A WINNING SMILE Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor celebrates with the Clarke Cup after the recent All-Ireland Under 21 Football Championship Final. Pic: Sportsfile
Diarmuid O’Connor reflects on Mayo’s All-Ireland success
TUESDAY evening in Hollymount and the crowds have come out to welcome home the All-Ireland under 21 football champions and their captain from the village, Stephen Coen.
The players and management pose for photographs, sign autographs, and both Michael Solan and Stephen Coen address the audience.
Then they slip away quietly to enjoy each other’s company one last time before heading to the four corners of the country, and rest their weary bones after four long days on the road.
During the speeches, Diarmuid O’Connor stood quietly at the back of the group on stage in the Hollymount hall.
Listening intently and looking, to the untrained eye, like any other 21 year-old. Expect that he isn’t.
O’Connor is the current Young Footballer of the Year and on course to become one of the best Mayo footballers of them all.
But you wouldn’t think it to talk to him. He’s humble, shy, well-mannered and extremely self-deprecating.
Like his brothers, and his parents, Tony and Mary.
Diarmuid spoke to The Mayo News about what winning his second All-Ireland medal meant to him, and why these group of Mayo under 21 footballers are so special.
MF: What have the last few days been like for you?
DOC: It still hasn’t really sunk in. They’re a special bunch of lads, who know how to celebrate as much as they know how to play ball.
MF: How did it feel when the game ended?
DOC: It was better than I could have imagined, just sheer enjoyment. Once the final whistle went it was just an unbelievable feeling, and it hasn’t really sank in yet.
It’s only when everything settles down that you realise just what’s happened, and just what you’ve achieved.
I only watched back the [All-Ireland] minor match recently, just a few weeks ago for the first time.
It’s only really when everything settles down, and you’re back at home with your family, that you realise just how big an achievement it was.
MF: What’s been the highlight for you since Saturday?
DOC: The thirty seconds after the final whistle, when the crowd came in and my family came in. It was unbelievable, words can’t describe it.
A million things go through your head, I got a bit emotional myself when I saw my family there. It was unreal.
MF: As games go, how did it compare to others you’ve played in?
DOC: I think the intensity was higher than normal, than any other game we played this year.
I couldn’t get my second wind at all out there and, in fairness to the lads, they carried me through.
I was down and out for about fifteen minutes. I found the going a lot tougher than normal, I just found myself a bit off the pace.
But when I was falling down, the lads were lifting me up. They’re just a very special bunch, they drive you on and give you the motivation to go again.
I never thought for a second that we were going to lose. Even when we were six or seven points up and they came back.
Not for a second did I think we’d lose.
Against Roscommon we went seven points down, against Dublin we let the lead slip. . That’s disappointing, but ‘the next ball’ is our motto and we never panicked for a minute.
I knew the lads would pull through.
MF: There’s obviously a lot of pressure playing senior football for Mayo. Was it different with the under 21s?
DOC: I suppose, in a way. Coming through at the start of the year there wasn’t as much attention on the under 21s, and maybe not as much pressure.
Once we won Connacht, we felt we could go out and maybe enjoy ourselves, enjoy the way we were playing football. I think the lads showed that in the final with the little flicks and stuff.
Playing like lads with no pressure on them at all, and I think that’s what got us over the line in the end.
MF: Do you love the big games?
DOC: I love every game, any day you put on a Mayo jersey is a great day. I enjoy every game.
MF: Looking back over the six weeks and the four games, what were the turning points?
DOC: We were talking last night about the match [the Connacht Final] in Markievicz [Park]. .
People think it was a mistake, but it was actually the timing of it. . I remember I was chasing back trying to get back … But Matty Flan, in fairness to him, he dived as the [Roscommon] forward was going around him, he just jumped up and gave him a little tap on the shoulder.
It was just the tiniest touch to put him off, and the ball went to ground or whatever.
If it was another ‘keeper he might have given up once the forward went around him, but Matty never gave up. He had dived but he got up again, and got a finger-tip to your man’s shoulder. These are the little things that make a huge difference.
MF: Were you worried at any stage in the four games?
DOC: It’s easy to say now that I was never worried, but the biggest one was the very poor start we got off to against Roscommon.
Not that the game when we got hammered two years ago in MacHale Park came to mind, but you just felt that it wasn’t going to be our day.
But once we got going, and kicked the first two or three points, I knew coming out for the second half that if we got going at all, we were good enough to beat them.
MF: What’s the secret of this group’s success?
DOC: It’s the same with every team I play on, but this team more so. As Stevie [Coen] said already, we’re like brothers.
It shows on the pitch when lads are down and out. It’s probably one of the tightest squads I’ve ever played in.
MF: Did the big Mayo crowd play a part against Cork?
DOC: Definitely. We were just talking about it last night. . Everybody knew it before the game, but they showed again why they’re the best supporters in the country.
Any time we got a score or did anything, the roar out of the crowd was incredible. They were the 16th man out there.
It made a huge difference.
I didn’t realise the size of the crowd myself until we went up to get the cup, and the sea of green and red was just unbelievable.
MF: What does winning a second All-Ireland medal do for you in terms of confidence and self-belief?
DOC: These lads don’t need much more confidence, they’re brimming with it. But, yeah, I suppose all the talk about Mayo teams and All-Irelands, it just puts that to bed when you go out and win.
Most of these lads have played in two All-Ireland Finals and won two, so it gives you the confidence to go on.
MF: You’re the only man in the O’Connor household with two All-Ireland medals. That must give you bragging rights over your brothers?
DOC: We just have one more to get now, but we’ll worry about that another day. We’ll enjoy this for a few more days, and then I’ve got to get some study done for my exams. I’ve got to get my feet back on the ground, and back down to earth.
MF: Are you looking forward to the summer?
DOC: I can’t wait.