"Growing up, I would always have been naturally fit"
This time of year, a lot of GAA players are on the back-foot.
Fitness takes a hit over the Christmas and by the time pre-season training rolls around in January, some lads are setting off from a standing start.
Laps and sprints are in vogue these days, as the fitness coaches earn their corn but the training is as much of a slog as it is a killer.
Chasing your tail is never fun.
Chasing a teammate is even worse. While it takes the majority of players a couple of weeks of rigorous training to build a solid fitness base, some lads never lose it.
James Milner: that teammate you hate during the pre-season laps 😭😭https://t.co/Ye5oMtfPZu
— GAA JOE (@GAA__JOE) July 9, 2019
They'll set off at a canter and they'll be lapping you in no time. They should be cross country runners, and the fitness just comes naturally to them.
Diarmuid O'Connor is unaware of the January struggle. He hits the ground running whenever he wants.
As his Ballintubber underage coach Martin Finnerty once told us, the man seems to have 'three lungs.'
"He was an incredible athlete back when he was a young lad, he was just born with that. It seemed to come naturally to him to just be able to stay going. He goes through the pain barrier," said Finnerty.
While an unassuming O'Connor was much more understated, when speaking about his athleticism, he nods that the engine has been there since he was a young player.
"Growing up I would have always been naturally fit," O'Connor said at the launch of the 2020 Allianz Leagues.
"So it’s just about, I’d be focusing on (other) areas I can improve on. It’s just getting advice off other lads, talking to each other, talking about where we can improve in preseason, that’s the best time to do it. So you’re just looking to make improvements, but yeah, growing up I would have been naturally fit but you still need to work on it behind the scenes..."
O'Connor is one of the hardest working players around. In Newbridge 2018, this fitness and never give in attitude came to light like never before when O'Connor literally ran himself into the ground against Kildare in the championship.
The rumour was that he'd covered almost 12km in that game. The Ballintubber midfielder is keen to play it down.
"I think that story might have grown a few legs, I heard a few different rumours," he says.
There’s a lot of lads on the team, but there’s no point just being fit and running around if you’re not making it count when you get on the ball. There’s games when I’ve ran around a lot less but played a lot better. So it’s about what you do when you get the ball, rather than just running around..."
Turning 25 on Friday, O'Connor has been five years in the Mayo fold but he's determined to ensure that there's more success down the line.
"This will be my sixth year. I started in 2014. It doesn't feel that long, it's absolutely flown by, it's crazy. It just goes by so fast and you have to make the most of it," he adds.
A man who may have a key part in that is one of his childhood heroes Ciaran McDonald, who will be a part of James Horan's backroom team this year
"When I first started watching football in Mayo, Ciaran was at the height of his career.
"It’s great to have him involved now. He’s already done a lot of work in his own club with underage football. Great experience, great knowledge. I’m looking forward to working with him in the year ahead.
"I’ve only joined in with the panel the last week or two so I haven’t worked with him that much. But I’ve already got little nuggets off him.
"Just talking to the other players, you would hear of them getting advice off him. Anywhere he can offer advice he does and it’s great to have him around..."
As for some of the changes in Gaelic football this year, O'Connor gave an interesting insight into how the advanced mark will impact on the game.
Every player sees themselves as a free-taker now.
"The biggest thing is the free-taking," he says.
"Anyone is a free-taker now. It's not just one or two, so you'd see lads now before training just practising free-taking themselves because you never know when you might catch a mark and you might have a free to win the game. You'd see more lads practising before and after training in their own time. In training, we'd do a small bit, just the kick passing, kicking it on the full rather than just bouncing it into the man. Obviously just working and trying to be one of the best counties giving it..."
In attendance at the Allianz Football League 2020 launch in Dublin is Diarmuid O'Connor of Mayo. 2020 marks the 28th year of Allianz’ partnership with the GAA as sponsors of the Allianz Leagues. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile