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Cillian is our Achilles


MAYO’S FINEST WARRIOR Cillian O’Connor leads Mayo out for the 2017 All-Ireland SFC Final against Dublin at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Colin Sheridan

ACHILLES, according to Greek mythology, was the son of the mortal Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and his wife, the sea nymph, Thetis. Achilles was the bravest, handsomest, and greatest warrior of the Greek army of Agamemnon in the Trojan War. According to Homer, Achilles was brought up by his mother at Phthia, where, in an attempt to vaccinate her son against, erm, mortality, Thetis dipped Achilles as a child in the waters of the River Styx, so that he would become invulnerable, except for the part of his heel by which she held him—the proverbial “Achilles’ heel.”
Legend has it, the Trojan prince Paris killed Achilles by shooting him in the same heel with an arrow. Paris was avenging his brother, Hector, whom Achilles had slain.
For all the subversion of his legend, it is unlikely that even he, the bravest, handsomest, most fearless warrior of the army of Agamemnon, could’ve ever figured he’d feature so heavily in a preview to Mayo’s championship opener to Sligo.
There is no mention from Homer about Achilles’ free-taking abilities, nothing about his dexterity off either foot, no reference, either, to any connection with Ballintubber, but the story of Achilles got a very modern makeover this week.
Of course it would have to be Cillian.
Of course it would have to be his Achilles.
There is an alliteration between the words that makes it unignorably prescient. Cillian’s Achilles. What’s even more prescient is that Cillian has been our Achilles for a decade (which is a lot of campaigns against the impregnable Troy); he is our handsomest, bravest, fearless, our most deadly accurate.
The irony is, our appreciation of him has matured slower than he has. The last few months, since arguably the best season of his storied career ended, his stock has finally received the market attention it long deserved; Cillian was never crypto, he was gold bullion.
Recent public homages to him inspired by his 100th competitive appearance for Mayo, first by Mick Foley in The Sunday Times, later by John Fogarty in The Examiner, put forth the simple truth that he was, and is one of the best footballers of his generation, and arguably Mayo’s greatest footballer since 1951.
The ink had barely dried on those essays when the worst possible news broke; in Ennis last Sunday, the mythical Paris shot his arrow through Cillian’s vulnerable heel.
Just as the footballing world, however begrudgingly, had started to fully acknowledge his greatness, Cillian has suffered an injury that many believe will see him out for the season.
If a swallow does not a summer make, then, surely one man down should not derail an entire championship campaign. It’s hard, though, when the facts of his worth to the team are so flagrantly obvious, to see how Mayo will do something without him they couldn’t even manage with him.
As one learned colleague put it, “they are — not to get too technical about it — goosed”.
How goosed, though? Mayo are used to playing without Cillian, just not when it matters. Assuming their winning form - albeit in Division 2 - will be enough to see them overcome Sligo this coming weekend, they will very quickly learn how ready they are to mitigate the absence of a player central to everything good they’ve achieved as a group this past decade. There is no filling the void. James Horan may find someone to hit frees, he may find someone to provide scoring from the inside line. He may have the team press harder and higher. He may do all of this, but even he must know, there is no replacing Cillian.
Previewing any Mayo championship season is a fool’s errand. There is always uncertainty. For every positive (league form), there is a compelling counterpoint (it was Division 2). There always seems to be new talent, and to be fair to James Horan, he has no inhibitions when it comes to blooding it. The flipside of that coin is the short-term thinking that comes with needing to win championship games, now.
There is no room for transition or rebuilding. Mayo need to buy the house, move in and renovate it room by room. They don’t have the luxury of a summer house in Roundstone.
They can’t tank a year in order to develop new players, a new style, a new culture.
If those things are to happen, they literally have to make it up as they go along.
I’ve written about it before. ‘Everything You Know is Wrong’ is not just a song by Weird Al Yankovic, it is the working title of the ongoing diary of Mayo football.
How many times in the last ten years have you thought they were ‘bet’, or ‘gone’? How many times did you think they’d beat Galway, only to lose in tragi-comic circumstances?
The spawn of that loss being a reluctant acceptance that they were done as a team, only months later to be moments from glory on All-Ireland final Sunday?
We put a lot of the unpredictability of it all down to not being able to see behind the curtain, but, for all their insight and experience, I’d bet Horan, his management team and his players, for all the advanced metrics, all the marginal gains and stat lines, for all of that, they are often at a loss themselves to explain what happens, and why. For that reason, we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves for not having a breeze how it might all turn out.
It’s worth remembering that Troy eventually did fall to the Greeks, and not because they had Achilles (who was out injured). The city fell to the ruse of a Trojan Horse.
Worth remembering when planning without your greatest warrior.

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