Walsh's ruthless gamble
Cork boss risks instability in dressing-room by ending career of popular O hAilpin
Published 19/10/2010 | 05:00
As gambles go, there probably won't be a bigger one by any GAA manager anywhere in the foreseeable future.
Whatever else Denis Walsh's managerial career with Cork throws up, whatever direction it takes from here on, there is a feeling that yesterday was its defining moment.
The bespectacled, smiling, soft-spoken former dual star is swimming with the sharks now.
Sean Og O hAilpin's confirmation that he was willing to hurl for Cork in 2011 but would accede to the management's decision not to involve him in next year's squad has changed the parameters for Walsh's management entirely.
In weekend discussions between management and players, due to continue this week, it was made patently clear that O hAilpin, Cork's longest-serving player with a career dating back to 1996, was no longer part of the broader plan in Walsh's mind.
In one sense, that shouldn't be a surprise. He had an indifferent year and for the last three years, the swashbuckling wing-back of old has given only fleeting reminders of the power and panache he once brought to a Cork half-back line that picked itself.
But this isn't an ordinary John Halpin we're talking about. This is a man revered in many parts (not all) of Cork with sometimes God-like devotion.
The word iconic is flashed around the sporting world with too much ease these days but in Sean Og's case it seems apt.
The young man with the Polynesian features, who spent his early boyhood in Australia but rooted down on the northside of Cork city, where he mastered the Irish language and the game of hurling with equal efficiency, has not taken the conventional pathway to the status he now enjoys.
He is unique to Irish sport in many ways, a sportsman who made the most of his ability and has been exemplary in his conduct as an ambassador to the game he has adorned at senior level for 15 seasons.
But all that has been overridden by Walsh's apparent need to make radical changes.
And for that, he felt he needed to be ruthless. He no longer felt he could pick him because of who he was or what he had done.
Maybe the approach that Walsh took over the weekend, however honest it was, has been too ruthless. How many managers would have allowed Sean Og's inter-county career, given all that he had done, to plot its own conclusion, to allow him to sign his own discharge papers.
But clearly Walsh didn't want to do him the disservice of bringing him along next spring for league matches that he had little or no intention of playing him in.
The management had their mind made up that the honest approach was the only approach.
Walsh will sink or swim by this decision over the next year and, in making it, he would have been acutely aware of that.
If O hAilpin is the only high-profile casualty as the squad is reconstructed in the coming days, what message does that send? That he must carry the can for a disappointing season?
O hAilpin's performances have not been what they were but that doesn't mean he was in terminal decline. Age with an athlete like him, who looks after himself so assiduously, shouldn't be an issue. By making this decision now has Walsh removed the possibility that O hAilpin could turn his game around over the next six months?
Look across the border into Waterford where Tony Browne, who at 37 is four years older than O hAilpin, is mulling over his future in the inter-county game.
Browne's form for someone well into his 30s has been stunning and that's a marked difference with O hAilpin.
Would O hAilpin have been willing to act in the role of impact substitute if that was so desired by the management? Would they have facilitated that?
The other great imponderable is the potential impact on the rest of the Cork dressing-room. Naturally, the decision to remove such a popular figure will not sit easily with that hardcore of players who have been in the trenches with him on and off the field for so long.
To most, probably all of those players, Sean Og is popular, loyal, enthusiastic, the model athlete in so many ways.
He's also a friend and his effective eviction is bound to create some serious instability among the more senior members of the squad.
Enough reason for a fourth strike? Hardly. It is manager's prerogative to choose the players he wants and competitors across every sporting spectrum have to accept that.
But read the words penned by Donal Og Cusack in his autobiography and it might provide an insight into how the others might react, how his future could be indelibly linked to theirs and precipitate other departures.
"I wonder how long I'll have a home for myself in the Cork dressing-room and I think it is as long as Sean Og is there," wrote Cusack in 'Come What May.'
"He brings such passion and inspiration to the whole place that everything is easier for me when he's around. We mightn't talk to each other every day and we mightn't even talk at a training session, but there's a silent thing that when Sean Og picks it up and starts driving into it I'll respond and so will the lads."
It's that reverence towards Sean Og that makes this management decision the high-stakes gamble that it is.
O hAilpin has been Cork's longest-serving player for some time, having began life with the county's hurling team in 1996 as an 18-year-old.
He has been synonymous with the red No 7 shirt, synonymous with a Cork team that has pushed out the barriers in terms of preparation and which changed the dynamic between administration and player forever.
They were different, he was different and now it's over. But not the way he would have planned it.