Seán óg ó hAilpín: Getting back to business
Beginning his 15th season with Cork, Seán óg ó hAilpín is as hungry as ever, writes Damian Lawlor
THERE'S no strike on the horizon, he is injury-free and the Cork hurlers can approach the new season with some degree of optimism. Little wonder that Seán óg ó hAilpín already likes the look of 2010.
In recent years he has worn the look of a weary man, the scars of three strikes and constant boardroom wrangles etched all over his face, but it's a much happier ó hAilpín this January.
"It's a welcome relief to be focusing on a new season rather than staying up until 2.0 in the morning with the other player reps or stuck in another late-night team meeting," he shrugs. "The only way we can go is up; we all want to get back playing to the best of our ability. Lads are not happy that the last few years of their careers were about strikes and off-the-field activity. They want success back on those CVs."
ó hAilpín turns 33 this year and that 1996 championship debut against Limerick seems many moons ago now. Life has seldom been dull in between, having been played out in the public glare. Still, as exalted as his position has become, ó hAilpín remains the same enthusiastic, down-to-earth northside lad he has always been, brimming with infectious enthusiasm.
Last year, he watched old warrior friends like Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Joe Deane head off into the sunset and wondered if there was anyone to replace them. He looks at it a little differently now. Maybe, just maybe, with a transfusion of new blood under the watch of manager Denis Walsh, Cork hurling can start to go somewhere again.
Everyone wants a crack at Tipperary in the Munster championship in May and the fact that they're even looking that far ahead with some optimism shows how far they have progressed from last season. Then, the hurlers who had gone on strike shared a dressing room with the replacement panel, those who had played on under Gerald McCarthy, and to say there was friction in the early stages of that fusion is an understatement.
ó hAilpín believes that Denis Walsh's biggest achievement to date has been restoring team spirit within such a brittle environment. "Denis had a real calming affect," he says. "He inherited two teams coming together but got us all playing our hearts out for Cork again. In many ways he starts his reign proper now and he knows the panel he wants.
"Don't get me wrong, the last strike was cruel and the scars are still there and maybe they will never go away, but I do think that good will come out of it. I might not be around to get the benefits but others will and that was one of the main reasons we took a stand.
"Last year, anyone I saw who went across the 'picket line' had a black mark in my book but maybe when you're so deep in the trenches you see nothing else. It's only when the season goes ahead and you're in the same dressing room as these other fellows that you try to put yourself in their shoes. Like . . . they had a chance to play for Cork.
"They're only human too, I suppose, and so that's when the softness came out on my behalf. From our perspective, the alternative Cork team didn't help the cause; I reckon the whole thing would have been sorted out long before it was if there wasn't another team out there. But I think people on our side of the fence now realise why the lads played away and hopefully they realise what we did as well.
"Maybe there's a bit of respect there now on both sides that wasn't there once. That's down to Denis. He has done so well to get the spirit going in the camp. It was nearly like apartheid trying to get two sides working together."
At the height of last season's stand-off, ó hAilpín was extremely pessimistic about the short-term future for Cork hurling and still maintains that improving their underage structures will be a huge job. He cites recent minor and U21 statistics that certainly don't make for pretty reading.
Still, he's starting to feel there is light at the end of the tunnel. The landscape is slowly changing in Cork with the establishment of the recent Club Forum, the proposals for a centre of excellence and open dialogue between the county board and its stakeholders. The balance of power is shifting out among clubs and he finds this encouraging.
All the same, ó hAilpín is conscious that he will need to be more focused on his own requirements for the year ahead. Finally shaking off a litany of niggling injuries is a priority, while his body will have to stand up to another pre-season training regime. But he'll also have to get used to wearing a helmet -- which he reckons will be the hardest challenge of his career.
"I'll be honest, it's the likes of the Tony Browne and Colin Lynch stories that keep me going," he smiles. "There's a mindset with the two of them as well as keeping their bodies in peak shape. Tony is just as important to the Waterford team now as he was 10 years ago and until he retired so too was Colin. They're the shining light for me and fellows my age.
"But I'm starting to feel it now. We had a team meeting a few weeks back and Donal óg [Cusack] was off in Africa so I felt like Father Time there on my own in front of the young lads. When he came back I pleaded with him never to leave me on my own again," he laughs.
Cusack has been a lifelong friend, a comrade in arms and a training partner just as fanatical as ó hAilpín himself. Their hurling lives are all-consuming; for instance both men took off for a heavy run on St Stephen's Day in preparation for the National League and Cusack slipped on ice and had to be hospitalised, the last act of a busy year for the Cork goalkeeper. ó hAilpín readily admits his admiration for his friend has only increased in the wake of the revelations in his autobiography.
