Monday 23 October 2017

'When I look at the likes of Conor Lehane now or Darren Sweetnam, knowing they won't have to go through what we went through, I can rest soundly at night with that'

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He wonders if history will peer back at them with a cold or understanding eye. People tell him to "give it 10 years", but Sean Og O hAilpin thinks of that as a small eternity. Even today, an occasional stranger will approach him in the street and sweepingly declare the men who brought strike action to the GAA as "wrong".

It happens less and less but, anytime he hears that word, it cuts him.

"I'd love to hop into a time-machine now and find out if we'll eventually be judged kindly," he laughs gently. "But I think this thing will stick with us until the day we go into the coffin."

This thing. There was a picture to be taken in Pairc Ui Chaoimh last Sunday week that might easily have been interpreted as some kind of requiem, not so much for a team as for a movement. Himself and John Gardiner sitting, one in front of the other, at the bottom of the stand. Donal Og and his strapped Achilles somewhere on the periphery.

In the history of sport, three men have never been more closely aligned with activism and a willingness to challenge the ways of the world. Now, the sun slides down the sky of their careers and it is easy to feel as if all that angst and conflict was plucked from the pages of someone else's story.

O hAilpin and Gardiner will be on the Cork bench again this evening. Cusack will be nearby, busy with his back-room tasks. The men who went to war on player welfare are still part of the rebel brotherhood. Just a different, less conspicuous part.

After his season in reluctant exile, O hAilpin hurled every single game of the National League for Jimmy Barry-Murphy. But the seventh of them cracked the mirror. Kilkenny took all that bright, redemptive Cork energy and reduced it to a lump of putty in Thurles. He remembers sitting in the dressing-room after, players staring at one another, as if in need of counselling.

Kilkenny, always Kilkenny.

When his career has finally run its course, that striped jersey will roll through the narrative like an endlessly reprinted prosecution notice. Just O hAilpin's misfortune to share a lifetime with maybe the greatest side that ever hurled.

I remind him of a radio studio in Croke Park, the evening of the 2005 All-Ireland final. Maybe an hour after his unforgettable "Is fada an turas e o Fiji go Corcaigh ... " captain's speech, he sat with John Allen, recounting the day with a panel of guests. And, somewhere in Kilkenny, Brian Cody stood over the dry bones of a team now widely deemed redundant in the modern world.

Whatever happened after?

Sean Og smiles a rueful smile. "We were the standard bearers," he agrees. "Top of the food chain and so used to getting to Croke Park every year. It was like a ritual for us and there was nothing to suggest that the wheels were going to fall off at that stage.

"Okay, granted, we didn't face Kilkenny that year. But we'd beaten them emphatically in the '04 final. If you told me that day what would happen over the next six years, Cork not even getting a whiff, I wouldn't have believed it."

WE sit in the Rochestown Park Hotel, maybe a hundred feet from the room in which Denis Walsh cut him adrift in October 2010.

Sean Og had been 14 years an inter-county man when the news that he was no longer part of Cork's plans hit him like a punch in the face. There had been no anger in their meeting, no acrimony. Just numbness, a quick handshake and the sound of a door closing on everything he'd known as a way of life.

O hAilpin says he has no memory of the drive home to Whitechurch. "When I got into the car, I felt like it was the end of the world," he remembers. "You hear people talking about slipping into this subconscious state when they get bad news from a doctor. I don't mean to be disrespectful to anyone who's been through that, but that's how I felt. Because I wasn't expecting that."

Cork had been soundly whipped by, yes, Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final two months earlier and, if O hAilpin's form didn't quite set the hedges ablaze that day, he wasn't exactly conspicuous as one of Cork's poorest either. So he'd gone to that meeting with Walsh, his head full of hope and winter gym schedules.

Why on earth would Walsh cut him adrift? "Denis gave reasons and, basically, you just have to take them at face value," he answers now. "Whether I believed them or not is probably for another day. But he was the manager. I said to myself, 'you have to know your place here now. You're a player. If he tells you that you're not part of his plans, well that's the end of it.'

"I tried to deal with it with as much dignity as I could. I said, 'Denis, if that's the direction you're taking, fine.' Just shook hands and walked out. Because there was no point. He had his mind made up. It's like arguing with a garda or a ref. Whether they're wrong or not, they're right.

"When I got into the car, I rang my girlfriend, Siobhan. Then I rang my family, because I was conscious that the word might filter out and I wanted them to hear it from me. I remember making those calls, but I was in a daze."

