Long road back worth pain for Clare skipper O'Connor
Before Clare beat Limerick in last month's Munster senior hurling semi-final, Patrick O'Connor felt the pressure more than most.
Joint-managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor had made no bones about placing their debut seasonal eggs firmly in the June 4 basket - no other day mattered.
As Clare plodded through an Allianz League campaign that saw them avoid relegation in a Division 1A play-off with Dublin, O'Connor was on the outside looking in.
Having undergone surgery on a shoulder injury last December, his was a race against time to make championship.
He stayed close to the surgical team in Santry who had performed the operation and worked with physio Maura O'Dea on his rehabilitation.
Driving O'Connor was the fact that he was captain, and that brought an added responsibility.
On April 7, he was back in training. Conor McGrath returned on that Friday night too, having recovered from his own shoulder surgery.
O'Connor recalls: "There were so many nights back through the years where you are thinking, 'I don't want to go training' - and that was the beginning of a hard block of training between league and championship.
"It had been earmarked as a particularly tough one, but you were just delighted to get out there.
"Simple things like warming up and warming down with the lads, the craic that you would be having, particularly after hard training, all the natural endorphins are bouncing off the group."
O'Connor smiles as he recalls Gearóid 'Gudgy' O'Connell testing him out one night in Caherlohan.
"They were doing this particular drill, congestion in the middle, I was probably a bit lethargic and not clued in well.
"I didn't know actually what they were doing, it looked like madness to me because I hadn't done it before.
"So, I got caught in the middle, I was left on my back. After that I was thinking, 'I survived it', I was happy, I wasn't made of glass."
O'Connor was one of Davy Fitzgerald's most trusted lieutenants during his four years at the helm.
And when he had proved his fitness ahead of this year's championship opener against Limerick, Moloney and O'Connor had no qualms about chucking him straight back into the Clare defence.
There were "alarm bells ringing" after a few minutes, O'Connor admits, as he readjusted to the pace of summer hurling.
"I found myself breathing heavy and the tongue was stuck to the top of the mouth."
But O'Connor's second wind kicked in and it was pretty much plain sailing from there, as the Tubber clubman got through the 70-plus minutes.
He says: "The added-in factor that I was named captain this year, you want to be on the field, you want to put yourself in a position to play and in a position to lead by example.
"I was just delighted that I got there in the end. It was close, management made me aware that there was no position shoehorned for me, I had to earn it back.
"I was pushing and pushing the physios to let me back a bit sooner, just looking for that inch anywhere I could get it."
Now it's Cork in a Munster final and there may be some inside knowledge that O'Connor can impart to his team-mates.
He's a graduate from CIT, played Fitzgibbon Cup for them, and also lined out in a Cork county SHC final in 2011, when the students suffered a one-point defeat against Carrigtwohill.
O'Connor notes: "We are all watching hurling long enough to know that there is no such thing as a bad Cork hurling team.
"They are always very, very skilful and very, very dedicated, they play the game hard and fast."
Just how O'Connor likes it.