Ultimate Corkman Sean Og harshly cast aside
Last Saturday morning, Sean Og O hAilpin made his way to meet Cork manager Denis Walsh for the player's end of year evaluation.
Sean Og was under the impression his place was nailed down and that he was about to be asked to mentor the younger players who would be brought into the Cork panel.
Walsh retired Sean Og. He didn't jump, he was pushed. No doubt about that. There were some on the county board who thought Sean Og would announce his retirement and there would be no mention of the fact that he was dropped but Sean Og wanted it to be known he didn't walk out on Cork. That was his sole motivation. This was no act of petty revenge or bitterness.
So was he wronged? For sure Sean Og is not the hurler he used to be. It's all about pace at the highest level. You can train for everything else. Weights will bulk you up and long runs will build stamina but when your speed goes, there's very little you can do about it.
Wing-backs are the explosive 'out of the blocks' men but Sean Og never drank or smoked and his physical age lags a few years behind the DOB on his birth cert.
Sean Og is the only one of the boys of the old brigade to have been dropped (Walsh has yet to meet John Gardiner). Is it Sean Og's fault then that Cork didn't win the All-Ireland? Sean Og was terrible in the league final. There wouldn't have been a word if he was left on the bench after that. He was good against Tipp when Cork wiped out the All-Ireland champions and good too against Kilkenny on a day when he was one of Cork's best half-dozen players.
It's not just the dropping of a hurler. As one friend of his put it: "Sean Og was always going to try to be the best Corkman he could possibly be."
He was up against it. Cork is no more racist that anywhere else. Less so in fact, but just one bigot can inflict serious hurt on a sensitive kid.
This kid learned fast. He was a top-class hurler and footballer at under- age. He became fluent in Irish and picked up a north side blas.
Just as Donal Og Cusack made it easier for gay players to become accepted within the GAA, Sean Og fought the fight for the Irish who have, as a Cork friend put it, 'a 12-month tan'.
Sean Og's legacy is that we know him not by the colour of his skin but by the colour of his jersey.
Yes, he is more than just a hurler.
Our good friend Sean Healy, a good player too, works with Sean Og in Ulster Bank. He brought his colleague to Listowel to speak to the under-age teams.
"Why didn't ye bring someone from Kerry?" asked one cheeky boy and Sean Og heard every word. Two hours later the cheeky boy declared Sean Og was the best coach ever. His integrity burns through his eyes. Honesty is his brand, almost to the point of naivete, but that is his way and he knows no other.
My brother-in-law Simon, a Corkman, had an expenses envelope ready for Sean Og. A few quid for petrol. And something to cover the cost of a nice meal. Sean Og wouldn't hear of it. "Give it to the club", he said. This is no Wayne Rooney we're dealing with here. No piece of meat either.
The O hAilpin family are devastated for Sean Og. Setanta is in Australia and we heard he's feeling it worst of all.
So far away -- when you need to be back home in the kitchen with your family talking things out. I am sure there are many of you who have family in Oz. It's a great country and all that, but there's no catching a Ryanair flight back home for the weekend.
There are some in Cork who maintain Frank Murphy, secretary of the county board, is behind the sacking as some sort or revenge for Sean Og's role in the hurling strikes.
I have often criticised Frank Murphy here but my information is this was a solely a hurling decision and Murphy had nothing to do with it.
This can't have been easy for Walsh. He can't pick all the players, but Walsh is in serious trouble in the dressing-room. Sean Og wasn't a big talker but he had a presence and was very popular among the players.
There will be no strikes and there will be no public utterances, but Walsh, who is an honourable man with no ulterior motives, may well have made a serious error of judgement.
If Cork win in 2011 most of the fans will see the dropping as part of the inevitable cycle of rise, decline and fall. That's sport isn't it? Winning is like confession. Winners are absolved from all past sins, but there's no penance.
I was in Cork this week trying to gauge the reaction from the man in the street, only in this case it was the two men covered in paint in Lennox's chipper.
"Are ye doing a bit of decorating lads?" I asked.
These finely honed skills of intuitive and deductive reasoning persuaded the paper to send me to Cork in the first place. My hunch was right. They were good fellas. Chatty. It's a Cork thing. It's even in the way people make eye contact in the street. In most other cities they stare at the tips of their shoes. One of the decorators was an All-Ireland club winner and he had played against the great man.
"Is his pace gone? Was that it?" I asked.
"A bit alright but the power makes up for it. And he's a real Corkman."
"Define a real Corkman," I said.
"Tell him about the plane," suggested his pal in a Munster jersey.
"Ah yeah. We were after landing in Dublin Airport and there was this old couple from Cork in front of us. The big blue signs at the emigration checkpoint read EU and non--EU. The two stopped, puzzled, and the husband asks the wife 'Love, where's the Cork gate?'."
When Sean Og came home to Ireland he marched through the Cork gate. He had a contract. Not on paper, but the terms are there for all to see.
'I Sean Og O hAilpin will give my life to Cork hurling and in return we in Cork hurling agree to look after Sean Og.'
Sean Og didn't break his side of the bargain.