Wednesday 22 March 2017

He may be 33 and losing pace, but there were worse in 2010

DAMIAN LAWLOR

LAST Saturday evening, Seán óg ó hAilpín walked into the Rochestown Park Hotel for a meeting with Cork manager Denis Walsh.

The 33-year-old hadn't thought much about what he would say, but it would be straightforward enough. Something along the lines of "if you need me, I'm ready to go 100 per cent for another year."

On the way in he met sub 'keeper Anthony Nash and offered a cheery salute, but the Kanturk man's reply was muted. In the meeting room, ó hAilpín shook hands with Denis Walsh and one of his selectors, Jerry Ryan.

He was barely in his seat when the point was reached. "Seán óg, we think your graph has fallen. You're not in our plans for next year."

The defender stated that he had fully intended to commit for next year, but there was no point in saying anything more if he wasn't needed. The three men shook hands again and ó hAilpín left the room. That was it.

After 14 years, three All-Ireland senior titles, three All Stars and, it has to be said, three fall-outs with the county board, one of the iconic GAA stars of this generation saw his career ended in a matter of a few minutes.

The Na Piarsaigh man was taken aback and upset, but didn't show any emotion. Leaving the hotel, he wondered if Nash had received the same news. He hopped into his car and drove home: Seán óg ó hAilpín, former Cork hurler. It had a funny ring to it. By Sunday afternoon, the news had circulated around Cork, but neither player nor manager commented on the matter.

His departure was presented as a retirement in the Irish Examiner on Monday morning, but later that afternoon the Evening Echo ran a piece with another of Walsh's selectors, Pa Finn, who said that he knew nothing about the situation and intimated that he expected Seán óg to be part of next year's panel.

By then, however, the player himself had moved to confirm that it was curtains for his career. In doing so, he revealed that it wasn't his decision to quit Cork in a lunchtime statement released through the GPA.

As that press release dropped into the inboxes of media outlets around the country, ó hAilpín was en route to Tipperary to coach a group of youngsters at the Nenagh éire óg club, fulfilling a promise he had made much earlier. His phone buzzed all day but he had declared in his statement that there would be no further comment and stuck to that.

Producers from the Miriam Meets radio programme and the Late Late Show contacted him, asking him to appear this weekend, but their approaches were rebuked. One newspaper offered money for an exclusive interview. Again, it was turned down.

As people digested the news, two viewpoints emerged. The first was that it was a big call by Walsh to drop his celebrated wing-back, who just happens to be the most marketable face of Gaelic games. The other was that the manager couldn't be blamed for looking to the future?

After all, Cork haven't won a minor All-Ireland since 2001 or an under 21 title since 1998 and the production lines in the county are not exactly overflowing with talent.

Still, Walsh's decision was greeted with no little criticism among the Cork hurling public, with former full-back Diarmuid O'Sullivan adding his voice on RTE News. "It brings Denis Walsh's managerial abilities into question again," he said. "Can you replace Seán óg, who was Cork's stand-out player in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny? Is there someone there to take his place? Watching the Cork senior hurling championship, I haven't seen that there is."

Dropping one of the most high-profile players in the GAA is certainly a gamble, but it is also a statement.

But why is it that ó hAilpín alone suffered? Sure, he suffered at the hands of Galway's Damien Hayes in this year's league final and was replaced after 49 minutes.

But a few weeks later he put in a virtuoso performance in their whopping defeat of Tipperary in the Munster championship, getting the better of Noel McGrath. Tipp placed three forwards on him that day and in his last game against Kilkenny he was a stand-out performer.

He may be 33 and losing a little pace but he started every championship game this season and more than made up for his league final collapse. One thing is for sure -- there were worse performers on the 2010 team.

Sunday Independent

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