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Cillian O’Connor: Mayo’s football apprentice

The Apprentice

Cillian O’Connor talks about his meteoric rise through the ranks

Exclusive interview
Mike Finnerty

HE started as he meant to go on.
Back in January, Cillian O’Connor made his Mayo senior debut in the FBD League against GMIT on a freezing cold night at McHale Park and scored 1-6. Eight months later, in summer sunshine at Croke Park, the 19 years-old lined out against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final and hit 1-3. In between, he hardly put a foot wrong.
Meteoric rise doesn’t quite cover it.
Sixteen months ago the Ballintubber teenager sat his Leaving Cert. Two months later he played in the All-Ireland minor semi-final. Then came a County Senior Final with his club and, shortly aftewards, James Horan decided O’Connor was ready for senior football. The boy was about to become a man.
Last Wednesday morning, the 19 years-old stepped off a plane from New York at Shannon Airport  around 8am. After spending the weekend in the Big Apple with his Mayo team-mates, he had stayed on for an extra day to do some sight-seeing and shopping.
His flight had just landed when a text message told him he had been nominated for ‘Young Footballer of the Year’. His reaction? ‘I thought it was cool,” he admitted.
The Second Year college student then made his way back to Dublin for lectures at St Pat’s, Drumcondra where he is training to be a teacher.
In between classes, he talked to The Mayo News, and later that evening helped train the college’s First Year football team.
Last weekend he was back in with the Mayo senior squad for a fitness assessment, and next Sunday will carry Ballintubber’s chief scoring threat in his second County Final. His schedule is as packed as it is relentless, but as befits somebody whose maturity belies his years, he is taking each day as it comes.

MF: You’ve had a hectic few years. Do you ever feel exhausted by it all?
CO’C: At times you do. But when the Mayo minors were on a run last year it was brilliant. We were playing really good football, winning games, and we were unlucky to lose to Tyrone. We made some silly mistakes.
Then I went straight out of that into Ballintubber and we had great momentum. That carried me through September and October and into November, and I didn’t have time to think about it.
Getting the call from James Horan to join up with the Mayo senior squad was a huge lift. I was really excited by that. It was something to really look forward to.
If I had been losing games all year, then things might have started to drag a little.
Looking back, the hardest time was probably the pre-season training at the start of this year.
I was also doing pre-season with the college first year and Trench Cup teams, was travelling up and down from Dublin, and there were no games. Just training.
Summer was still six months away. That was tough.
But, at the same, time the training was brilliant. I loved going into Mayo senior training. You were working with great people and learning so much.

MF: Did you ever think when you joined up with the Mayo seniors last Autumn that 2011 would work out the way it did for you?
CO’C: Not in a million years. I remember writing down my goals last January and, at the time, I thought they might be a little over-ambitious.
I wanted to make the FBD League panel and score, and I wanted to feature in a National League game.
They don’t seem very ambitious at all now. They seem kinda boring. But they were honestly my goals at the time.

MF: How big a step-up was it from county minor to senior in a matter of months?
CO’C: I know I’ve only played one season but I think I’m kind of accustomed to it now. I know it probably sounds obvious, but the speed of the game is the biggest difference. It’s so much faster it’s hard to explain.
You almost need to know what you’re going to do with the ball before you get it.
You also need to have thick skin to deal with the knocks and the criticisms. You have to take the praise and criticism with a pinch of salt, and be able to block out some stuff and just take whatever will help you down the line.
You have to be mature about who you listen to as well.

MF: Have you had a chance yet to reflect on the last 12-18 months?
CO’C: Yeah, sitting in Drumcondra with the lads, in the house, from time to time you’d be thinking back on different things.
But I still haven’t had a chance to assess the whole year yet, not with Ballintubber still involved in the championship.
So far, the year has been surreal. The highlight would have to be Hyde Park and the Connacht Final. The day that was in it, the hype, the negative tension around the place with the hospital. .
It was also a big day for me, it was my first day kicking frees, and if it had gone wrong I could have ended up on the scrapheap. Thankfully, it didn’t.
But while we won a Connacht title, and there was real progress made, deep down I’d still consider the year a failure. Any year you don’t win an All-Ireland, you’d have to be disappointed. We lost the semi-final by eight or nine points, that’s the reality of it.

MF: Are you looking forward to taking a break at some stage?

CO’C: When you’re playing, you feel that you want a break. But after two or three weeks, you want to get back at it. Being honest, I can’t wait to get my programme and get back in the gym again.
It can be hard to get the balance between county U-21 and senior. At my age, U-21 has to be my priority at that time in the season. Thankfully, there’s enough common sense with the people in charge and they work together.

MF: What was it like having your old club manager in charge of Mayo?
CO’C: I found it a good thing. It was nice to have somebody familiar there when you were in a new dressing-room with new players. It was reassuring having that constant there. I wasn’t surprised to see James there though; I had a feeling he’d go on to bigger things.

MF: Does being nominated for an All Star and Young Player of the Year make you feel that all the hard work this year was worth it?
CO’C: It’s nice to get recognised, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s an honour but, at the same time, I don’t think it makes up for losing against Kerry.
It’s a team sport so when the team loses, you’re obviously disappointed. We had a great year but, overall, I’d still consider it a failure.

MF:  Ballintubber have been on an incredible run of results. Why is that?
CO’C: James [Horan] and Tony [Duffy] set up a good base a few years ago and Anthony [McGarry] has continued it on. There are 28 or 29 lads fully-focussed, everyone is committed, and we’re a tight-knit bunch.
There’s no secret to it, everything is based on hard work.