Monday 22 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Setanta's one that got away

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Eamonn Sweeney

Ten years ago, a young Cork team arrived as outsiders to an All-Ireland hurling final against Kilkenny with most of the county's hopes pinned on the team's most inexperienced player, a six-foot-six 20-year-old corner-forward named Setanta ó hAilpín.

ó hAilpín had enjoyed an electrifying championship season which would earn him an All Star and the Young Hurler of the Year award. There was a charisma and an adventure about him which made a murmur of excitement ripple through the crowd every time the ball went near the kid from Na Piarsaigh. Strong, quick, brave, skilful and with an eye for goal, Setanta had it all.

Cork lost that final by three points but ó hAilpín lived up to his billing, tearing through for a terrific individual goal in the second half and troubling the Kilkenny defence throughout. He looked a good bet to become the biggest star in the game.

Instead his 2003 championship season remains a tantalising glimpse of what might have been and Setanta ó hAilpín is a legend of unfulfilled potential, a hurling equivalent of The Tetrarch or Golden Cygnet. Soon afterwards, he signed a contract with Australian Rules giants Carlton. His first season in the Cork colours would be his only one though he did return in the summer of 2004 to help his club Na Piarsaigh win their third county senior title.

That's why there was a certain symmetry about the news that last week, as Cork faced into another All-Ireland final, Setanta ó hAilpín was released by the Greater Western Sydney Giants of the Australian Football League. Given that the Giants are well on their way to having one of the worst seasons in AFL history with 21 losses from 22 games to date, it appears he may well be near the end of the line.

His achievement in carving out a career in professional sport for nigh on a decade when so many promising young Gaelic footballers didn't make it shouldn't be under-estimated. Yet it hasn't been a career in the Jim Stynes or Tadhg Kennelly mould with disciplinary problems and injury trouble preventing ó hAilpín from becoming a major figure in the Australian game.

He's 30 now and by the time next year's All-Ireland hurling championship rolls around he'll be 31. Hurling is a young man's game and you'd imagine that in a decade away ó hAilpín has built the kind of connections which would make it difficult for him to up sticks from Australia not least at a time when the recession is sending many young Irishmen on the opposite journey.

Yet such was the impact he made ten years ago that it would still be wonderful to see Seán óg's big little brother making the kind of return to his native game Tadhg Kennelly accomplished when winning an All-Ireland with Kerry in 2009. For that matter, he could also do an excellent job for the Cork footballers.

But if he doesn't return, at least we'll always have the memory of that golden summer ten years ago and a young man with a bright future ahead of him bursting past Noel Hickey and burying the ball past James McGarry. It remains one of the great hurling final moments of the 21st century.

Sunday Independent

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