In my 10 years there, I sat down with hundreds of players and coaches but two stood out for their raw honesty.
One was Owen Mulligan from Tyrone; the other Noel O’Leary from Cork.
Each would have been perceived to be temperamental, erratic, a bit of a ‘header’. What I found were two hugely self-aware and self-deprecating men who were extremely honest about their shortcomings and setbacks.
Noel had waited to give his story. For a couple of years I had tried to get a sitdown with him but the time hadn’t been right; multiple times he’d politely and apologetically explain that it was either too big a game for Cork or he wasn’t established enough in the starting team.
Finally, before the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final against Meath, he gave the green light.
He spoke about the death of his brother and cousin through suicide, advising young people all over the country to look out for friends that may be hurting and to watch their drinking in case that pint or shot would be the trigger to fire off so much more misery. Cousin Mark and brother Ciarán’s deaths, both in 2000, had to serve some purpose.
“A lot of people mightn’t like talking about this but it’s happening every day in other homes,” he’d say.
“People might learn from it. I have no problem talking whatsoever about it. It was an unbelievable run for us at the time but it happened. It’s a big part of who I am.”
So has football, and he spoke passionately about it, just as he played the game. As a kid he watched Ciarán O’Sullivan get his nose broken playing for his club, bounce back up, catch a ball under his own crossbar, go straight upfield and shoe the ball on the ‘45 over the bar.
That blood and bandages spirit was what O’Leary loved about Cork and he vowed he’d bring it to playing for Cork, if, when, he ever got the chance.
At times, that passion got the better off him. Too often he and Paul Galvin tangled and as he’d admit to me, sometimes it took more than one to do the tangle. In fact a couple of years later, on the eve of the 2010 championship, he’d admit in another interview with me the empathy and respect he had for Galvin. Turned out it was mutual; Galvin would send him a congratulatory text upon the end of that championship.
A lot of opposing players felt like that about O’Leary. The other day, we were talking to Andy Moran hours after O’Leary’s retirement was announced. Moran said that while Tomás Ó Sé was the toughest and best footballer he ever marked, O’Leary was right up there after that. He had pace and he had power. And he had much more guile and football than people gave him credit for. Moran felt he was Cork’s best linkman between defence and attack. He could go upfield and kick a score off you, like he did off Moran in the 2010 league final. He could outfox you too like he did Moran in the 2012 league final. While O’Leary won only some breaking ball that day, he made sure Moran won no breaking ball; making contact with him first, then either picking up the break or watching a colleague do it for him. Occasionally Moran got the better off him, like in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final, but if anything taking off O’Leary that day was the real losing of that game for Cork.
For sure they tussled through the years. During the 2012 league final O’Leary tried pulling an injured Donie Vaughan up off the ground, something that enraged medical backroom teams in the GAA.
But once the final whistle went, Moran could only shake O’Leary’s hand and be struck that his commiserations and that nod of the head were genuine.
He struck the Kerry boys the same. Darragh Ó Sé tells the story about how before the 2009 All-Ireland final he was watching the minor game from the tunnel when O’Leary approached him from behind. “Well, how’s it going, Darragh, boy?”
It took everything in Ó Sé not to turn around, to pretend he didn’t hear him. With O’Leary there was no malice, no mind games in his salute, just sincerity.
People say there was no real love for the Cork team that finally won the All-Ireland the following year but O’Leary was one of the most popular All-Ireland winners of recent years.
I was there in the Burlington the night they won. Some teams don’t carry themselves well when they win but that team did, particularly O’Leary. He introduced me to his family. Any supporter that approached him for a photo, he gave that obliging Páidí-like nod of the head and smile. Proof if ever that nice guys do win, they’re just not always nice on the field.