Mayo midfielder Aidan O’Shea.

Source: Inpho/Eoin Lúc Ó Ceallaigh

AIDAN O’SHEA WAS asked recently to name a rival he particularly admires.

“There have been a few, Michael Murphy from Donegal is from my era, and he’s a brilliant footballer,” he answered. 

It’s no surprise that O’Shea holds Murphy in such high regard. They’ve got plenty in common. Both 29, the pair shared the dressing room as International Rules team-mates in 2013, 2014 and 2017. Murphy captained Ireland for the first two years, while O’Shea was skipper in the latter tour.

Two forces of nature, they’ve been central figures for their counties for over a decade now. And they’ll go head-to-head from the opening seconds tonight in Elverys MacHale Park. The throw-up between O’Shea and Murphy might well be worth the admission fee alone. 

Australia’s Travis Boak and Brendan Goddard battle for possession with Michael Murphy and Aidan O’Shea.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The Mayo and Donegal rivalry has soured in recent years, perhaps dating back to the 2012 All-Ireland final won by Jim McGuinness’s side. Murphy’s early goal helped propel Donegal to their first Sam Maguire success in 20 years.

The following August, Mayo exacted sweet revenge when they dished out a 4-17 to 1-10 hammering in the quarter-final, dethroning Donegal as champions in the process. Mayo enjoyed another last eight win over their neighbours in 2015, this time by five points. 

Mayo have lost just once to Donegal since that final defeat seven years ago. This evening’s clash is effectively another quarter-final encounter. A losers leave town match.

“It’s pretty much a quarter-final of the All-Ireland in MacHale Park,” O’Shea tells The42.

“Donegal supporters and Mayo supporters, the place will probably be a sell-out, which hasn’t been like that in a long, long time. If you look at it as an All-Ireland quarter-final, it’s where you want to be and it’s coming right to the business end of the championship.

“In the next few weeks you’re going to have a quarter-final and potential semi-final to look forward to so this is where you want to be at.”

The presence of the man who brought Mayo within touching distance of the All-Ireland in 2016 and 2017 on the Donegal sideline only adds to the intrigue. Stephen Rochford was signed up to go again for another year in Mayo with a new-look backroom team when things hit a snag at an executive committee meeting.

Long story short, the committee’s support for his coaching team members wasn’t exactly forthcoming and he stepped aside. Declan Bonner moved quickly and snapped up Rochford as coach in October, a move that O’Shea admits he was “a little bit surprised” by.

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Stephen Rochford celebrate after their All-Ireland quarter-final win over Tyrone in 2016.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Rochford’s return to MacHale has been much-discussed in the media this week, but O’Shea disagrees with the notion he’ll have the inside track on Mayo. 

“I don’t think so,” he says. “Stephen obviously worked with us for a few years. Our squad has changed a bit as well, I think we’ve six or seven championship debutants this year. So it’s changed a bit in terms of personnel.

“Stephen will know probably as much as any of the Donegal boys would know about us anyway. We’ve played against each other often enough over the last couple of years so I don’t think it will be anything that will have a huge bearing on the game.

“I’m not surprised that he got back involved in football. He’s a big football guy. Probably a little bit surprised that he was going to Donegal but fair play to him, it’s a fair trek for him going up from Ballinrobe every couple of days. They’ve been doing well, they had a good league campaign and have been doing very well in the championship as well.”

Rochford has been credited with helping develop Shaun Patton’s restart strategies to the point where the Donegal stopper is the frontrunner for an All-Star between the posts. Whichever side prevails in the kick-out battle may well edge this one.

Mayo will look to press up on his restarts and force him to go long, where Murphy and O’Shea will engage in a battle of the skies. Rob Hennelly has returned to the starting team, and he’ll be expected to get away his restarts quickly to his defenders or pick out his Breaffy clubmate in the middle. 

O’Shea has been restored to midfield this season – a position many feel is his best. He estimates it’s his longest ever unbroken run at centre-field for Mayo.

O’Shea in action against Meath in the Super 8s.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I haven’t played I’d say ever for Mayo this amount of games midfield. Probably 2012 or 2013 maybe when James (Horan) was around. I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been good.

