I BROODED THROUGH 2011. Denis had said dropping me was a hurling decision, but I didn’t buy that. I believed there was more to his decision than my on-field displays, particularly when I was the only one dropped.
Cork didn’t do well in 2011 and the board didn’t want to continue with Denis. Names started to float around as possible replacements, including Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s, and around mid-August he gave me a call.
That was out of the blue. Since he’d stepped down in 2000, we’d have rarely met or spoken. He wanted to meet for lunch and a chat, so we met in the Commons Bar with a mutual friend of ours, Mick Higgins. Not the most private of places, in retrospect, particularly when his name was floating around as Cork senior manager, but we had our sandwich and our soup and he got down to it.
‘What exactly happened with you and Denis?’ was his first question. I told him, and his answer was, ‘That was wrong. Jeez, I feel partly responsible because I was on the committee that appointed him.’
He went on to say that he hadn’t been offered the job of Cork hurling manager – that he hadn’t applied for it – but he asked if I’d still be interested in going back playing for Cork if approached.
I said I would, but that I’d come back only if the set-up was good. In particular I pointed out that the physical trainer would be a crucial appointment. He said fine, and that was that.
The board waited another few weeks before announcing Jimmy’s appointment. A couple of weeks after that, in early October, I got another call from him.
‘Just following up on our talk in August,’ he said. ‘I’m just conscious your views might have changed. What do you think?’
I said I was still interested, and we agreed I’d call out to his house that Friday. He brought me to his study, out the back. He said he was delighted that I was still interested in playing for Cork.
Jimmy said there were no guarantees but that I’d be on the extended training squad for the winter ahead. They’d carry up to forty players and cut it down in the new year.
Celebrating Cork’s All-Ireland final win in 1999
Pic: INPHO/Tom Honan
Our first session was a fitness test, the October Bank Holiday weekend. We trained out on the pitch in CIT the following Tuesday, endurance work, and we didn’t touch a hurley until Christmas.
Training was hard: two gym sessions, two endurance sessions and then, on a Saturday, a hill-running session in the old quarry out in Beaumont, a walking path at an angle that would test you when you ran it.
The running sessions were competitive and I was struggling to keep pace with the top group, which consisted of Cathal Naughton, Damien Cahalane, Christopher Joyce, Billy Joyce and Daniel Kearney. Cathal Naughton has got to be one of the greatest athletes I’ve trained with. A running machine.
The player rep system that had come in with Dónal O’Grady was still in place and, after one meeting of the player reps, Dónal Óg said to me, ‘Jimmy is delighted with you, he’s saying you’ve exceeded his expectations.’ After Christmas I played in challenge games and was named in the league panel.
Having played most of the pre-season games and all of the National League games at either half-back or midfield, I found myself out of contention come the championship.
I was naturally disappointed at not making the starting fifteen. What would have been nice was some communication from the management team, an explanation of why I was being left out, but none was forthcoming. The only people who made some acknowledgement were Ger Cunningham and Dónal Óg, who said, ‘Hard luck.’
The league had ended badly, with Kilkenny destroying us in Thurles, and my relationship with Jimmy had seemed to change after that. Until then he would have been full of jokes and chat, and would often ask me how the body felt. Now, management were keeping their distance from me. I’d been around long enough to know whether one was welcomed or not.
Kilkenny Eoin Larkin and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín in action in 2012
Pic: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
On the field the year panned out reasonably well, despite losing to Tipperary in the Munster championship: the draw was kind to us at every turn after that.
The only conversation I had with Jimmy during the summer was after the Tipp defeat. I didn’t play that day, and towards the end of a midweek weights session down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh he came up to me. I was on my own.
‘I can see you’re disappointed,’ he said. ‘I am,’ I said, ‘but I know you have a job to do’. ‘Hang in there,’ he said. ‘I’ll assure you you’ll get a chance. I should have spoken to you before the Tipp game but I never got a chance.’
After that conversation I thought the ice had been broken and maybe things were about to improve, but they remained the same. Cork faced Offaly in the qualifiers, and because it was so soon after the Tipp game I didn’t expect to start. But Offaly gave Cork enough of it and when the game was in the balance I felt they’d throw in John (Gardiner) or myself. They didn’t.
