A taste of the bitter motivates O'Connell
THERE were just five weeks left to the championship when Cork decided they might need Mickey O'Connell after all and a contrite Jimmy Barry Murphy got on the telephone. Six months before the same voice had been declaring his redundancy but he listened carefully to what he had to say.
``At first, to be honest, I didn't want to go back I was bitter you know,'' O'Connell freely admits as he charts the route of his hurling salvation. But there was never any real prospect of a snub and he knows what a poor spectator he would have made today had he been bent on reprisals.
There was a better way. What O'Connell has achieved since his return heaped inevitable embarrassment on the selectors but they can live with that the more blushes the better for all concerned. Pressure to reinstate him had grown intense during an eight-match unbeaten league run with Midleton, prompting the Cork management to indulge in a spot of revisionist thinking.
His immediate impact confounded general expectation, at once clearing a sizeable midfield headache and creating a fresh mystery: how he could have been deemed dispensable in the first place. Eight points on his debut while marking Tony Browne touched on the surreal and he managed to hold firm, too, when the spotlight was trained on him against Clare.
But it was the Waterford game that blew everyone away. By nature a loquacious individual, he didn't need to utter a word when the final whistle went the performance spoke volumes. ``After the Waterford game I just came in, sat down and changed,'' he remembers. ``I was beaming. Jimmy (Barry Murphy) just shook my hand and said you've proven me wrong. I proved my point. I was laughing away to myself inside.''
Only 22 and, as Brendan Behan's wife once put it, he's seen the two days. If the afternoon against Waterford represented sweeping vindication of his credentials, the moment would not have left such a deep imprint had he not suffered such a crushing injury to morale only months before.
NONE of the other Cork players has experienced such an outlandish swing of fortune. That day he was dropped from the Cork panel he never saw the train coming. Shock is the first of five rehabilitative steps out of a traumatic experience and O'Connell was truly bewildered. His jaw hit the floor, the manager's emollient words unable to cushion the blow.
It simply made no sense. In the All-Ireland U-21 final last year he'd practically beaten Galway on his own. Brought on to the Cork panel for winter training and then, well before spring, it's goodbye with no real explanation. He was shocked to the point of disbelief.
``Still, to this day, I don't know what the real reason was,'' he confesses, ``and to be honest I don't want to know; I never asked them.'' When the shock began to recede the vacuum was rapidly filled with an unforgiving sense of rejection. He felt anger. He felt deep disappointment. The procession of enquiries followed from family and friends why had he been sacrificed?
He wasn't just carrying a private grief; the whole of his family were victims of the decision not to mention his native Midleton who hadn't had a man on the senior championship side since Kevin Hennessy in 1993. They were banking on him too.
``I played two Oireachtas matches after the U-21 final in wet and windy weather and I would be the first to hold up my hand and say I wasn't the greatest. But I don't think you can be judged on Oireachtas games in November or December.
``When Jimmy came on that Wednesday I thought he was ringing just to confirm the time of training. I said to the boss at the time: `Jesus, I'm after being dropped.''' Sources close to the Cork team claim his attitude had become complacent after the U-21 triumph and that he needed a jolt.
Now for the good news: the Waterford game where he made his debut at midfield even though he would be a more recognised half-forward. Take it away. ``I don't think I'll ever, ever in my life have a day like that again. Just for myself, for my family they had a lot to do with it. That day will stick out in my mind for the rest of my life.
``I never got called for the league so I didn't think I would get a call back. To get one five weeks before the championship was fairly astounding. But I trained hard and the night I was told that I would be playing centre field it was all paid back.
``I'd been told to mark Tony Browne and people were saying to me around Midleton to go out and do my best; they weren't expecting too much. I had said before the game that if I broke even with him, if he hit no ball and I hit no ball, I'd have been happy with that.
``And it just happened that the Gods smiled down on me and I had one of those days. The ball broke for me. I had a point to prove and as soon as that day was over as far as I was concerned I'd another point to prove in the Munster final. After the Waterford game people said he'll never do it again no way.''
He couldn't possibly repeat the same marvels but neither did he struggle against what has become regarded as the most exalted pairing in hurling today. Cork placed him on Colin Lynch; Mark Landers usually picks up the more robust opponent. Five more points from O'Connell. By now, there was talk of All-Star recognition.
``I knew that if I was to do any good that I would have to try and get the first score and, lucky for me, I did. It's amazing what a score will do for a fella's confidence; you're `bulling' for the next ball to come along.''
His claims on a place hardened in a challenge match against Clare shortly before the championship when he marked Enda Flannery and impressed. Yet, the call to arms against Waterford was still a surprise. ``I wasn't nervous until I ran out on to the pitch to 40,000 people roaring and screaming ... my legs turned to jelly.
``I stood out there in the centre of the pitch thinking to myself: God Almighty, you're playing here in a Munster semi-final and your legs are wobbling. It takes me maybe that's a criticism five or 10 minutes to sort myself out. That day I was lucky: I got a break of a ball. And in training I work hard at trying to score from 60 and 70 yards out the field.''
When he first developed a passion for hurling there were a few characters who helped carry him on the early section of the journey, three of whom he can recall with little hesitation: his aunt, a local school principal and John Fenton, Midleton's revered midfielder through the eighties.
Brother Cunningham was in charge of the local national school and under-age teams and introduced him to serious training. He'd barely reached his teens when the hurling-obsessed Brother had them belting hurleys off tyres almost daily in a bid to strengthen their wrists.
He took a special interest in the young O'Connell who, like himself, was Limerick-born though he'd left after only a year to settle in Midleton the son of a Mallow father from football country and a Limerick mother from whom he traces his hurling blood.
Two uncles played for Limerick at senior and intermediate level but despite such influences his two brothers never picked up a hurley with any degree of earnestness. His auntie Maureen lived with them for years while she worked in Youghal and bought him his first hurley.
He can remember going to the local pitch with his father, and playing in the local estate leagues. Before long his childhood hero Fenton had entered his domain, taking charge of the local U-16s and minors. It was from watching Fenton that O'Connell took to raising his collar and it is the way he wears it today.
IN the last decade Midleton were a huge force where, apart from Fenton, there was Ger Fitzgerald, Kevin Hennessy, Pat Hartnett and Denis Mulcahy on offer. Midleton CBS provided a valuable local nursery but hurling now has stiff competition from rugby in particular as the senior team's fortunes continue to ebb.
They haven't got past the first round in four years. This season Midleton started training on January 3 and were unbeaten in the league. The atmo sphere couldn't have been keener but Muskerry beat them in the first round of the championship for the second year in succession. The team collapsed inexplicably.
O'Connell, at least, had Cork to fall back on. He first came in contact with Donal Og Cusack, Sean Og O hAilpin and Joe Deane when they were all selected on the county U-14 team. Four years later they won an All-Ireland minor title together and later, two U-21s. His talent was obvious but it was O'Connell's willingess to work diligently at his game that separated him from the pack.
``You find a lot of players at under-age level of equal ability,'' states Fenton. ``What it boils down to at the end of the day is their commitment to the game. Any club will tell you they have players of tremendous ability but these players are often not prepared to give the commitment. Senior inter-county hurling is all about commitment.
``I think a lot of lads think that natural ability will carry them through. It might do at under-age and club level but no more than that. But even Micky's commitment and what he's already achieved guarantee him nothing the next day or next year.
``With all players you judge how good they are at the end of their careers. He's had a very good start and I don't doubt his ability to continue it, but we have seen a lot of players down the years who did very well in the first couple of seasons and then dropped off. I hope that in 10 years' time we can look back and say what a great player he was.''