“It’s funny, we usually have loads of midfielders. The fact that Seamie (O’Shea) has been out, Barry (Moran)’s retired, Mattie (Ruane) obviously getting injured, Tom Parsons has been injured too. So all of a sudden you’ve gone from having a lot of midfielders to having very little.

“It’s probably been a needs must in a lot of ways. It’s worked out well, I think I’ve been playing decent football and I’ve really enjoyed the spell out there at the moment.”  

Often the victim of his own versatility, O’Shea has regularly played at full-forward and centre-forward over the years and won an All-Star in both positions. Two years ago, Rochford pulled a rabbit out of his hat when he deployed O’Shea at full-back to quell the threat of Kieran Donaghy.

He spent the majority of the league at 11 until Mayo’s narrow league win over Kerry in Tralee during the middle of March. He quickly formed a partnership with fellow Breaffy man Matthew Ruane and the pair outplayed and outmuscled the Kingdom in the Division 1 final.

He’s remained a constant at midfield ever since. Partly down to his form and partly down to injuries to other midfielders, Ruane included. There are obvious benefits to enjoying a sustained run in the same position.

“Year on year, a couple of years you’re probably wondering, ‘Where will I be? Will I be full-forward, will I be centre-forward or midfield?’ And in some games, probably all three.

“It’s been nice going out knowing I’m going be playing there, that’s it. I think I’ve done alright so far this season and hopefully there’s more to come.”

O’Shea tackles Tommy Walsh in the Division 1 final.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kevin McStay recently described O’Shea as “the best tackler in the country”, highlighting an area of his game that’s often overlooked.

“I like that element of it,” O’Shea says. “I think I’m a good reader of the game and I enjoy breaking up attacks and setting our boys off as well.

“We’ve great pace in our half-back line to start off attacks and if we can get turnovers in around the middle third it’s good for us. It’s something I pride myself on, trying to get a good few tackles in during a game and try get a few turnovers for the team. It’s the unseen stuff but it’s something I enjoy.”

That enjoyment factor hasn’t always been there for O’Shea. Living and working in Mayo brings its own challenges while under an intense spotlight. Losing four All-Ireland finals does things to a man that those outside the arena can never properly understand.

Like Murphy, he was thrust into the fray as a teenager. He dominated plenty of games and often bore the brunt of the criticism when he didn’t.

“I think there was definitely a middle part of my career where I had to step back and realise I wasn’t enjoying it,” he admits. “It wasn’t something that I was getting as much enjoyment as I should have for something that I really love doing.

“I’ve stripped it back a bit and am enjoying those experiences: the training sessions, playing with the lads and maybe it’s a realisation that you’re coming closer to the end but appreciating everything you’ve got in terms of your football career, because it is going to end.

“I’m definitely enjoying it at the moment a lot more and I think it’s probably reflective in my football.”

A Celtic Cross is the one medal absent from O’Shea’s collection, but he doesn’t feel it will define his career if he fails to win one. 

“For me to win an All-Ireland medal…I’m just contributing to what Mayo do. I’d love to win an All-Ireland for Mayo. It’s something I dreamt to do as a young fella and I’m trying to achieve as a player.

“If it doesn’t happen in my time, it’s going to happen (eventually). All I can do in this moment in time is keep making good decisions and trying to improve as best I can and try help do that.

O’Shea lifts the Division 1 trophy in March.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“When the time comes, I hope it’s a long way away yet, it’s something I’ll have to think about then but it’s not something I concern myself with now.”

He’s asked if he could see himself playing as long as Andy Moran, the 2017 Footballer of the Year who’ll turn 36 in November.

“His role is suitable for that,” he laughs. “I’ll go with his motto in terms of, as long as I’m able to contribute and add value to the group, I’ll want to play.

“There’ll come a time when some manager will tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I think it’s time for you to move on.’ And that’s fine, there’s a lifespan to everybody’s football career. I’m enjoying it nearly more now than I ever did so it’s just something that I want to do for as I can.

“If that’s two more years, three more years, that’s fine with me. I just want to be playing in Croke Park like the last day (against Meath) or playing in MacHale Park, they’re massive games, Killarney a couple of weeks ago although it didn’t go too well. They’re massive experiences that I love and enjoy doing so long may it continue.”

