a red card late after striking his marker. Mayo advanced to the All-Ireland final and O’Shea had produced an emphatic response. When the need was greatest, he didn’t falter.

The Breaffy man’s success in that battle was all the more impressive given that some of the greatest specialist full-backs have crumbled under Donaghy. O’Shea excelled even without the experience.

kieran-donaghy-and-aidan-oshea James Crombie / INPHO Kieran Donaghy and O'Shea pictured together during the drawn All-Ireland semi-final in 2017. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

That sojourn aside, O’Shea tends to thrive at the other end of the pitch, and has two All-Star awards in attacking positions. His other gong, in 2013, was for his performances at midfield. 

That’s not to suggest that O’Shea is above comment or criticism. There are some blots on his copybook from games where he was less than illuminating. But even with all the doubts that continue to surround him, he’s still here, and is enjoying something of a rebirth under Kevin McStay.

Unusually, he’s wearing the 13 jersey these days, but still seems to be operating through the central channels and offering a target at the edge of the square. As a pundit McStay was often strong on his belief that the Breaffy man needed to be deployed closer to goal. He’s backed that up so far, strong showings against Armagh and Kerry followed up on by last Saturday night against Tyrone.

Mayo picked up their second win on the bounce and O’Shea put in a solid shift in the engine room. He kicked a goal in the 25th minute after gathering a pass just outside the square from Enda Hession, who also impressed.

Shortly after that, he made an important run to create space for the incoming Conor Loftus to score a point and extend their advantage. His spatial awareness and timing are the qualities of O’Shea’s game that aren’t always visible.

His highlight of the evening arrived on the half-hour mark when he delivered a perfect pass into the hands of James Carr from distance to grab Mayo’s second goal. Suddenly, they were six points clear and the foundation for their win had been laid down.

O’Shea was replaced by Cillian O’Connor after 59 minutes with Mayo’s win all but assured by that stage.

McStay’s side are currently top of the Division 1 table and their supremacy, along with O’Shea’s good form, will be tested this weekend when they face Roscommon, who are just behind them in second place.

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