Summer 2021 is officially on! Mayo footballer Ryan O’Donoghue pictured today at AIB’s launch of the 2021 GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. O’Donoghue was in attendance at the launch alongside Pádraig Faulkner, Kingscourt Stars and Cavan, Conor Sweeney, Ballyporeen and Tipperary, Daniel Flynn, Johnstownbridge and Kildare, and Paul Donaghy, Dungannon Thomas Clarkes and Tyrone, as AIB celebrated the return of summer football and the reignition of county rivalries nationwide ahead of some of #TheToughest games of the year.
Summer 2021 is officially on! Mayo footballer Ryan O’Donoghue pictured today at AIB’s launch of the 2021 GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. O’Donoghue was in attendance at the launch alongside Pádraig Faulkner, Kingscourt Stars and Cavan, Conor Sweeney, Ballyporeen and Tipperary, Daniel Flynn, Johnstownbridge and Kildare, and Paul Donaghy, Dungannon Thomas Clarkes and Tyrone, as AIB celebrated the return of summer football and the reignition of county rivalries nationwide ahead of some of #TheToughest games of the year. 

O'Donoghue not fazed by filling O'Connor's free-taking boots


By John Harrington

Ryan O’Donoghue’s phone beeped on Saturday morning before Mayo’s Connacht SFC quarter-final against Sligo, and when he checked it he found a voice note from Cillian O’Connor.

It’s a measure of O’Connor that even though his own season had been prematurely ended by an achilles injury he still took the time to give some advice to O’Donoghue who was set to replace him as Mayo’s chief free-taker for the Championship.

“Cillian sent me a voice note on Saturday morning, wishing me well and telling me to stick with my routine, that nothing changes, and it's the same if you're practising or in a championship game,” says O’Donoghue.

“He has helped me, and gave me a lot of confidence on that Saturday morning.

"Cillian the man is even better than Cillian the footballer. He's a gentleman. He's not that much older than us really but you'd think because he's around for so long that he's a lot older than he is.

"He's someone that every young footballer in Mayo looks up to. And if it's not him, it's Andy [Moran] and if it's not Andy, it's Ciarán McDonald as a forward. But Cillian has been brilliant for the likes of me and the younger lads to look up to.

"From the first day I walked in, he's been the exact same to everyone. He sees the game a lot better than most players and he'll always come over and give you words of advice.

"He's brilliant and you couldn't really have a better player around the team to look up and be a mentor."

O’Donoghue did the job well, converting four frees in Mayo’s comfortable victory over Sligo, and you get the feeling he would have been just as assured even without O’Connor’s support.

The Belmullet club-man is a naturally confident person despite his relatively tender years, and the sort who tends to embrace a challenge rather than be overawed by one.

“I've done it (free-taking) for my club Belmullet and I did it for the minors in 2016 so it's something I'm comfortable with and happy to take on the responsibility if I can keep proving to James that I'm well able to do it,” he says.

"When I get that added responsibility, I love the pressure of it and it lights that fire in my belly. I don't always need it to play well but I definitely don't shy away from it and I'm well comfortable with it.

"Getting responsibility to take frees thankfully doesn't faze me and I just get on with it."

Ryan O'Donoghue in full flight for Mayo. 
Ryan O'Donoghue in full flight for Mayo. 

Mayo will surely take encouragement from how the forward line as a unit performed in O’Connor’s absence. Five of the sextet scored from play with newcomer Darren McHale especially catching the eye with a personal haul of 1-5.

"It's not ideal Cillian getting injured but it gives the opportunity to other players to step up and, look, Darren McHale came in,” says O’Donoghue.

“There's a possibility he wouldn't be playing if Cillian was there.

"So, I'm delighted to see him take his opportunity and score. That's what we have to do. The six of us pulled together and put in a pretty good performance. So, we're happy with how it went."

O’Donoghue himself was much more than just a steady free-taker on the day, his combination of speed, vision, and bravery brings a great energy to the Mayo attack.

He believes he’s learned a lot from his maiden Championship campaign last year and is now better equipped to thrive at the highest level.

"Athletic-wise, that's the biggest step-up,” he says. “Obviously you have your skills the whole way through and if you're skilfully good enough you'll always have it, but definitely the physical demands of it is where the inter-county senior level really stands out.

"I'm seeing the benefits of learning last year, of not bringing the ball into the tackle. The physical demands are very high at this level so I definitely learned a lot and always learned a lot off the older lads.

"The likes of Aido and Paddy [Durcan, I assume] and Cillian and all them."

O’Donoghue doesn’t just bring natural footballing ability to his Mayo team, he’s also a natural leader having captained most teams he’s played for including the Mayo U-20s and his own Belmullet senior club team when he was still a teenager.

He’s part of a new generation of young players in the panel who already feel empowered to lead by example rather than look to their older team-mates for guidance.

"It's a credit to the dressing room from the older lads, because they let us voice our opinions and lead,” says O’Donoghue.

“Going into it, I was thinking it would be hard to be a leader in that dressing room with all the older lads. But they were so open and welcoming and wanted us to be leaders.

"And I think that kind of showed last year with seven or eight of us making our championship debut against Leitrim and the majority of us got playing for the rest of the season. That was a credit to the older lads. It showed that we were able to be leaders and they let us be leaders.

"It's shown this year that we're a very together group. Some of the older lads have now retired but still a relatively young squad at the moment so we're all stepping up. And when we want to voice our opinion or lead on something, we're definitely doing it.

"So, the older lads are very open to that and that helped the squad integrate together."