I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of my brother-in-law, Eugene Loftus, who passed away one year ago today after living with Motor Neurone Disease for five years. Eugene was an avid follower and contributor to the blog under the handle “Inbetweener”. He also played for Ballina Stephenites and as a selector for the Mayo Under 16s team from 1996 to 1999, a team that won the Ted Webb cup in ’96, ’97 and ’98, losing the final in ’99.
On Sunday last, Cillian O’Connor added to his all-time top scoring record, not just by exceeding the 400 point mark but by smashing two other records in the same game.
Cillian has scored the most in a championship game by an individual player, a record he had held previously jointly with three others. The GAA stats Twitter account had this previously held by Johnny Joyce (of Dublin) in 1960 when he scored 5-3 against Longford, Rory Gallagher of Fermanagh with 3-9 against Monaghan in 2002 and Cillian himself with 3-9 (3-3 from play for the doubters) against Limerick in a qualifier in 2018.
He claimed two other championship records for good measure in this year’s semi-final. One was the most goals scored by an individual player with 30, surpassing Mikey Sheehy’s total of 29. The other was Matt Connor’s average points per game total of 6.96, which Cillian now betters as well.
The point that saw Cillian O’Connor break Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper’s all-time championship scoring record came, ironically, in Cooper’s back yard, Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, only a short kick of a ball from Gooch’s home.
It was Mayo’s first ever championship game there and there was nothing to really celebrate at the time. O’Connor’s pointed free in the 54th minute which saw him overtake the Kerry great merely reduced the gap from nine points to eight and was, on the day, a footnote on a very disappointing trip to the Kingdom.
Mayo were comprehensively outplayed and would end up losing by ten points.
But, as we turn towards the end of 2020 and look to the final, it is more timely to look back at the record breaking achievement and contextualise just how it measures up.
Contrary to the opinion of many critics, O’Connor has not amassed such figures thanks to the ‘opportunities’ presented by playing against the likes of London, New York and other so called ‘weaker’ counties.
Quite the opposite in fact as his scoring averages show a propensity for greater totals in big games.
Cillian O’Connor – key scoring statistics
- Played: 59 games
- Scored: 30-328 (418)
- From Penalties: 8-1
- From Frees: 0-239
- From 45s: 0-14
- Total placed balls: 8-255 (279)
- Total from play: 22-73 (139)
- Average per game: 7.08
- Average from play per game: 2.36
- Average frees per game: 4.29
- Average total placed ball per game: 4.73
Happiest hunting ground prior to this year was Limerick: 11.5 points per game average from four games, though after the first round of this year’s championship that is now Carrick-on-Shannon, where has played only a single game, on what was only his second Championship game against Leitrim, and scored 1-9.
Unhappiest hunting ground, Ruislip: 0.5 points per game average.
Location with most scores, Croke Park: 14-146 (188), with 11-33 (66) from play and 3-113 (122) from placed balls, average scores there in the 26 games he’s played in Croke Park comes to 7.23 with 2.54 from play and 4.69 from placed balls.
Faraway fields are not greener
The opinion that O’Connor has boosted his record with big scores against London and New York does not stand up to scrutiny.
As the above figures prove, Ruislip is the ground on which he has the lowest scoring average. It is something of an anomaly. He played there twice, making his debut off the bench and scoring a point in that famously dramatic 2011 clash and he only lasted five minutes in 2016, getting black carded after just five minutes.
He had not scored by the time he was black carded and that remains the only championship game in which he made an appearance and did not score. In his 58 other championship appearances, he has scored at least one point.
In total, he has played in New York once (he was injured for the 2019 visit) and against London three times (including the 2013 Connacht Final), scoring 5-9 (24) in total. That’s an average of six points per game, below his overall average so if you actually excluded games against New York and London, O’Connor’s average goes up from 7.08 to 7.16.
Connacht versus the rest
For much of O’Connor’s Mayo career, Leitrim and Sligo have been in the lower divisions of the National League. The perception from some that these games would falsely boost O’Connor’s average is both unfair on counties who have been largely competitive with Mayo and also untrue.
He has only played Leitrim twice and scored six frees the first time and 1-9 in 2020. If you add Sligo, Leitrim, New York and London together, he has scored an average of 7.11 points per game (8-40 in eight games), marginally above his average of 7.08.
Indeed, if you examine Connacht as a whole, O’Connor has played 23 games against Connacht opposition, scoring 9-119 (146 points total, of which 6-26 was from play and 3-93 from dead balls) for an average of 6.35 overall, well below his overall average.
