Sport Hurling

Saturday 20 January 2018

O hAilpin walks away with head held high after 16 years of majestic service

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

IT started and ended in defeat for Sean Og O hAilpin, but in between his chastening introduction to life as a senior championship hurler in a 16-point defeat by Limerick in 1996 and his last game against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final last August, lay a career brimming with enough fulfilment and achievement to sustain him through the rest of his life.

He had his disappointments too, of course, including being omitted from the Cork squad by Denis Walsh for the 2011 season but, typical of the self-belief he displayed throughout 16 years at senior level, he battled on defiantly.

His perseverance was rewarded when Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who gave him his senior break four days after his 19th birthday in May 1996, recalled him to the squad for this year's campaign.

"I always felt it was premature to end my career in 2010. It was great to get the opportunity this year to re-establish myself in the team and contribute in a meaningful way to Cork," said O hAilpin in his retirement announcement yesterday.

At the age of 35, and with Barry-Murphy seeking to further freshen the squad for the second season of his second spell as manager, O hAilpin probably wouldn't have seen much action if he made himself available for 2013, but the important thing for him was that he left on his terms.

He made the call to depart, whereas two years ago he was left off the squad.

Leaving of his own volition would have been important to him. Right throughout his career, he set standards which demanded more from himself than anything the various managers he served under would ever have called for.

That was why in those turbulent days when Cork hurlers found themselves sucked into bitter wars with the ruling classes in the county, O hAilpin was always regarded as a leading advocate for what the squad deemed right.

They demanded that certain standards be met, and failure to reach those ran contrary to everything that O hAilpin -- and others -- stood for.

The one thing he deemed even more important was that his own standards of preparation reflected the wonderful skills and athleticism the sporting gods bestowed upon him.

One of the best hurling wing-backs of his generation, his swashbuckling style made him a huge favourite with the public. He nearly always did something spectacular in a game, usually backing it up with a consistent solidity in the basics.

Amid his long list of hurling achievements, it's easy to forget that he was also an outstanding footballer.

He joined the Cork panel in 1998, picked up an Allianz League medal and a Munster medal in the space of a few months in 1999 and found himself poised to emulate Teddy McCarthy by winning the All-Ireland double in the same year when Cork footballers lined up against Meath in the final.

Cork's hurlers had beaten Kilkenny two weeks earlier but their footballers, with O hAilpin at full-back, came up three points short against Meath.

His football career lasted just two more years before he decided to concentrate on hurling. The 2004 and 2005 seasons were hugely successful for the Cork hurlers, who won the All-Ireland double, before Kilkenny returned to power in 2006.

O hAilpin would have loved to have been a professional athlete, devoting all his time to his chosen sport(s). Indeed, he did his best to bring a full-time mentality to amateur sports with a dedication that played a big role in extending his career to the age of 35.

Irish Independent

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