Cillian O'Connor hopeful about Aidan O'Shea's fitness
By John Harrington
Cillian O’Connor is confident that the knee injury his Mayo team-mate Aidan O’Shea suffered in training last week isn’t serious.
The Breaffy man has had a very clean injury-record over the course of his career so when he was forced off the pitch at Mayo’s first training session of the season there were fears it must be serious.
“I've not heard anything for definite now yet,” says o’Connor. “Still optimistic that he'll be alright. It was just a kind of a contact injury as opposed to a muscle or a soft tissue, so not really one that can be avoided. Just a bit of chance.
“I think he has to wait for a second reading on a scan or something before he'll know for sure. Still hopeful that it won't be anything too serious.”
That assessment will come as a huge relief to Mayo supporters as well as O’Shea’s own team-mates.
Since making his championship debut for the Connacht side in 2009, he’s been one of their most consistently effective performers.
“He’s been huge,” says O’Connor. “He hasn’t missed a game really as much as I can remember, in 10 or 11 years.
“Behind the scenes, he’s barely missed a training session in the same time. He’s just a real good standard-setter around the place and would be one of the best trainers consistently in the group.
“That’s what we get really, that’s probably the best benefit. Every now and again we have a game and the country sees a performance but all the while, behind the cloak, he’s driving things on in training for six, seven, eight, ten sessions between games and that’s really where the big value is in him for us.
“I’m looking forward to knocking off him and all the lads in training in the next few weeks.”
It’s quite likely that there are a lot of sore bodies in county panels at the moment after a first full week of contact training following the latest lockdown.
Whatever about bumps and bruises, county managements will be keen to avoid the high incidence of muscular injuries that came when players returned to action after the first lockdown in 2020.
As was also the case in the Premier League, there was a marked increase in quad injuries because while players might have done plenty of running to maintain their general fitness, they were unable to practice their kicking during lockdown as much as they could or should have.
Kicking has always been a huge part of the training routine of a free-taker like O’Connor, and he has been careful to ensure he stayed on top of that during lockdown.
“There's a park down the road there where I was able to get out for my kicks whenever time allowed," he says. "I've been able to keep on top of the skills.
“I'd have been in fairly regular contact with the coaches or the S&C coach, sometimes just to get a bit of clearance from him to go kicking. Sometimes we butt heads of doing kicking sessions when I shouldn't instead of taking a day off, maybe after running.
“Obviously, you have to be mindful of picking up soft tissue injuries these days. A little nick could be three or four weeks, which in other years might not be fatal, but now it could rule you out of the whole thing or you could lose your place for the start of the league or the championship.
“I've probably been following the less is more approach really, just trying to get high quality when you do it but not leaving yourself in a position where you're missing a game because of a silly avoidable injury.”
Perhaps because of the countless hours he has always spent training on his own practicing free-kicks, O’Connor didn’t find it mentally challenging during lockdown to keep himself motivated to train in a solitary environment.
“Yeah, I don't mind it at all. A lot of people are like that. They're quite happy to take a bag of balls down to the field for an hour or an hour and a half on their own. I'd be like that. Training on my own, I bring the headphones, I'd be quite happy.
“Now, for the running side of things, that you're doing on your own. Am I better doing the running on my own? Probably not.
“I think everyone up and down the country will testify that it's easier to get a better time when you're running with somebody.
“Running on your own can be a bit harder, I wouldn't say I loved every minute of that. But kicking and doing some handling and ball skills on my own is no problem.”
Naturally enough, when the Mayo players returned to collective training last week there was plenty of good-natured competition in the runs to see who had been doing more or less during lockdown.
“Yeah, you'd hear the rumours or there'd be bits on WhatsApp about who's going well or who's been spotted doing an extra bit of running,” says O’Connor.
“You're curious to see if the rumours are true and if your man is putting up these times or if he's doctoring the Strava a small bit or putting up fake times. There's no hiding now that we're all back together. No, it's great that bit of craic back in a group, it's hard to beat.”
Long-serving Mayo players like Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Seamie O’Shea, Donal Vaughan, Tom Parsons and David Clarke have all retired since last year’s All-Ireland Final.
That’s meant an influx of fresher faces have joined the panel this year and O’Connor has enjoyed the energy they have brought to training so far.
“There's a real sense of excitement in the group,” he says. “Because there's lots of new faces that weren't part of the group last year. They've got to see what can be done in such a short space of time.
“They've seen guys who burst on the scene last year and nailed down starting positions and took jerseys off guys who'd been there for years.
“So, there's a new cohort of players thinking 'well, why can't I do that this year.' It's great that they have role models from the last couple of years to copy and follow.
“It just makes for a really competitive environment and that's what we're trying to push. I'm looking forward to trying to nail down a place in the squad and the team again.
“There's a gang of guys who are looking to take jerseys off myself and other forwards. It's great. It just adds to that sense of competitiveness around training.”