Towards the closing stages of the game, myself and John were completing our last stint of warm-up, when I turned to him and said, ‘John, read the tea leaves here.’
After the game there was no communication, no feedback from management. We drew Wexford, the softest draw we could have got. By that stage I had resigned myself to the fact that I definitely wasn’t part of the management’s plans, and I wondered if it was a huge mistake coming back.
Back In Action
The game went much the same way as the previous day out, with Wexford asking plenty of questions. With ten minutes remaining I was warming up, when Dave Matthews came over to me.
‘Get ready, you’re coming on,’ he said. ‘You’re joking,’ I said. I was shocked – I wasn’t expecting to get a run. I got ready and came on for William Egan. We won by a comfortable margin in the end, but Wexford had given us a scare.
For the quarter-final, we drew Waterford. In truth by that stage my motivation was waning. Teu and Siobhán were fantastic. They always convinced me to remain patient. Another tower of strength for me was the fourth brother I never had, John Gardiner. His positive attitude towards training and to the panel was exemplary. I learned an awful lot from him during this time.
I got my first start of the championship against Waterford. I was anxious to prove a point and what happened? John Mullane ran me ragged in the first half. Christ, was I filthy with myself at the half-time break. ‘After all this, you put in that crap display,’ I thought. ‘Maybe the management were right all along.’
If I’d been pulled off at half-time I wouldn’t have had any complaints. Things improved in the second half, and I managed a point late on. John Gardiner came on and made a couple of vital interventions.
We’d probably exceeded expectations by getting to an All-Ireland semi-final. Our opponent was Galway. After we had played a promising first half, they took control in the second half and were too strong for us in the end.
Afterwards I don’t recall any big speeches from management, though Galway manager Anthony Cunningham came in and was very humble, very articulate in his commiserations.
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín wins a high ball against Galway.
Pic: INPHO/Colm O’Neill
There’s grub for the players after those games in a lounge on the fourth floor of the Hogan Stand, and I was last into it as usual. But there was a different reason this time: I sensed it was my last time in a dressing-room in Croke Park. I knew the management team was in place for another couple of years and I certainly wasn’t going to figure.
Niall Mac, my old mate in dawdling in dressing-rooms, was there as well. I didn’t know it at the time, but Niall was thinking of travelling, and would head off soon for Asia, so he was in a reflective mood as well.
We had a chat about the great days we’d experienced in this very dressing-room and we wondered, would we see the good days again. Then he headed off, and I was on my own. The steward who was assigned to the dressing-room for the duration of the game popped his head in. I gave him a sliotar. You’d get to know those guys from going up there, very decent guys, and he asked if everything was okay. ‘Grand,’ I said, and headed up to join the team.
When I came out of the dressing-room there were kids from Glenariff, in the Glens of Antrim, looking for signatures and photos to be taken. I was chatting to them for a while and then a journalist caught me for a few words. I was asked about the future and I said I’d have to think about it over the winter.
Dr Con, who had come down from the players’ lounge, spotted me, and after I finished he warned me not to make any snap decisions. He said, ‘You’ve a lot to offer. Don’t do anything rash.’
Journeys home after a defeat are always long and this one must have been the longest. I knew that today was my last day in a Cork shirt, but equally knew I was still good enough to play on.
By the time the bus let us off at the Rochestown Park Hotel, I was steering more towards taking the Doc’s advice to hang in there. I didn’t hear anything until I got a phone call from Dónal Óg in late October. Dónal Óg had ruptured his Achilles tendon in the spring and missed the whole playing season as a result. He was keen to get back.
‘I’m meeting Jimmy tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a good feeling about this one. My instinct is that it’s bad news.’ I’d had no contact with the management, so I didn’t know the lie of the land. But it would never have occurred to me they’d want to . . .
