It was difficult not to be heartened by the sight of Colm O’Neill dancing around Gaelic Park last Saturday evening.
The fare was pure exhibition but there was a joie de vivre about the 24-year-old’s freedom of movement as he contributed 1-2 to the 2012 All Stars’ 8-17, beating the 2011 team who posted 8-7.
But for a couple of cracks of the crossbar, there might have been more but O’Neill was enjoying himself. Anyone with knowledge of what he has been through in recent years would understand why.
To get to New York, to become a cert for an All Star, his journey was brutally difficult. One ruptured cruciate was enough but then doing it again in last year’s National League was particularly cruel.
Nobody had fought harder or deserved more to be on last Wednesday’s flight to the Big Apple.
“Obviously enough, it was a disappointing year for Cork,” he said of the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal.
“On a personal level, I’d be happy enough with how the year went. Anything bar what happened last year would have been a success, even to just get through the year.
“To top it off with an All Star was an added bonus and the challenge for 2013 is just to stay at it. A lot of people have said to me there’s only way to go from here and that’s down so that’s the challenge — to get the bit of consistency throughout 2013.”
On Gaelic Park’s Astroturf pitch, just as he did throughout the championship, he showed little sign of the injuries affecting him. With the heavy sod early next year, a few concerns will cross his mind though.
“As the year progresses, you kind of forget about it. At the start of the year, it’s in the back of your head, certainly the McGrath Cup stages and the start of the league but towards the end of the league and start of the championship you don’t give it a second’s thought.”
The only place O’Neill needs to remind himself of his knees is in the gym after a weights session where he must bookend it with 10 to 15 minutes of rehabilitation exercises.
“You have to keep on top of it because [Waterford-based surgeon] Tadhg O’Sullivan told me: ‘Look, there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again’. But fingers crossed, I’ve seen the back of it all.
“I’ll make no secret, I’ve put a lot of hard work in over the last 12 months. If you look back on this time last year, I wasn’t out celebrating All Stars but was back in the gym training hard. We’ve a few weeks to catch up on when we get back but I’m looking forward to the challenge in 2013.”
Having experienced Brian Cuthbert’s management with Ballyclough, O’Neill is looking forward to hearing the new voices alongside Conor Counihan next season. There are different people to impress and he knows Counihan isn’t a man for needless loyalty. He agrees the manager’s decision to stay on shows faith in the players to deliver another All-Ireland. “Aw yeah, you ask any player and they are delighted that Conor has stayed on. His commitment, dedication and knowledge of the game is second to none and we’ll see what 2013 brings.”
One change that O’Neill doesn’t expect, though, is Cork’s attitude to the league. While All-Ireland winning manager Jim McGuinness has already said Donegal will be aiming to remain in Division 1, the Munster champions’ sights are higher.
“Hindsight is a good thing but at the start of the year we always concentrate on having a successful league and we have been lucky enough to have won the last three or four leagues.
“I think it’s an important platform. If you don’t get to the latter stages of the league, there might be a seven or eight-week gap until the championship and a league final is an ideal opportunity to prepare yourself for the first round of the Championship. It’ll be no different this year coming.”
Meanwhile, Donegal captain Michael Murphy had to retire just a couple of minutes into the All Stars’ game after injuring his foot, while Mark McHugh, Darran O’Sullivan, Paul Flynn and Alan Brogan avoided aggravating injuries and didn’t participate.
Dublin’s Michael Darragh Macauley was excellent for the 2011 team and deservedly picked up the man-of-the-match award after bagging three goals.
The game also featured a number of New York-based players with CJ Molloy, son of the county team’s manager Connie, brother of Donegal’s 1992 All-Ireland winning captain Anthony, scoring the 2012 team’s last goal.
ALL STARS 2012: P Durcan (Donegal); K Higgins (Mayo), E Cadogan (Cork); A Thompson (Donegal), K Lacey (Donegal, 0-2), L Keegan (Mayo, 1-1); A Walsh (Cork, 0-1), N Gallagher (Donegal, 1-2); K McLoughlin (Mayo, 0-1, 1’45), D O’Connor (Cork, 2-2), P Kerrigan (Cork, 1-1); M Murphy (Donegal, 0-1), C O’Neill (Cork, 1-2).
Subs used: CJ Molloy (New York, 1-0), D Lehane (New York), C O’Connor (Mayo, 1-4), N McGee (Donegal).
ALL STARS 2011: B Kealy (Kerry); M Ó Sé (Kerry), J McMahon (Tyrone); T Ó Sé (Kerry), K Nolan (Dublin), K Cassidy (Donegal); MD Macauley (Dublin, 3-1), M Foley (Kildare, 0-1); B Brosnan (Wexford, 0-2), B Brogan (Dublin, 2-1), K McManamon (Dublin, 1-2); D O’Dwyer (New York), R O’Carroll (Dublin, 1-0).
Subs used: C Horgan (New York), A Dillon (Mayo, 1-0).
Referee: M Deegan (Laois).
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