So, clearly, he has scored, on average, more against non-Connacht opposition. Across 36 games, he has scored 21-209 (272), with 16-47 from play and 5-162 from placed balls.
This gives him an average of 7.56 overall against non-Connacht opposition, of which there is an average of 4.92 from placed ball and 2.64 from play.
The obvious question then is how much a part did Qualifier games play in O’Connor’s average.
His average is a little higher in Qualifiers, at 7.82, having scored 6-68 (86) over 11 games, with 5.27 average from placed ball and 2.55 average from play.
But Mayo fans who have been on the road with these teams ought not need reminding that there were very few turkey shoots in the Qualifiers and, in far too many games for comfort, every score was crucial.
The big games
Which brings us onto the All-Ireland series (quarters, semis and finals) and any argument that O’Connor has dipped in these games does not stack up.
In 28 games in the All-Ireland series – an incredible total of games from one decade for Mayo – O’Connor has scored a total of 16-156 (204), of which 13-34 (73) was from play and 3-122 (131) was from placed balls. The placed balls consist of three goals from penalties, 0-116 from frees, 0-5 from 45s and one point from a penalty (in his record-breaking outing in Killarney, another forgetful moment from that day).
That gives him an average of 7.29 from those 28 games, above his overall average of 7.08.
However, his average from play in these 28 games actually increases to 2.61 per game versus his overall average from play of 2.36.
If we are to exclude from the numbers his record breaking game from last Sunday (and no doubt many of his detractors would prefer that we did), he has an average of 6.78 from 27 games, fractionally down from his overall average of 6.84 (when excluding the same game).
However, his average from play in these 27 games that still excludes this year’s semi-final actually increases to 2.15 per game versus his overall average from play of 2.14.
If we wanted to go down the rabbit hole of excluding games to suit our narratives, though, it’s worth mentioning that he scored only a solitary point before being substituted due to injury 10 minutes into the 2013 semi-final against Tyrone. Excluding that one and the Tipperary game from this year his average is 7 per game and in the All-Ireland series overall Cillian’s average works out to 2.23 from play and 4.77 from placed balls. What this demonstrates is his remarkable consistency when you remove games that might be considered as outliers.
Record versus Current and eventual Champions
It can be hard to compare teams in the All-Ireland series. For instance there is a world of difference between Dublin and Meath, both of whom Mayo played in last year’s All-Ireland series.
So, to take out any perceived imbalance of weaker teams who may have made it that far, two good measurements are how O’Connor performed against defending All-Ireland champions and teams who went onto be All-Ireland champions that year.
His record against the teams that were current all-Ireland champions at time of play (Cork in 2011, Dublin in 2012, Donegal in 2013, Dublin again in 2016, 2017 and 2019) is decent, though 2019 was poor by his standards, scoring one point from play and two frees.
The overall average in these games is 7.43 points, an average of 4.71 from placed balls and 2.71 from play. All three averages are higher than his overall averages across 59 championship games, a very impressive comparison.
And his record against eventual champions is better again. He’s featured in ten games against eventual champions (Donegal 2012, Dublin 2013, Kerry twice in 2014, Dublin twice in 2015 and 2016 and once in 2017 and 2019).
His total score against the eventual champions is 5-67 (82) with 2-13 (19) from play and 3-54 (63) from placed balls. That’s a very impressive 8.2 points per game, of which he has an average of 6.3 points from placed balls and an average of 1.9 from play.
And his average from All-Ireland finals alone at 7.2 points, higher than his overall average and up until the game against Tipperary last Sunday was higher than his All-Ireland series average.
If we isolate it to games against Dublin, his record against the team who have won seven of the ten All-Irelands this decade is very impressive also.
He has averaged 7.75 points per game over eight games against the five-in-a-row winners. This is his third highest average score against any opposition he has played more than once (he has played Limerick and Derry once each and scored 3-9 (18) and 0-12 points respectively). Notably the games against both Leitrim and Tipperary this year pushed both of those counties ahead of Dublin in that average.
Against Dublin O’Connor has scored a phenomenal 46% of Mayo’s total scores in those eight games and 15% of all his scores in championship football have been against Dublin.
Anyone doubting O’Connor’s stature as the all-time championship scoring record-holder need only consider how he did against the very, very best and in the big games. Whether what he contributes on the 19th will be sufficient to beat what many consider to be the best team of all time is anyone’s guess.
Mind you, it’s 2020 and anything can happen.
The original version of this article was published in the Mayo News on 16th June 2020. All of the scoring numbers have been updated to reflect this year’s championship. Fergal is a long-standing contributor on the blog using the handle ‘FDBinashui’.