Mayo lost their sixth All-Ireland final in ten years on Saturday. Barring the 2019 Championship, Mayo have reached the semifinal or final every year since 2012. It's a staggering run, and Aidan O'Shea has been there for all of those heartbreaking day.
Mayo clearly have incredible quality but so often fall at the last hurdle. It's such a frustrating tale of nearly-there, it's no surprise people cling to talk of curses.
It was clear on Saturday that Mayo's were the architects of their own demise. There was nothing supernatural at play. They had their opportunities and they spurned them.
Aidan O'Shea is one of the few constants in this decade-long Mayo melodrama. He always seems to be the first person who gets criticised when Mayo lose a big match, and it's been no different in the aftermath of the 2021 All-Ireland final. O'Shea has always had his doubters. As Mayo captain and a player with 153 Championship matches under his belt, more much is expected of the Breaffy man.
But he is just one man in a team of 15.
At the same time, O'Shea is yet to kick a point in any of the seven All-Ireland finals he has played in. O'Shea may not be a natural scoring forward, but being held scoreless in seven finals does ask questions. Lee Keegan, who is not a forward, has scored five points on All-Ireland final day in his career.
The role of O'Shea within the Mayo system on Saturday came up for discussion during a fascinating segment in our All-Ireland final recap on GAA Embedded with Stephen Rochford and Darran O'Sullivan.
Rochford on Aidan O'Shea: People tend to look at the big 6 foot 4 guy
Stephen Rochford managed O'Shea in the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals so understands the conundrum as well as anybody. His take is that O'Shea was quite effective in the first half of the All-Ireland final, especially in setting up Padraig O'Hora's attempt on goal that result in a Tyrone yellow card just before halftime.
“I actually thought that Aidan was actually quite good in the first half, I thought he was winning a lot of first phase, primary ball off Ronan McNamee when he went inside. But we didn’t get the runners. A couple of the lighter lads, maybe he was trying to say if we had a young Darran O’Sullivan playing off him with the pace and bounce we’ve would’ve had opportunities. But I go back to that example, just before half-time they created that free [where Padraig O'Hora was tackled in front of goal]. That’s actually what came off. We had a ball in towards Aidan, a phase or two off him, runners coming off, someone changing the other angle and we got in it. But we didn’t do that enough.
Rochford noted that the Mayo forwards and midfielders weren't running off O'Shea, as they usually do.
We didn’t get Kevin (McLoughlin) running of him ,we didn’t get Conor Loftus running off him, Bryan Walsh, Diarmuid (O’Connor), we didn’t get it. The running was always going to be from Paddy Durcan, Lee (Keegan), (Oisin) Mullen and as the game went on it was only coming from Lee (Keegan). Paddy Durcan was being really well-marshalled by Conor Meyler, obviously Matty Ruane had given us that in the semi-final in the previous game, he was being done by (Conn) Kilpatrick. But people tend to look at the big 6 foot 4 guy and place a lot of blame on him, he’s the team’s captain.
Interestingly, Rochford suggest Horan might have moved Aidan O'Shea to midfield once it was clear that he had drifted out of the game in the second half.
I think people who aren’t invested in us realise that’s it’s never about one guy. Others need to play off him. He’s not a prolific scorer without a Cillian in that team, if Cillian had been available, maybe they would’ve gone with Aidan in midfield and I say that’s what James (Horan) will look at in that second half maybe they should’ve tried to match up Aidan off Brian Kennedy and jazz it up a little bit, maybe moving Diarmuid (O’Connnor) to play in the square and look and see would, I wouldn’t say unnerved Tyrone - they were very comfortable in what they do - but maybe just pose a different question to them because I don’t think we got enough out of Aidan in the second half, but I think his first half was a bit of a template. If we just had those runners coming off him and it’s very unlike Mayo not to have had those runners but probably is a reflection of how well Tyrone were doing in the middle third in stopping those guys.”
For Darran, the issue is O'Shea's positioning. As far as he can see, Aidan O'Shea doesn't have one defined position.
“My big thing with Aidan is can they find a position for him? I just don’t know where they’re playing him, I just think he has all the attributes to have such an impact on every game and I’ve never felt that he had been used correctly. I couldn’t even tell you where he plays. He’s inside, he’s outside, he’s on the 40, he’s in midfield, there’s no structure to it. In the first half, he started slowly and then they starting popping balls (to him). They’re popping balls to him and if you get that understanding with lighter fellas, quicker fellas, which Mayo have now then he can be the ball winner, there’s endless opportunities and I think that it is a tweak in how they play.
They are very much a running team but they need to change it up or they need to use the players there and the qualities that they have. So I think if the likes of Aidan stays on they need to find a way to keep them in the game more often. In games like yesterday he has moments, and then disappears because they style of play isn’t suiting him. I’m not saying that they tweak everything for Aidan, but he has such a big game mentality, he’s a big player for them, he’s a leader in the group. They need to find a way to keep him on the ball because when you have a fella like that and he’s being kept out of the game, that’s oxygen to the opposition as well.
It's human to go searching for a scapegoat. But O'Shea's inability to make a bigger influence of himself was not Mayo's major problem on Saturday. Their attacking system didn't get the most out of Aidan O'Shea's brilliance as a ball-winner and distributor, and they couldn't find a Plan B for him when Tyrone got a grip of the game in the second half.