O hAilpin coming to terms with retirement
IT'S only now that Sean Og O hAilpin can truly appreciate what 2012 – his last campaign with the Cork hurlers – means to him.
After a year in exile after Denis Walsh decided to jettison him, O hAilpin played his way back into the Cork side last year and was one of the better performers as they bowed out at the All-Ireland semi-final stage to Galway.
His subsequent retirement came at the right time and on his own terms. If he didn't jump, he might have been pushed like other members of his generation Donal Og Cusack, Niall McCarthy and John Gardiner.
"Look, it would be great if you could finish off on a fairytale, but fairytales rarely happen," says O hAilpin.
He still thinks his team-mates had something to offer. Cusack, he insists, would have been the "perfect foil" for All Star goalkeeper Anthony Nash. McCarthy has considerable experience – a valuable commodity in a youthful Cork squad – but Gardiner's omission was the most puzzling of all.
"There is not much experience there in terms of guys with All-Ireland medals, which Niall and John Gardiner have, and for that reason alone, it would have been ideal to keep them there.
"I would have thought (Gardiner's omission) was extremely harsh, that's being honest with you. But you are probably asking the wrong person, because I soldiered with those fellas, so of course I am going to be biased towards them."
Tom Kenny is still hanging on, but 2013 signals a new start for Cork hurling as manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy has dispensed with some of the players he plucked from underage hurling to land Cork an All-Ireland title in 1999. And, as he did when dropping Barry Egan from the squad that same year, he's showing a ruthless streak.
"It's not surprising to me, knowing that he has done it in the past and especially with Barry Egan.
"I just get the feeling with the management team that they're trying to get ready for three years' time and they just don't see us around in three years' time, which is fair enough."
While he has made his peace with his absence from the Cork squad, there remains a hole in O hAilpin's life.
He's hoping to fill a lot of it by "giving back" to his club Na Piarsaigh and has returned to playing football, though he couldn't steer them away from relegation to the intermediate ranks last year. Outside of that, there is the An Post cycle series which he is heading up.
But his absence from the Rebels' squad allows him to consider the legacy he and his generation have left behind. Apart from the All-Ireland medals from 1999, 2004 and 2005, they'll be remembered for the infamous strikes that pulled the county apart. And while they were regrettable, they were, O hAilpin insists, necessary.
"I'd rather if the strikes didn't happen, because it just brought out the bad in everything, but having said that, if I was in that situation again, a stance would have to be taken.
"I like to feel the players in Cork are getting better treated than before – and that was the ultimate reason (for the strikes). I like to feel that now any Cork player that goes into the set-up has stuff that should have been there already."
Those episodes undoubtedly hindered the Rebels, but in a frank admission, O hAilpin believes that even in their pomp, his team might have struggled to match the Kilkenny side that dominated hurling from 2006 onwards and has won every All-Ireland since, with the exception of 2010.
"As good as we could have been, I still think we would have been up against it against Kilkenny around that era. Kilkenny between 2006 and 2010 were awesome. I don't know even if we were at full throttle would we have beaten them.
"I would like to think that if the turmoil didn't happen, that we might have been in the shake-up or give Kilkenny a better run of it, or Tipperary, who were beginning to come good at that time. But who knows? That's history."
For the present, O hAilpin is happy to look on as Cork hurling rebuilds. "When I look back to when we were doing well, anyone in Cork could name you 12 of the starting 15 – those were the (Donal) O'Grady and John Allen years. And I think Cork are going through the process of getting back to that point at the minute.
"To win an All-Ireland you need a team playing together consistently. It's rare you get a team that comes out of nowhere to land it. Even the Donegal footballers that won the All-Ireland, that win didn't come just last year.
"That would have come a year or two before that and I think Cork are at that stage now."