Coen backs young Mayo stars to be up for Dublin challenge
IT was two years ago last Tuesday that Dublin buried Mayo in a barrage of third-quarter scoring to win their 2019 All-Ireland semi-final tie by 10 points.
Looking back now, Mayo defender Stephen Coen maintains it wasn't a watershed moment for the group but it's hard to view it in any other light.
Six of the Mayo players that featured that evening have since retired while just seven of the team that started against Dublin in 2019 were in the recent Connacht final lineup.
Mayo are clearly a different team now, full of pace and power and playing a different way though one constant in their setup is Aidan O'Shea.
Like Coen, he was there in 2019 and is still there now, wearing the captain's armband and hoping that on his 152nd appearance for Mayo tomorrow evening, he can finally overcome Dublin at Croke Park.
"Aidan in fairness would be the ultimate professional and that shows in the amount of appearances he's made and all the games he's been involved in," said Coen.
"He always makes himself available, he's always hungry to perform, a real leader in the group and someone that a lot of the guys would model themselves on.
"He minds his body, his nutrition, recovery, that would all be top notch, would never be questioned. He's just been brilliant for us for, I don't know how many seasons he's been in with us, is it 13 or 14 seasons probably?"
O'Shea won't win too many straight line races with younger colleagues like Tommy Conroy or Ryan O'Donoghue. He's never been a prolific scorer either but for sheer hard graft and, particularly his effectiveness in the tackle, there are few better than the big Breaffy man.
"I think with any team you play against you try not to go into contact when it's not necessary, but especially when you're playing against Aidan," said Coen.
"Anyone that goes near him, the ball kind of pops out easily. And for a guy of his strength, he's always looking to get stronger, to get faster, to get more explosive. He never lets himself rest, he's always pushing on, trying to improve himself. That kind of sums up his attitude and his application."
Since the 2019 semi-final loss, when Dublin memorably scored 2-6 without reply in a 12-minute period in the third quarter, Mayo have introduced some thrilling young talent. Oisin Mullin, Tommy Conroy and Eoghan McLaughlin were all nominated for the Young Player of the Year award in 2020 while O'Donoghue has taken his opportunity up front too.
Out the exit door have gone Chris Barrett, Donie Vaughan, Seamus O'Shea, Keith Higgins, Andy Moran and Tom Parsons.
Coen isn't convinced that all those changes were necessarily a reaction to being pummelled by Dublin in 2019.
"I don't think it was because of that specific game," he said.
"Those changes just happened naturally. I suppose in a county like Mayo, there's always brilliant talent coming through. We're just really fortunate that there was a really good generation of players at one age group and there's been really good lads that have come through since then.
"When you've got players of that quality, you have to play them. A lot of their strengths are pace, explosiveness, power, getting up the field, supporting attacks, being good at defending. We're just very lucky to have them and any way at all we can help them to keep improving, that's all we can do."
With all that raw talent, it was Mayo that displayed the third quarter explosiveness in the recent Connacht final, reeling off 1-6 without reply to come from behind against Galway and bury their old rivals.
"We're playing with freedom and a lot of energy and we're just trying to harness all that properly," said Coen. "But then if we had a brilliant 70 minutes the last day, we'd still be trying to improve it for 78 or 79 minutes the next day.
"We're just trying to maximise things when we're going well and then manage it well when you might be struggling a bit."