He didn't go to any of the Cork games last year, if only to sidestep the inevitability of people coursing him with questions.

"It wasn't because I was bitter and twisted," he smiles. "Far from it. I was still shouting and supporting. I'd soldiered with so many of those lads, how could I have been any other way?"

When Barry-Murphy subsequently replaced Walsh, immediately recalling O hAilpin to the fold, there was a certain sense of symmetry to the picture. Jimmy's championship debut as manager had, after all, coincided with Sean Og's as a player, albeit that Limerick game in '96 isn't one celebrated in many Cork scrapbooks.

But they got their All-Ireland little more than three years later and, if strikes and strife would subsequently run parallel to the Cork hurling story once Jimmy stepped away, there was usually a sense too that, with harmony in the camp, they could hurl against the best of them.

The All-Ireland victories of '04 and '05, under Donal O'Grady and then Allen, catapulted Cork into the national consciousness as a team breaking new boundaries in the professionalism of their preparation. Then Kilkenny climbed off the mortuary slab to stop the bid for three-in-a-row in '06 and, well, the lights went out in Cork's world.

They'd become rivals with fundamental differences and, now, those differences became the badges that defined them.

When Andy Comerford was the only Kilkenny player to march with socks around his ankles in the parade before the '02 National League final (seven Cork players did), an act of protest agreed upon two weeks previously at an EGM of the Gaelic Players' Association, it was interpreted as a kind of betrayal in the Cork dressing-room.

Peter Barry then, unwittingly, dropped a further incendiary by telling journalists that Kilkenny's victory had been "all about the jersey".

Later that year, as Cork's players went on strike, Barry's quote would stick in their throats as the ultimate put-down. As if their fight with an old-world county board reflected some kind of compromised identity. In many minds, Cork -- thereafter -- came to represent one side of the moon, Kilkenny the other. There was little love lost between them.

After the '06 All-Ireland final, Barry rang Donal Og in an effort to defuse the sense of acrimony. He explained that his words had been misinterpreted four years earlier and said that he wanted to put an end to the "bad feeling". It was a gesture they still appreciate in Cork, albeit Donal Og's subsequent depiction of the Cats in his book as 'Stepford Wives' didn't necessarily reflect that.

O hAilpin believes the antipathy between the counties was, perhaps, built on an absence of understanding.

"I feel no animosity towards Kilkenny," he stresses now. "Around that time it was clear they went down their path, we went down ours. People always ask me did that make me feel aggrieved? At the time, it probably did. But, look, they did whatever they felt they had to do. We did likewise.

"So I have no ill-feeling for them. It's been incredible what they've done and even if things had been right with us, being honest, I don't know if we'd have beaten them anyway. They gave us a ferocious hammering in 2010. In 2008, it was phenomenal for half an hour, the most incredible pace. I was marking Henry Shefflin that day and I remember the two of us just being out on our feet.

"Looking at one another, going 'Ah for f*** sake ... ' Then they got a goal and, after all our hard work, we were six points down at half-time.

"So I wouldn't use the strikes as an excuse for us not winning more. Look, we probably wouldn't have got hammered by quite as much but, if I was being honest about it, it would have taken something extra special for us to beat them. Kilkenny were a different animal, boy."

In terms of legacy, maybe therein lies the problem.

After the '02 strike, Cork's hurlers franked their victory over the county board by reaching the next four All-Ireland finals, winning two. After going to war with the board again five years later, a good deal of fresh bitterness and small-mindedness was uncorked. But there would be no return to glory to salve wounds.

This time, winning the strike didn't pre-empt winning the Liam MacCarthy.

O hAilpin, though, doesn't sleep with many regrets. "Change isn't encouraged in the GAA and that's why the route we went down wasn't popular," he says. "But when I look at the likes Conor Lehane now or Darren Sweetnam, knowing they won't have to go through what we went through, I'm fine with that. I can rest soundly at night with that.

"That's all we were looking for for ourselves, just a fair chance for players to express themselves when they'd go in. To be fair to Kilkenny, they didn't face the problems we faced. We need to understand that as well. What was going on down here was very unique.

"In time you get wiser and reflect a little more. To eradicate all the anger, maybe we had to win another All-Ireland. That would have been the thing to end all arguments, like we did after the '02 strike. That kind of indicated what we were about. People saying, 'maybe they did have a point ... '

"Unfortunately after the second strike, we didn't do that. That's probably why you still get the odd jibe. But look, that's cool too."

