'I have made sacrifices, but the dream is to play for your county'
There was a time when Cork forward Colm O'Driscoll feared his chance at senior inter-county level may never arrive. Now joined by his two younger brothers in the Rebels panel, the 26 year-old is determined to make the most of his opportunity.
The All-Ireland U-21 final of 2009 entered the second minute of injury-time with Down leading Cork by two points in an absorbing match at O'Moore Park.
The Rebels snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when wing-forward O'Driscoll pounced on a rebounded shot to find the net and secure a dramatic win and the future appeared bright for a number of that winning team.
Aidan Walsh, Ciaran Sheehan, Mark Collins and Colm O'Neill soon made the step-up to senior ranks, but for O'Driscoll the wait continued. Two All-Ireland medals with the county juniors was a minor consolation. It wasn't until Brian Cuthbert took over the reins from Conor Counihan in 2013 and decided to overhaul a squad that was decimated with retirements that the opportunity arose.
"It’s always in the back of your head it might not work out," he admitted. "I thought after a couple of years after coming out of U21 and I wasn't featuring anywhere with the seniors, I did think my chance had gone."
An All-Ireland title in 2010 and three successive National League titles were built on a physically imposing game plan implemented by giants of the modern game. Athletes under six feet were rarer than hen's teeth and the 5' 8 O'Driscoll believes the change in management was a lucky break.
"Maybe three or four years ago they were looking at bigger lads. I'm a little off the six foot myself," he jokes. "Thankfully the management looked at different players and styles."
Drafted in for the McGrath Cup campaign last year, O'Driscoll grew into his environment and was one of the few on Leeside that might look on the Munster Final humbling at the hands of Kerry in a positive light; he made his first Championship start in the following outing against Sligo and is now an integral part of Cuthbert's plans.
What makes his story all the more interesting is that he is joined by his two younger siblings, Kevin and Brian. Throw into the mix they hail from a junior club in Tadhg MacCarthaigh – Ciaran Kilkenny was the only starter for Dublin in the semi-final win over Monaghan not from a senior club – and the feat is all the more impressive.
Injury rules Brian out of the Dublin clash, but the trio have enjoyed a superb season in red with championship looming. Castleblaney in Monaghan bore witness to the first occasion all three graced the pitch at the same time, though their football-mad father Gene missed the landmark occasion as he was on duty with the U-21 footballers.
“It means a lot to the family. It certainly means a lot to Gene. Some would say there is nothing else talked about around the table at home only football. You'd be asking him about areas you can improve. I don’t think he's happy unless he is on the road to a match.”
The siblings haven't always been team-mates either. Two years Colm and Kevin shook hands with the match referee and posed for a photo before the first round of the senior championship. Colm captained divisional side Carbery, while his younger brother wore the skipper's armband for UCC. The bragging rights on the day went to the victorious students.
“There were two different cars going to the match that day,” he recollects. “Kevin was hopping off me for weeks afterwards.”
Admittedly 2014 was a “big step-up” in a new environment and while the season was ultimately one of disappointment for Cuthbert’s new-look team, for O’Driscoll personally, it got better as the year wore on.
He missed the National League semi-final collapse to Dublin with a dead leg and was introduced at half-time against Kerry in the Munster Final. At the interval they trailed by eight points, eventually lost by 12 and the defeat was a combination of “one of those days” for Cork and an exhibition of forward play the roving Declan O’Sullivan and ruthless James O'Donoghue.
The harrowing defeat allowed Colm and Brian get their first starts against Sligo in the qualifiers and the pair haven’t looked back. After the disappointment of being cut from the panel last year, Kevin was recalled this year and has made the most of his opportunity. All three were prominent in the high-scoring victory over Donegal last time out.
Away from the big occasions at Croke Park and Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the current rewards are not without their sacrifice. A carpenter by trade, he has foregone full-time work in order to seize his opportunity. At a time when concerns are growing regarding player welfare, he is contends that he is willing to follow this path to fulfil his dream.
“Fellas are sacrificing things, but everyone that plays inter-county wants to," he maintains. "There is nobody forced to be there. The dream is to play for your county. When you get that opportunity you are going to have to sacrifice certain things.
“I made changes [work] but when you enjoy what you are doing you don't look at it that way. The way inter-county has gone, careers aren't as long as they used to be.”
A round-trip to training from his West Cork home is 140km and when asked whether he believes an elite GAA player can fully commit to a trade and inter-county commitments, O'Driscoll has serious reservations.
“Honestly, I don't think it's possible. The demands that the sport places on the body, I think it's difficult to give everything to both; I think you'd be leaving one short. If you are doing something, you might as well do it properly.”
Talk of blanket defences and dour football reached its peak during the forgettable Dublin and Derry encounter last month, but O’Driscoll is acutely aware of his defensive duties in the forward line and believes the ability to defend properly is vastly under-estimated.
“It is the way the modern-day wing forwards play the game at the moment, but defending is a skill in itself. Ultimately however, playing as a wing-forward, you are still a forward. Yes you do your defensive duties and defend when you have to, but you are still one of the six forwards. You need to give as many attacking options as possible.”
Fear of losing possession is perhaps the cornerstone of the increasingly defensive performances on display right around the country. Even in defeating Donegal to reach the league decider, Cork amassed an incredible 251 hand passes over the course of the game, most notably at the end of the contest to close out the result.
When Sunday's opponents visited Pairc Ui Rinn earlier this year, manager Jim Gavin said it was most defensive performance he had ever seen from a Cork side.
“At this level you just can't give the ball away. Teams are so good on the break and on the counter, when you have it, it's golden.”
O'Driscoll's industrious role is centred as much on keeping possession as much as seeking it. In the 11-point victory over neighbours Kerry in March, the forward gained possession on 22 occasions, coughing it up just once. With three assists and a point, his development within the side is clear for all to see.
After the trials and tribulations of last year and four trips to the north during the league to contend with, relegation was mooted as more of a possibility rather than contesting the final itself. A more resolute side has emerged and the arduous distances covered in travelling to Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal and Derry has fostered a better group dynamic.
"The four away trips helped us. You spend more time sitting next to different lads and we got to know fellas a little better. And there is always better craic on the away trips."
Sunday provides many on the panel, O'Driscoll included, a chance to claim their first piece of senior silverware. Last year's encounter has already been consigned to history – "I don't think Dublin have dwelled on it for too long either" – and by 5.30pm Cuthbert will have a far better idea of where his side stand in the overall pecking order.
"This year the first aim is Munster and to get a provincial title under my belt. Hopefully after doing that you go on and look at the All-Ireland series and everybody is aiming for the big one," he asserts.
First up however is Dublin and a shot at redemption.