‘Get rid of you? I wouldn’t think so.’ ‘As soon as I’m finished the meeting, I’ll ring you,’ he said. He called me the next day around twelve. ‘How’d the meeting go?’ ‘Bad.’ He said Jimmy had taken the captaincy off him and that he wouldn’t be the number-one keeper next season. It was a huge blow for him.
Dónal Óg also said that myself and John would be getting phone calls from Jimmy and to brace ourselves because it wasn’t going to be good news. We weren’t surprised, given the way we’d been blanked all summer.
Cork’s Donal Og Cusack
Pic: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
I was in all-too-familiar territory now, having gone through this before with Denis Walsh. Jimmy rang me – the same day I spoke to Dónal Óg on the phone – and said he wanted to meet as soon as possible. I asked why, and he said he wanted to discuss next year.
We arranged to meet up in the car park of the Kingsley Hotel on a Friday night. He hopped into my car, we had some small talk, and then we got to business.
‘What are your intentions for next year?’ he said. ‘I’ve been thinking about it,’ I said. ‘But I want to hear your plans first.’
‘Look, the management team sat down recently. Realistically we’re not going to win anything for the next two to three years, so we’re going to go a new direction next year and throw our full lot with youth, be it good, bad or indifferent.
‘We’re going to work with these guys for the next few years. We don’t know if you’ll be still playing around then. We don’t see a place for you there.’
‘A place on the team or the panel?’
‘The panel,’ he said. ‘Look, we saw the frustration on your face during the summer when you weren’t making the first fifteen.’
I was thinking to myself, wouldn’t anyone who was serious about high-performance sport be unhappy? I told Jimmy that I was very grateful for the opportunity he gave me to come back, but I hadn’t come back to sit on the bench.
I asked him two questions. Firstly, I asked him to rate my year. Glowing report from Jimmy: ‘I couldn’t have asked for any more from you in training, you played well in the games that you played and you bailed us out towards the end of the year when other guys were struggling for form.’
‘Name a half-back that’s better at the moment, then?’ He couldn’t name anyone, but with the youth policy they were undertaking, he was hoping ‘someone might come up trumps next year,’ he said.
I said that that was the one reason I felt I should be around – I felt I could offer something to the younger guys coming up. But he was having none of it, and kept going on about his ‘youth policy’.
That was curtains for me. I had well and truly played my last game for Cork. I said, ‘Thanks for your time,’ and he hopped out.
I wasn’t as gutted as I had been two years previously, but I was still gutted. On the trip home I kept thinking that if I’d known it was going to end like this, I would have stayed happily retired. I felt Jimmy had called it wrong.
I’m alive to my own inconsistencies. I was the one bidding a mental farewell to Croke Park in August, then getting thick that I was being jettisoned two months later in October. But any athlete, any competitor, will want to continue. I’m no different.
I’m also able to hold my hand up when I’m wrong. As I write, the Cork team that Jimmy has assembled through his ‘youth policy’ are counting down the days to an All-Ireland hurling final with Clare, a final pairing few people would have predicted when the two teams met in a league relegation playoff in April.
On that basis Jimmy could say he was justified, certainly, in cutting me adrift. It’s a results business and the team he picked got the results for him. I’m a competitor and I’d love to have taken that journey with them. I’m also a proud Cork man and I salute them: Corcaigh Abu.
Myself and Siobhán were going to New York the week after the conversation in my car with Jimmy. I didn’t want to create a big stir about packing it in. I went to the GPA, gave my statement to Siobhán Earley in the office there and told her to release it when I was in the air en route to JFK.
In New York we visited a friend of ours, Phil O’Shea, who comes over every summer. His wife Elizabeth gave us a great dinner and I told him I’d retired and he came back with his news – he’d retired from the NYPD as well.
‘Now, two retirements,’ he said. ‘What are they gonna do without us?’
My mobile doesn’t accept calls or messages abroad, thank God, so we had a great holiday. When I came back and switched it on, it nearly melted down with the volume of texts and voicemails, but that was immaterial. I was an ex-intercounty player and, strange as it may sound, a relieved one at that. I was finally at peace – no more dramas, no more disappointments and no more false dawns.
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín: The Autobiography is published by Penguin Ireland.