Following on from a stunning extra-time win over Cork on Saturday, Mayo have reached the business end of the All-Ireland championship yet again, and the Westerners have a lot to thank their talisman Cillian O’Connor for.
Twenty-five year-old O’Connor has been a household name for several years and there is good reason for it.
The current Mayo captain won two Young Footballer of the Year awards in both 2011 and 2012 – a feat matched by his brother Diarmuid in 2015 and 2016 – and has turned into a leader in the Mayo attack since.
Yet still, there always appears to be the question surrounding the Mayo forwards, and it’s one that has lingered for the past three or four years – do Mayo possess a marquee forward?
Jim McGuinness has been the most high profile name to pose the question in recent times when speaking to the media in Croke Park a couple of months ago.
McGuinness, who led Donegal to All-Ireland glory in 2012, believes that they do not have a go-to man and said that he thinks that this has been Mayo’s ‘Achilles heel’.
“For me they don’t (have the marquee forward) and that is the Achilles heel of the team over the last couple of years.
“They have really good players all over the pitch and really good forwards but the type of player I am talking about is a cut above even his peers. It’s a ‘Gooch’ Cooper, a Peter Canavan, a Michael Murphy. I don’t see that player.”
You might scratch your head when putting the pieces together. No, O’Connor isn’t up to the standard of the ‘Gooch’, Peter Canavan and maybe not even on the same level as McGuinness’ former prodigy Patrick McBrearty, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Ballintubber club man isn’t exceptional – he is – perhaps in other ways than people might look for.
When doing some research as to what defines a marquee forward or player, there were a couple of examples stating that the player must be: “exceptionally popular, skilled, or otherwise outstanding.”
Fundamentally, a marquee forward in GAA is someone you can rely on, someone who constantly gets scores and someone who stands up when he needs to.
If that doesn’t define Mayo’s key attacker, not much else will.
Yes, O’Connor has his flaws. He may not be the quickest, he may not be the greatest tackler nor is he exceptional in the air, but do not underestimate the areas in which he accounts for his inadequacies.
Firstly, he excels in one of the most underrated skills in the GAA – free-taking.
O’Connor is one of the finest free-takers in the modern era, and when he might not be contributing from play, his conversion rate from dead balls remains exemplary.
One of 2015’s great games was the drawn meeting between Mayo and Dublin in the last four, where he put on a placed balls exhibition – scoring 1-09 (1-00 pen, 0-08f, 0-01’45) – that helped force a replay.
His contribution from open play may not have been up to scratch, but he was there to rely on when a scorable free opportunity arose.
The following year neither Mayo nor O’Connor himself, had a great year. However, they still found their way to an All-Ireland final against Dublin.
In that clash, Mayo trailed by three heading towards injury time before an O’Connor free and Donal Vaughan point brought the deficit back to one.
Seven minutes were added, one point separated the sides and Dublin were seemingly headed for another All-Ireland title. Mayo needed someone to step up, and with 76:50 on the clock O’Connor picked the ball up outside the ‘45, faked to go on his left, and then from 40 metres out landed the last-gasp equaliser to force another replay.
To all of those who criticised the forward’s ability from play, this was a moment of magic that not many other players in the game would even be remotely capable of.
Now in 2017, Mayo appear to be replicating their underwhelming form that has somehow seen them scrape through the qualifiers yet again, but O’Connor has been sublime.
A loss to Galway, preceded an extra-time scare against Derry and a routine win over Clare and, while Mayo haven’t reached their full potential, O’Connor was prolific scoring 1-23 in those three appearances.
Those two qualifier wins set up last Saturday’s round 4A qualifier against Cork, and it was anything but routine.
Scoring 0-11 in the Gaelic Grounds (0-06 from play, 0-05 frees) was nothing short of extraordinary. However, Cork staged a remarkable second-half comeback to bring the game to extra-time.
Mid-way through the extra period, Cork lead by one and Mayo were heading for elimination from the championship.
Three minutes remained in extra-time when Mayo won a ‘45 which O’Connor magnificently put between the posts for his 11th score, and a point that ultimately proved the winner as Mayo won by 0-27 to 2-20.
Mayo haven’t set the world alight in the 2017 championship, but they are where they want to be and with the talent they have within their squad, they have the ability to cause any side trouble.
With Cillian O’Connor, they have a proven match winner who has now scored 1-34 (0-25 placed balls) in just four games, and if the team can keep within touching distance of any team in the final stages, then they know they have someone who can be called on if the time comes.
Watch his great score against the Dubs in Croke Park here – and claim that O’Connor is not a marquee forward:
William Dunne, Pundit Arena