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'He's so driven, so motivated to make himself and teammates better'

How Ryan O’Donoghue shoulder the scoring burden in the absence of Cillian O’Connor.

Ryan O’Donoghue takes flight against Armagh.
Ryan O’Donoghue takes flight against Armagh.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

WHEN CILLIAN O’CONNOR went down with a torn Achilles last June, many wrote off Mayo’s chances of competing for the All-Ireland. 

Here was a side with a dearth of elite level inside forwards, losing the greatest scorer in the history of championship football.

O’Connor’s 5-40 across five games saw him contribute over half of Mayo’s scoring total in 2020. 

From 1-12 Mayo were as strong as any side in the country, but the absence of the Ballintubber ace appeared to put them way down the pecking order.

Step forward Ryan O’Donoghue. 

The loss of O’Connor on the even of the Connacht SFC meant Horan had to find a man to fill his boots.

Not alone did he assume the free-taking duties from O’Connor, O’Donoghue sought the responsibility from James Horan in his second year as a starter. 

“I actually put myself forward to James to say I’d do it,” he revealed last summer.

“I’ve taken frees at club level. I took them for the Mayo minors as well. It’s nothing I’m not used to. I like the bit of extra.” 

Confidence has never been an issue for the Belmullet man.

When speaking to The42 in 2018 as a Mayo U20, he had no doubt in his mind that the county would one day win the Holy Grail. 

“Someday, we will lift it,” he said as an 18-year-old. “We’ve just been unlucky. It is what it is. Whatever about winning and losing. Someday, we will pick up that holy grail and lift that Sam.

Perhaps that confidence can be attributed to his achievements across various codes at underage level – O’Donoghue is a former underage boxing champion, played soccer with Sligo Rovers and won three soccer caps for the Irish schoolboys. 

Or it could be put down to the remarkably disciplined approach he has retained since he was young.

With his father driving in his car behind him and the headlights on to illuminate the darkness, O’Donoghue would pound the roads of Belmullet at 6am before school when he was in sixth class. In the evenings he’d eat plain chicken and pasta without any sauce.

“I’m a very plain eater. Everyone knows that in (the Mayo) squad. I was eating plain pasta and chicken from the age of 11.”

He led the Mayo attack with 2-27 (1-8 from play) over five games in 2021, driving them to the All-Ireland final. It was 28% of Mayo’s 10-89 total in the championship.  

On his first championship game as free-taker against Sligo, a voice message from O’Connor landed on his phone.

‘Just go with what you usually do. There’s no added pressure. Just stuck with your own routine’.

O’Donoghue thrived with the added responsibility. He netted a pressure penalty in the Connacht final against Galway, and clipped over seven frees in the All-Ireland final defeat to Tyrone.

The one blot on his copybook was a second-half penalty miss that afternoon against Tyrone. 

He was far more than just a placed ball shooter, also contributing scores and assists from open play, while his tackling and work off-the-ball was just as impressive. 

“He’s great to play with because he’s a great fella to link up with,” says Mayo’s injured forward Tommy Conroy. 

“One thing that really stands out over the last couple of years is his tackling. He’s probably one of the best tacklers we have. His tackle and turnover rate up top really sets the tone when lads back the field can see that going on.”

kevin-maguire-tackled-by-tommy-conroy-and-ryan-odonoghue Tommy Conroy and Ryan O'Donoghue tackle Westmeath defender Kevin Maguire. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

O’Donoghue’s partner in crime for the championship was Conroy. The speed merchant suffered a cruciate injury in February which ruled him out for the rest of 2022.

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“I would have first come across Ryan playing with the minors, and Ryan finished up with Sligo Rovers,” says Conroy.

“He joined us. I played U20s with us. He was captain of U20s that got to the All-Ireland final in 2018. The biggest thing that stands out to me with Ryan is that he’s so driven, so motivated to make himself and teammates better.

“He’s a real standard setter in training. Always wants to have the best, be the best. He wants to drive everyone else on with him. Really, really good guy.”

O’Donoghue continued where he left off in the league, firing 2-37 (2-7 from play) as Mayo reached the decider. 

Having gone up against Division 1 defences for the spring, he may well be licking his lips at the prospect of facing his Galway rearguard.

Padraic Joyce’s side shipped 1-20 to Roscommon in the Division 2 final, allowing Diarmuid Murtagh ghost past a handful of players to fire in a late winning goal. 

Having looked so open against the Rossies, Joyce and coach Cian O’Neill will surely have spent much of the last three weeks scheming for ways to tighten up at the back. 

With O’Connor named to start today, he will most likely resume the free-taking duties.

But given O’Connor’s lengthy absence through injury, O’Donoghue remains the forward that Galway need to watch out for from play.

Quite the rise in three seasons as a Mayo senior footballer.

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Kevin O'Brien

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