The 2010 Cork squad of All-Ireland winners was the tightest captainhas known. One of the 100% men was Aghada's Kieran O'Connor. The time has come when he needs our help
I grew up in Bantry in West Cork on our family’s farm. My grandmother lived up our boreen, 100 yards from our house.
She was a massive influence on me when I was younger. I was only 10 when she passed away. From as young as I can remember she used to mind me and my two brothers when our parents were busy or at work.
She was a brilliant grandmother - warm, gentle and loving. She was a huge role model for me. A person I wanted to copy, who I looked up to because of who she was and how went about her life every day. She worked hard for what was important to her. She was popular and well known in the local community and I loved being referred to as a grandchild of hers when someone was trying to figure out who you were.
The values she displayed when I was growing up are values which shaped me and which I still consider important.
Fast forward. September 19, 2010, about 5.30pm, I am in the press room in Croke Park after lifting the Sam Maguire 30 minutes before. Do I need to be here? I want to be with the group of people I've just won an All-Ireland with.
For us, the group was everything. It's often you hear that about any team environment. It's rare that it's actually true. Even the ones perceived to have been successful, with brilliant individual talents.
I often wondered how much more they could have achieved if they got that bit right. I want to share what it looked and felt like for our group.
I never thought I would, but this is for a very specific reason.
Our Cork group was the tightest I’ve ever known. Of course, like any high performance set up, not everything was perfect but the collective and the way it was moulded from 2004 to 2013 was pretty much bulletproof. It was something which sustained us through good times and bad. Whenever the inevitable doubt and savagery of inter-county football crept in, it was always the collective we fell back on.
We used it as the springboard to savage back. We never really gave anyone a glimpse inside and we didn’t care. Our bond was strong. That’s what was important to us.
Back in the media room on All-Ireland-winning Sunday, I saw no need to stray from our default position. My answers were going to be accurate but not in any way opening a window into the group or what made us tick. Most importantly, my answers could never be used in any way reduce the possibility of the group’s chances next year.
I never actually thought I would have to give anyone else a glimpse behind our curtain. Then the news came through last week. One of our group was in trouble. This time, I’m not sure our collective will be enough to get him through.
Since 2010, I have seen a lot more discussion on the importance of culture and values in team sports and in work settings. I recognise the importance of it. What I find amazing, in retrospect, is how we managed to cultivate it without really knowing the methodology or name-tagging its values. It all happened organically. I’m not sure if that’s lucky or rare. Probably both.
Looking back, there were probably only two values that group lived by from around 2004 to 2013.
Hard work and honesty.
Anyone who lasted within the group had them both in spades and loved every minute of it. Anyone who wanted to coast simply found it too difficult to survive in that environment. In that way, no one person was greater than the next. The culture developed where lads craved each other’s respect within the group. You earned this respect by displaying and living the twin values which the group held in highest regard. That could be a 100-yard gut-busting run to get the push on the hip of the forward taking the shot. Or it could be helping our backroom team clean up after our session. We were doing it before we ever heard of ‘sweeping the sheds’. And it felt right, and not because it worked elsewhere.
Those values suited us because unlike some others, you couldn’t bullshit them. You couldn’t preach hard work or preach honesty. Talk was cheap. It’s fairly clear who is working hard and who is honest when it comes to the delivery side of things. The delivery in the training games at times was vicious. That’s where most of our actual matches were won. And if the intensity wasn’t there, it was also where our matches were lost.
We all lived those values. Ok, a small few may have been 95 percent living them at times, usually the younger guys until they matured to a point of understanding the extra bits required, but there was never anyone below what I would say was 90 percent living it. And then there were the exemplars, the 100 percenters, the guys who more than made up for it. They set the direction and strong-armed our culture.
One of the 100 percenters in our group was Kieran O’Connor from Aghada. A man who lived those two values throughout his life, not just when he came into the Cork dressing room. He worked hard, was honest to a fault and would do anything for the group over the course of eight years.
Kieran is a man you would pick to go to war with you.
When I say war, I’m not using it in a metaphorical sense. I mean if there was an actual war, in the trenches akin to World War 1, life and death stuff, I would pick him to stand beside me. Because you knew what you would get from him; he would fight to the death. He would never leave your side. He would have your back. If, in your peripheral vision you saw Kieran had engaged an enemy target, he would take him down or die trying. I am certain of that.
Kieran would do anything for the group. The two values enabled Kieran to deliver time and again for Cork. He was one of our best man-markers and survived in one-on-one combat with some of the best forwards the game has seen. And that was back when we didn’t have a blanket defence to protect him.
Like the rest of our group, Kieran eventually retired from inter-county, gave as much as he had left back to Aghada and started a family with Sinéad. She was there from start to finish through all of those matches, train journeys home, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, Burlington banquets. Good times and bad. She was as much part of our group as anyone else. Together, they have three beautiful children, a new one appearing each time the group had the opportunity to meet up.
Like us all, the important things in life were now taking over for them when Kieran retired from inter-county.
Then came that news. Kieran was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Sinéad was three weeks away from giving birth to their third child. The group rallied and got in touch but Kieran wanted us to hold our nerve. For now, he wanted his battle to be more than about just him. The time when he needed help would come. Along with his sister Aishling, they ran a benefit ball last July in aid of breakthrough cancer research. It was a happy occasion. It was great to see Kieran so upbeat. A bit balder and more bloated, as he would say himself but resilient and tough as nails, as he would never say of himself.
By that stage he had a tumour removed and battled through chemo. He had improved. Baby James had arrived as a brother to Isabelle (7) and Ava (5). He was ready to go back to work.
Then over the past few months, the pain came again in his leg. Something was back. This time, all bets were off. The leg was amputated but the pain had shifted. His back was now sore too. Inter-county footballers know the difference between ‘normal pain’ and ‘not normal pain’. The news was devastating. As of last week, Kieran is now battling cancer for the third time in 18 months. He is in big trouble. He has all of the hard work done. He has had the honesty to face it all head on. This has still not been enough to allow him to deliver for his own group, his family.
If I put myself in Kieran’s position or my own wife in Sinéad’s position, this would be the most frightened we could ever imagine ourselves to be. The time has come when he needs our help and I don’t think the group is enough this time. We need more.
Any help would be appreciated, more than you could ever know.
Or you can lodge to this account:
Account name: Kieran O'Connor Fund