"We've been on Cork teams since the Tony Forristal U14 squad and in everything I've been involved in, he's been there," he says. "We've cried over games and we've laughed over games so I'm probably biased in my view of that man. He is a remarkable chap and a born leader, natural and driven. Not everyone is going to be supportive of him coming out but he's not interested in that. I think what he's trying to say is: 'This is me. I'm gay, if you have a problem with it so be it, it's your problem'. He's not looking for sympathy, not looking for anything and the feedback he's received has been pretty much positive.
"What matters to him are the people close to him but it was a non-issue when he revealed it to the team a few years ago. The bottom line is that he's a decent guy and when he puts on that red and white jersey he puts in the performances week in and week out when it matters to his team-mates. Once you're doing your job no one gives a damn who you are."
Together, they'll lead the charge against Tipperary in the heat of the Munster championship. This is not the Cork team of five or six years ago and they appear to lack the firepower to stop Kilkenny's bid for an incredible five-in-a-row. For most of the noughties the two were bitter rivals, neck and neck, but the southerners have been left behind.
ó hAilpín actually struggles to comprehend how far behind the Cats Cork have fallen. "We always knew that Kilkenny were up there but did we envisage after 2004 and '05 that they would win the four-in-a-row? No we didn't. But that's the beauty of sport, it's so competitive. They blew us out of it and they're basically looking down on us and the others.
"More than anyone, Kilkenny handle history well and they have the incentive of going for the five-in-a-row which has never been done before. But teams like us have the incentive of trying to stop them, like the Offaly footballers of 1982 when they stopped Kerry. That said, our first goal is to beat Tipperary. They should have won the All-Ireland last year. We can't look beyond that but if we do beat Tipperary . . . Jesus, that would be great progress in my book."
He's hoping that younger brother Aisake will play a bigger role this year, after returning to the Cork hurling scene in 2009 from four seasons trying to carve out an AFL career alongside Setanta in Melbourne.
We've only seen glimpses of his potential thus far and Seán óg is hoping that a winter in the ball alley will have improved his hand to eye co-ordination. "He had to start back walking in hurling terms. Last year was tough having to effectively pick up the game from scratch and we all saw from the games that he's definitely out of sync. But the co-ordination will come.
"When he was in Oz he didn't hold a hurley at all. The two lads were seeing pucking around for a TV documentary, but that was only for the documentary. They were too tired after training for a few pucks. But Aisake came back to Cork more educated in his sporting knowledge. I've learned stuff from him, he knows when to take protein and that; knows what time of the year to do certain types of work.
"To be totally honest, I don't think he's settled in properly yet. It broke his heart to come back, he had his heart set on following Setanta and breaking in at Carlton, he was heartbroken leaving Melbourne and Setanta."
Mention of Setanta and the life that he's carved out down under (58 games and 30 goals for Carlton) leaves Seán óg animated. "What he's done out there amazes me in one way and it doesn't," he says, shaking his head. "Like, the hairs stand on the back of my neck when I think about where he's come from.
"In time he'll reveal the stuff he's had to go through to stay out there, but I can tell you that a lesser fellow would have been on the plane home. His Aussie career hasn't gone as smooth as he would like and it's been more down than up. But I think when he looks back on the training ground incident with Cameron Cloke he'll see it as the turning point because literally he was that close to following Aisake home and he hung in there."
That training ground dust-up, when a clearly frustrated Setanta lashed out at his team-mate, Cloke, dominated the Australian sporting headlines for weeks and Seán óg recalls that his brother couldn't go anywhere in Melborune for a period. The public wanted him out of the club and the media tried to bury him.
"Setanta had been carrying injuries for years and maybe the coaching staff were thinking that it was all in his mind. But Carlton were close to losing patience with him when it finally emerged that there was a blocked artery. It proved him right all along. In training he had seemed fine but after running for an hour his legs would go numb."
When the club couldn't pinpoint the exact nature of the problem they sent him to see a specialist, Michael Danton, who placed a special dye into Setanta's leg. That's when the blockage was revealed.
Once diagnosed they began working on it but ó hAilpín was in the last year of his contract and needed to get back onto the training field to make a point. It meant he faced into that infamous training game under pressure and not quite up to the tempo the others were operating at.
"Everything brimmed over that day but he is some man," his older brother surmises. "The way he handled it, the suspension, trial by the public, he couldn't go anywhere in Melbourne for a while, not even down the street. But he copped the criticism, kept quiet, played in the reserves, got back in the team and hit good form."
In many ways last season was a nadir of sorts for the two brothers, but the rough terrain looks to have been negotiated and it's time to trudge forward again. Seán óg is fit and ready for a 15th championship season. He'll burst through it like he always does, with that unique mixture of stubbornness and style.