'There were times I was definitely thinking would I play for Cork again?'
Published 25/04/2015 | 02:30
Knowing that life never makes any promises to be fair helps Colm O'Neill remember himself when these big days come blowing through.
You see, nothing changes in the real world when you get hurt. The sun still rises and falls, the seasons still spin their mischief, the Championship still chews up earnest people. So he heads to Headquarters tomorrow, above all, counting blessings.
The Dubs in Croke Park, a fixture with a mind of its own. He couldn't help but think this week of August 2013, a Saturday night in the big house and him running the line as Cork's water-carrier. Well, not running exactly. That March, he'd suffered his third torn cruciate in five years, the slight novelty being that this time it was a different leg.
It would be Conor Counihan's last game in charge of Cork, the team slipping away without conspicuous fuss, five points adrift of a Dublin side torqueing hard towards the mountain-top. O'Neill remembers feeling "a million miles away" from playing inter-county football that evening and it is a memory that sustains him now. A reminder of lonely miles travelled.
"I remember being barely able to jog at the time," he recalls, "and I was thinking 'Jesus what I would do to be out there, playing.' So, being fit again, I'm like a kid at times now.
"There were times I was definitely thinking 'Will I ever get back to play with Cork?' The one positive I had was I knew that, if I put in the hard work, I'd have the opportunity to come back into a good squad. And that there might be opportunities to play in big games like this one."
He speaks with the world-wise air of a man who had to survive a small eternity of misfortunes before even reaching his 25th birthday. One who became accustomed to watching Cork disappear over the horizon without him.
To some degree, O'Neill has become defined by that journey. He jokes that he is almost better known for his knees than for his football now. Yet, he remains one of the game's most luminous attacking talents, a natural goalscorer and a man in whom Cork will tomorrow invest a trust reserved only for the exceptional.
But will they have a following as they seek to deny the Dubs a three-in-a-row? That remains a moot point. Compared to their hurling counterparts, the Cork football family exists in a climate of curious invisibility.
Sociologists might blame this deficit of love for a perpetual sense of the team lacking anything akin to the self-regard of, say, Kerry or the Dubs.
A broad raft of their supporters seems to adhere to a view expressed once by legendary Tipperary centre-back Tony Wall of football being a game "for those not good enough to play hurling."
After all, between 2010 and 2012, Cork won three consecutive League titles against all the commotion of a cistern flushing. Even the All-Ireland won in 2010 seems, somehow, rinsed in the memory of real tumult.
O'Neill does not deny they struggle for the affection of their people, affection that seems a given to Cork's hurlers. "It's a fair point," he acknowledges. "But I wouldn't say it's frustrating or something that we dwell on. We still consider it a huge privilege to play for Cork whether there's two people in the crowd or 20,000. It's not a huge issue to us.
"But we're in a national final now and hoping to get a bit more support. The Dubs, obviously, will bring a huge crowd so, hopefully, the public will get behind us and give us whatever lift we need."
There will be a few jolting voices in their heads mind, whatever tomorrow's outcome. Through last year's Allianz League campaign, Cork managed to convince themselves that they were travelling in rude health.
They concluded their Division 1 programme with a ten-point trimming of Kerry in Tralee and, when they then led the Dubs by eight at half-time in the semi-final, it seemed Brian Cuthbert might have been building a team for the ages.
But that semi-final was forsaken on the back of a startling 15-point turnaround and, having scraped past Tipperary in the Munster semi-final, they then bombed against Kerry in the final, losing by 12. This was the form of a team that did not know itself.
O'Neill admits that those two chastening days, against Dublin and Kerry, have referenced Cuthbert's management of the group this year.
Jim Gavin described them as "the most defensive Cork team" he had ever encountered after they met the Dubs in this year's opening round in February and there is no denying that Cork have embraced the modern fashion of counter-attacking football.
"We have a clear memory of what happened last year," says O'Neill. "We were probably in a similar position to where we are now, albeit we didn't make the League final. I don't know did we get a bit complacent, maybe got a bit carried away with ourselves.
"But we need no reminding of what happened the day against Kerry. Each and every player was hugely disappointed with their own performance.
"Maybe that League semi-final against Dublin undermined our confidence a small bit, it probably was a big turning point.
"I think we were six or seven points up and I don't know did someone take a shot off a post and it fell straight to (Michael Darragh) Macauley on the run and that got them back into it.
"In fairness to them, from there, they pushed on. But then they're very dangerous."
The new game, he believes, is one that all serious county teams are compelled now to embrace. Not strictly in terms of over-emphasis on defence, but on tactical flexibility.
"Even in the last year or two, the game has changed massively," explains O'Neill. "I was in the stand at the All-Ireland final last year and both Kerry and Donegal set up very defensively. It wasn't the best for the spectators really, but I don't think Kerry minded.
"In today's game - and this is something that we've tried to work on - you probably need to have two or three different game-plans prepared. You've got to be able to adapt mid-match in some scenarios even.
"It's one of the lessons we learned from last year. I don't think it's good enough in this day and age to be going in with just one game-plan.
"People just have to be more versatile. I'd certainly imagine inside forwards got on the ball more back when I was starting off than they do now. You just have to be more economical with possession. It can be difficult, but every forward just has to be more patient now."
He is a little tickled, mind, by the notion of some great philosophical gulf opening between different counties. Donegal, for example, exist as virtual poster-boys for the new game, while Dublin get presented as the spiritual antidote. The clash of pessimistic and optimistic minds, in other words. O'Neil is not entirely convinced.
Cork's semi-final against Donegal was one of the more open games they've played this year (they won 4-11 to 0-19) and, if a suspicion lurks that Rory Gallagher's men felt they simply had higher hills to scale than reaching an Allianz League final, O'Neill's suspicion is that county caricature keeps sending bogus messages.
"We heard people saying after that Donegal might have had one eye on the Championship," says the man who hails from the small village of Ballyclough, just outside Mallow.
"There were reports that they'd trained hard during that week. But I'd say we've been training just as hard, actually we've trained hard all winter. So I'm not sure about them.
"Donegal probably get hammered more than anyone for their style. They still get the brunt of it for some reason as the team that's the most defensive, but our semi-final against them was quite open.
"We'd be very disappointed as a team with the amount of scores we conceded. And Donegal might easily have got another 2-3. Look, I think every team is probably a bit more defensive this year.
"I mean there was a lot of attention on the Dublin-Derry game in this League, with the reaction to it afterwards on Twitter. I suspect that both teams just set up defensively. And who is to say Dublin aren't going to set up defensively against us now?
"After what happened them against Donegal last year, I think they realised they probably had to change. So that's something we're going to have to be prepared for.
"A lot of people seem to think it's going to be a very open, free-flowing game. But they might be surprised!"
It has been an oddly intense League. Three of Cork's victories (against Monaghan, Tyrone and Mayo) were by a single point, their opening day defeat of Dublin was by two. The margins between progression and regression seemed tiny. Yet, they will go to Croke Park determined to close the deal now.
"We had luck on our side in some of those games," reflects O'Neill. "It could have been a whole lot different if we came out the other side of those one-point victories. We could have been looking at relegation even, that's how tight it was.
"We didn't beat any team in a majorly comprehensive way (though they did have 11 points to spare over a ghost Kerry team at Pairc Ui Rinn).
"Look, the League is the League, we only have to look back on last year and, particularly, what Kerry did. The memory of what happened should keep us grounded. That said, there's a good bunch of our lads who have never won a League.
"It would be a very coveted medal for them."