Saturday 24 March 2018

Breaking from the border

Donnacha O'Connor has made the most of his late Cork call-up, writes Marie Crowe

IT has been a long time coming for Donnacha O'Connor. By the age of 24, he had yet to make it onto the Cork senior panel and he was starting to wonder if the chance would ever come.

Growing up in Ballydesmond, O'Connor was a typical young footballer who dreamed of playing in Croke Park, but his shyness and lack of self-belief stood in the way. There was an under 21 match alright, and a few junior games too, but the senior call-up wasn't coming.

"It took me longer than most people to make it," says O'Connor. "I suppose it came down to confidence really. When I went for trials I kind of felt out of place and anytime I was on the ball I used to pass it off straight away.

"Playing for Cork was always in my head but when I got to the age of 22 or 23 I kind of believed that it wasn't really going to happen."

But in 2005 O'Connor got the break he craved. The Cork juniors beat Meath in the All-Ireland final and although he never quite nailed down a place on the starting 15, he made a few appearances during the successful campaign.

The clincher, though, was that he made his fleeting appearances count. Coming on as substitute in the final, he scored two points in the last few minutes. Not long after, Billy Morgan came calling and finally things started to fall into place.

"After we won the junior All-Ireland, I got called for senior trials. By then I had got to know some of the lads because a few of them had played with me on the junior team. I was playing Sigerson with CIT so I knew a few of those lads too.

"This time round as the trials went on I wasn't as nervous, I didn't really care as much. We played one challenge match against a Cork selection, I was playing for CIT, I played well that day and that's what made it for me. It came down to the fact that I was playing with CIT and not with players I didn't know, it made a big difference and I made the panel."

There was probably a time, a long time ago now, when O'Connor dreamed of days like today in Croke Park, when he imagined himself in a green and gold jersey -- and not a red and white one.

Home is Ballydesmond on the Cork-Kerry border, O'Connor's father is a Kerryman and most of his family are Kerry supporters.

"When I was very young I supported Kerry, all my family did, but when I got a bit of sense I started supporting Cork," says O'Connor. "I don't really know why I decided to change because it was the '90s and Kerry were still going well. I think it was because of Danny Culloty and Mark O'Sullivan. They live close to where I'm from and they were playing with Cork at the time -- that had a lot to do with it."

Although he has only been a senior footballer for four years, the 28-year-old has had more than his fair share of struggles with his neighbours. In fact, Kerry are the only team that have beaten Cork in a championship match since O'Connor joined the panel. His close proximity to the Kingdom and his family ties don't make this an easy cross to bear.

The most recent encounter between the two sides was especially difficult for O'Connor. It was the dying minutes of the Munster semi-final replay, and Cork were awarded a free. Leading by a point. O'Connor stepped up to take the kick but made a terrible hash of it, ballooning it into the air. Cork lost possession, Marc ó Sé levelled the game and Kerry won in extra-time.

"In the weeks after the game we looked back at it and there was no way in the world I would have kicked it over the bar, I was too far out. What I was trying to do was kick it into Colm O'Neill, he had made a run but then Pat McEnaney instructed me not to kick it and to go back a bit. I knew if I kicked it then he would hop the ball and they would get it back.

"So I went back a bit, kicked it and ended up making a complete mess of it. We discussed it at a couple of meetings and at these they want fellas to be honest. I told them I fecked it up. Kerry got the ball back and they went up the field and got the equalising point. If that ball had went dead or I had passed it we probably would have won that game. I have heard enough about that free alright."

O'Connor was in the spotlight in another Cork-Kerry clash too, this time it was the drawn 2008 All-Ireland semi-final, when he was sent off after an incident involving Kerry's Aidan O'Mahony. The red card was later overturned by the CCCC after television pictures had shown O'Mahony making the most of the situation, as O'Connor recalls.

"I knew straight away that he dived. But I wasn't mad at him because, when you are playing, you will try every trick in the book to win. The minute it happened I knew I was in trouble, I just glanced at the linesman and I could hear him talking into the microphone so I knew I was finished then.

"At the time I was thinking we're going to lose this game and it will be all my fault. We were down six points and a team can't afford to lose a man when they are that far behind. I felt terrible for 10 or 15 minutes but when we got the penalty [to level the game] I was relieved.

"I know it was obvious that I didn't do much but as people say if you're going to do it you might as well do a job on it, but if I had done that I would have been gone for months. I was so annoyed with myself for being so stupid. The ball was gone out of play and everyone was watching it."

Surprisingly after adding last year's All-Ireland final loss to previous heartache suffered at the hands of Kerry, O'Connor still isn't happy that Kerry are out of the championship. He would love another chance at them in Croke Park but will have to wait another year for that.

In the meantime, he is working hard on being fit for today's encounter with Dublin. For the past month the corner-forward has been trying to recover from an Achilles injury he picked up in the Munster final replay.

"I played a club match on the Tuesday after the Kerry replay and another club match on the Saturday night, that's what did the damage. Trying to get back in has been a disaster really. It is very hard with all the competition.

"I thought I'd been going well in training. I'm not saying I should be on the team but I haven't missed a championship game since I came on the panel and when it's due to injury that's kind of my own fault because I shouldn't have played those two club games. But they were championship and I had to -- it's frustrating."

O'Connor's arrival on the scene has been a slow but steady upward curve -- a bit like this Cork team. Today is the day for O'Connor and Cork to show the graph is still rising. It's so close now they can almost touch it . . .

Sunday Independent

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