The league final knocked them backwards with a velocity they never anticipated. Prior evidence suddenly fell open to question. There was nothing specific said afterwards to indicate his position might be under threat but, a week before the championship clash with Tipperary, O hAilpin knew.

In the training games, he was now being a thrown a 'possibles' bib. At 35, his future was palpably behind him. He doesn't deny the rejection hurt.

"If I'm very honest about my form in the league, I thought I was serviceable," suggests O hAilpin. "I did whatever was asked of me. I was happy enough. Granted there were some games where form was up and down, but I thought I was reasonably consistent.

"But Kilkenny are the standard now and they were red-hot the day of the final. The management probably had to make changes after that and lads like myself and Stephen McDonnell became the casualties. To be fair, they had to be seen to do something.

"It was the lesser of two evils. If they left things as they were and we went badly against Tipp, people would be saying, 'sure ye were forewarned!' Look, I do realise I'm 35. There's not many that age still playing, though I can think of one 39-year-old!"

He says he's "upbeat" about the direction Cork are now headed under Barry-Murphy. The performance against Tipp was decent, albeit the result left them "gutted". Not getting a run was hard, but the camp is happy and united. People just need patience.

They have a trek ahead to get to Kilkenny's level but, then, so has the rest of hurling.

"If I was to take my Cork hat off, I'd have to say fair play to Kilkenny," says O hAilpin. "It's not their fault that they're hammering teams by so many points. If I was in that boat, I'd be doing the very same thing. The onus is on the rest of us to deal with it.

"During those times we were on strike, we'd have appreciated their support. We'd have felt it would have helped. Maybe it needed a meeting between us or something like that. Like I think people ended up assuming things about one another, and me trying to assume things about a fella in Kilkenny could be far from reality or vice versa.

"So our paths were set and once we were on those paths we couldn't turn back because it would probably be seen as weakness on both sides."

A FEW days after the body of the missing young Midleton boy Robert Holohan was recovered in '05, O hAilpin read a prayer at the funeral Mass.

Afterwards, he drove back towards the city intent on doing a gym session. Halfway in the road, he changed his mind, pointing the car for home. "I just thought, 'aah cop yourself on!'" he remembers. "I would have gone into that gym like a zombie, so I just went home and took stock of what had happened."

It comes back to him now as one of those rare moments when the impulse to be the best he can be gave way to a more rational power.

All his competitive life, he has been drawn to militaristic discipline, to using every waking hour as some kind of stepping-stone to glory. And last year, watching Cork from afar, a realisation dawned that so much else in O hAilpin's life lay silently suspended.

"The game owns you," he says now. "It's unbelievable. You're in that bubble and you don't see things that straight. When you want to win like that, you'll do anything to get it. You'll believe whatever you need to believe. Whatever floats your boat to get you that performance next Sunday, that's what you'll believe in. Whether it's running up Mount Everest, eating two oranges, whatever it takes."

The recent stories of GAA racism, mind, speak of a repugnant extremism.

O hAilpin faced his share of such poison when, as an 11-year-old, the family first settled in Cork. For him, sport and the respect gained from it changed everything.

"When we landed in '88, there weren't many dark people like us around," he remembers. "Irish society would have been ignorant of other cultures back then and, luckily, we were warned by our parents to expect to be called certain names.

"But all of it went away when we started getting involved in sport. And that's what I find galling about hearing it happening now. It's appalling. You'd think people would be more liberal now, more open to other cultures.

"I mean, I'm told in the Lee Chin case he had to run after the referee and ask him to do something. Now, if the ref was already privy to what was being said, that's shocking."

Today, O hAilpin accepts, could potentially be his last time pulling on the Cork jersey. "Every game is the last game for me at this stage," he smiles. "It could be, but I hope it isn't."

When he thinks of Offaly, his mind reaches back to 2000. An All-Ireland semi-final that was seen as a forgone conclusion. Jimmy's words of warning beforehand in the dressing-room. Then the sense of a team just sinking in quicksand. It was to be the last game of the first Barry-Murphy era.

"As players, we went up cocksure," recalls O hAilpin. "We were like, this was going to be a practice run for the final against Kilkenny. And I remember Jimmy saying 'Lads, Offaly are a funny kettle of fish. Be warned.'" He said it. They didn't hear.

Perhaps with survivors of that crash still on duty today, the memory will stand to them. "Listen, this is raw reality now," says O hAilpin. "If we lose, we're gone. This is it, hard-core championship."

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