At 29, there’s plenty of time for O’Shea yet. He’s amused to hear a statistic that of the teams left in the hunt for the All-Ireland, Mayo have the most amount of starters aged 29 or over. 

“I was only thinking the last day that we had seven championship debutants – I was thinking that’s great! I hadn’t thought of that, I thought the squad was quite young.

“Looking around for me in the dressing room at the moment, I definitely feel a lot older than the young guys coming through. It’s been a different dynamic in there so I’m kind of hoping I’m getting on the crest of their wave and not gone crashing on my own.

“It’s no something I dwell too often on. I’m 29 now and this is my 11th season but I still think there’s plenty of time left in my career and there’s plenty of exciting talent coming through in Mayo so it’s not something I have to worry about or concern myself with really. It’s just kind of the way I think about it.”

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Aidan O’Shea is an Audi Ballina ambassador.

Source: Evan Doherty

O’Shea was 20 when Horan first took charge of Mayo. The intervening years have passed quickly. He was already established in the team back then but occupies a far more senior role now in the dressing room. The relationship between the two hasn’t altered  a whole lot between Horan’s two stints as manager.

“It hasn’t changed hugely in terms of our relationship,” remarks O’Shea. 

“He’s always treated me very similar. Expectations have always been high, quite demanding but he always bounced things off me when I was younger about games and analysis background on a game and stuff like that.

“Sometimes he mightn’t talk to me for a couple of weeks and then all of a sudden he might give me a buzz. He’s like that with most guys. I’ve a good relationship with him, he’s a tough manager, he’s good and I don’t think much has changed.”

Mayo’s early exit in Connacht forced them into another voyage through the backdoor. 

“It’s been really enjoyable in one way but it’s been tough as well in terms of trying to manage your body, manage work, manage your personal life side of things and just trying to keep everything going,” he explains.

“It’s kind of like league football but with a little bit more of an edge obviously and in nicer weather.”

The hectic schedule this summer convinced him to steer clear of Twitter to avoid any unnecessary outside noise. Experience has taught him it’s the best course of action and it’s something he has discussed with the younger players on the squad.

“I think just the way the championship falls for us this year, the fact that it’s week-in, week-out and similar to our analysis and moving forward to each game. All of a sudden you’ll have a burst of energy around your social media around games.

“Just to get away with that and not get caught up in it and then you’re onto the next game. So I just stepped away from it for most of the summer, I’d stay away so I find it beneficial for myself.

“We talk about it, I’d say some of the younger boys probably don’t be listening,” he laughs.

“They’re probably a little bit more oblivious to it like I was when I was younger. I probably didn’t think about it as much. They just go out and play which is great with that kind of freedom.

“They’ve probably realised over the last couple of weeks. We had a bad performance and there were probably people giving out or whatever, but you just have to stay away from that kind of stuff because it’s just going to play on your mind.”

O’Shea before they played Armagh.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Avoiding the football talk around Mayo is a different matter entirely, however.

“It can be difficult,” he smiles. “After losing to Roscommon people are down in the dumps and they’re wondering who we’ll get in the draw and there’s that element every Monday morning.

“It’s nice in a way when I went into work after the Galway game, you could sense the happiness from people and they were delighted that we got the win. Likewise, after Kerry people were down in the dumps.

“You try your best to give people a bit of time but the best thing at the moment is I can just say to them, ‘Yeah look, we’ve a game this weekend. It’s on to the next one.’ So it’s kind of like that but for Mayo people it’s been a brilliant, brilliant summer.

“They’ve got to travel to Newry, Limerick, Kerry, Dublin – they’ve had a crazy summer. They love following us so it’s pretty cool.” 

The Mayo supporters have a much shorter journey on the cards this evening, but for the players the climb gets far steeper from here. Donegal are back-to-back Ulster champions and haven’t lost a competitive game since February.

Still, these are the moments O’Shea lives for.

“I’ve really enjoyed the last few weeks. In between recovering and getting bits done has been tough but having the game at the weekend is something every footballer looks forward to.

“The game coming thick and fast have been good. It all boils down to the Donegal game now.”

Fasten your seatbelts.

-Aidan O’Shea is an Audi Ballina ambassador

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