O’connor: There is plenty de­sire in Cork

Irish Examiner - Sport - - GAA - Eoghan Cormi­can

For Alan O’connor, the fire burns as strong as it ever did.

This Sun­day marks his sev­enth cham­pi­onship visit to Fitzger­ald Sta­dium, in what is his third com­ing with the Cork foot­ballers. And sim­i­lar to the wind­ing roads he nav­i­gates thrice weekly to get him­self from Kealkill in West Cork up to the city for train­ing, his has been quite the jour­ney trav­elled.

Af­ter nine sea­sons spent on the in­ter-county carousel, he was fairly sure he’d seen it all. Then he found him­self be­fore a hear­ings com­mit­tee above in Croke Park on the Wed­nes­day night be­fore Cork’s Mun­ster semi-fi­nal. Most felt his chal­lenge on Water­ford’s Brian Looby was an open-and-shut case. O’connor didn’t. And hav­ing never be­fore re­ceived a straight red card dur­ing his time with Cork, he wanted to avail of the op­por­tu­nity to clear his name. We’ll come back to that later on.

Let’s go back to the win­ter of 2013. The end of his first chap­ter with Cork. O’connor’s unexpected de­par­ture was an­nounced via the Cork GAA web­site in mid-novem­ber. Into re­tire­ment he fol­lowed Alan Quirke, Gra­ham Canty, Paudie Kis­sane, Noel O’leary and Pearse O’neill. They, how­ever, were all mem­bers of the thirty-some­thing club. O’connor wasn’t long 28.

More­over, his an­nounce­ment came a week af­ter he had de­liv­ered a per­for­mance for the ages in the Cork ju­nior de­cider. St Colum’s may have fallen to Mitchel­stown, but O’connor’s dis­play was all any­one talked about that par­tic­u­lar af­ter­noon.

Many felt he still had much to con­trib­ute. O’connor felt he couldn’t. was burnt out,” he says. “I was there since 2003, play­ing mi­nor. That’s over 10 years com­ing up to Cork for train­ing, games and what not. That’s two hours every night. I had got­ten mar­ried in 2013, I’d a young fam­ily and I was just start­ing out with my own busi­ness. I said it was time to step back from this. I thought I could just do with a break to refresh. I had enough go­ing on and was think­ing should I take a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.”

The dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion lasted the bones of a year and a half. Late in the spring of 2015, word fil­tered through the big man from Kealkill was back in the fold.

“I got the op­por­tu­nity to come back and play in the Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship. The fire still lights. And it was about rekin­dling that fire. I was well set­tled in my­self. I said if I work hard enough, I might be able to add some­thing.”

He lined out at mid­field for their cham­pi­onship opener against Clare, hold­ing his place for the drawn and re­played Mun­ster fi­nals at this week­end’s venue.

“We did our­selves jus­tice in the drawn game against Kerry. Maybe, the weight was on the Kerry shoul­ders be­cause they were the team at the time. We went down with no real pres­sure on our shoul­ders. It’s very much like this game.”

Six days af­ter the re­play de­feat, Brian Cuthbert’s charges made for Thurles. There ended O’connor’s sec­ond chap­ter with Cork. Twenty min­utes into their fourth round qual­i­fier against Kil“i dare, his right knee buck­led. Cru­ci­ate torn. Sea­son over. Ca­reer, too, po­ten­tially.

“I went up to catch a ball,” the 2010 All-ire­land win­ner re­calls. “My right leg got stuck un­der me. I landed awk­wardly. That was it. I was in se­vere pain.”

He con­tin­ued: “It was a long road back and so you have to take small steps. You didn’t try and make leaps and bounds. It was about mak­ing steady pace. You are go­ing to have set­backs along the way and it was just about get­ting over them and be­ing pos­i­tive.”

He was now in his thir­ties, a new man­age­ment had come in and so it might have been eas­ier to just walk away.

“I could have. You put up your flag, though, to say you want to be part of the team. The win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to play in­ter-county foot­ball is rel­a­tively small when you are into your thir­ties. If you get an­other chance to go back down to Killarney, you grab it with both hands. You want to put your­self in the mix be­cause you’ll be gone long enough.

“If you are a foot­baller, you like to be play­ing in big games. There’s a buzz to be got from play­ing in big games and if you can hang onto that for as long as you can, you will. And also, you don’t go into these things with­out be­lief for the man­age­ment and group of play­ers around you. There is a great panel there. There is a want, there is a spirit.”

He re­turned last July, took the early part of this spring off – Cork’s con­clud­ing league fix­ture against Down on April 2 was the only one in which he featured, was on the bench against Water­ford, came on early only to re­turn to the bench for that “mist­imed tackle”, forc­ing him to sit out the visit of Tip­per­ary.

And so af­ter all that, here he is, fac­ing into an­other Mun­ster fi­nal against the King­dom. Kerry, the favourites, Cork, well, no one knows what to ex­pect from them. Not much has changed.

“I do be­lieve it will come right for us. You have to have that be­lief. It is in­stilled in us. I know we prob­a­bly let our­selves down a cou­ple of times, but there is a good group of lads there. If a team clicks on any given day, you are in with a shot.”

Pic­ture: Oliver Mcveigh

Cork’s Alan O’connor bat­tles for pos­ses­sion with Done­gal’s Rory Ka­vanagh and Odhran Mac­nial­lais at Croke Park last year. O’connor says there is a self-be­lief among the Rebels: ‘If a team clicks on any given day, you are in with a shot.’

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