As it would have for most people, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín’s appearance on The Sunday Game this past weekend evoked memories of his greatest days in a Cork jersey.
The strikes might have taken a little of the lustre from his legacy but it remains brilliant.
For some, he was more an athlete than anything else. His ability to toggle between sports would have propagated that argument but, much like Michael Darragh Macauley, through sheer will he sculpted himself to excel in the code.
Ó hAilpín and JJ Delaney were the best wing-backs of the 2000s. His exceptional 2004 season and how he led Cork to further All-Ireland glory the following year lent heavily to his iconic image in Gaelic games for over a decade.
Of course, his handsomeness helped his profile and it was interesting that he addressed his looks on Sunday night.
“I never knew I was lovely-looking until I started wearing a Cork jersey,” he said. “As soon as you start wearing a Cork jersey people want to talk to you, they want a piece of you. I partially blame mum for that. Because if you line me up with the greats of that Cork team, with no helmets on, the first person they’ll recognise is me, because of my Fijian looks.”
Ten years ago this week, Ó hAilpín had just turned 33 when he was part of the Cork team that dismissed would-be All-Ireland champions Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It was the first Championship game the half-back had to wear a helmet after the compulsory order across all levels of hurling was introduced earlier that year. No more dark curly looks or visible gumshield — he and the likes of Dónal Óg Cusack and Brendan Cummins were put behind bars.
Fast forward seven weeks to that year’s floodlit Munster final replay on a rainy Saturday night in Thurles, an occasion that was as surreal as the clinching score in extra-time.
Dan Shanahan one-on-one with Cusack might have been a familiar scene but putting them in helmets just felt bizarre.
Gone were the buzzcuts of Shanahan, Tony Browne, the McGrath brothers, Eoin Kelly and the white blonde head of John Mullane. A team bursting with personality had been hooded.
That’s not to say it took away from their hurling. In injury-time of extra-time, Browne was thankful for his helmet when it denied Cathal Naughton a shot at goal. The chances are he would have committed himself without one but it backed up a point Diarmuid O’Sullivan made in this newspaper recently that players go for the ball with more abandon with face-guarded helmets.
But there was a time when doing away with the protective gear was a call to arms. The likes of Delaney, Ben O’Connor, Tommy Walsh, and Brian Corcoran might have begun games with their heads covered but by the end had done away with them, their discarding a signal of intent.
The helmet inoculation is almost complete now — the vast majority of players who debuted at inter-county senior level before 2010 had already been wearing them. The only thing that has changed for some is the colour — Joe Canning red to white, Pádraic Maher yellow to white, John Conlon yellow to red, Patrick Horgan blue to white and Graeme Mulcahy yellow to black. Others like Brendan Maher (white), TJ Reid (white and blue), Noel McGrath (green), Anthony Nash (red), Kevin Moran (black), Richie Hogan (black) Liam Rushe (white) and Paul Murphy (green) have remained consistent in their choice.
Most if not all of the above could be made out from an identity parade but there are too few else. Recently, Waterford put up pen pics of some of their inter-county players on their social channels and asked followers to name them. Admittedly, it was more difficult to pick out the footballers but there would have been no need for such a quiz about the hurlers 10 years ago and that has as much to do with facial recognition as success — after all, 12 of the current panel started the 2017 All-Ireland SHC final.
In general, the mandatory wearing of helmets has been a veritable success. The standard of the game hasn’t been affected in the slightest, the number of facial and head injuries have decreased as in turn have the insurance pay-outs.
However, along the way the game has lost some of its personality. That there wasn’t a concerted marketing response to the veiling of the game’s top players was an oversight.
Hurling has had few better salesmen than the likes of Ó hAilpín and Shanahan. Their brand was their brand. They didn’t need crutches like Instagram to promote it either. That’s not a slight against the current vanguard but when the game has never boasted more colour it’s a pity those painting it are largely anonymous.
Light at the end of tunnel?
In time, he might have to change tact — we speak of his preference that club games be played before county — but GAA president John Horan has been consistent up to now.
Last Saturday week, we reported the GAA were moving towards relaxing access to GAA grounds. It had been discussed in the first Covid-19 advisory meeting and Horan had suggested as much when speaking to BBC Northern Ireland: “If there is one first step that we may make in terms of loosening things up it may well be that people will be allowed access to grounds for restricted periods of time under supervision, though with no ball activity.
“If there are walkways available then the elderly in the community could go down at a particular time of the day and have a period to exercise.
“Then later in the day other people could use the grounds for exercise.”
Reports that the GAA will later this week welcome applications from individual clubs to open their walkways is a cautious first step towards a sense of normality. As a number of county panels have begin to train in pods on pitches not owned by the GAA and public parks are thronged with puckabouts and kickabouts, the demand is most certainly there.
That appeal is reciprocated by the GAA towards the National Public Health Emergency Team for guidance in devising return to play protocols and the Government for whom they are seeking funding.
It has been reported that if the numbers of new cases and deaths continue to fall some aspects of the phase four lockdown set to begin on July 20, the date when the GAA has set to reopen pitches, could be brought forward to June 29.
The GAA won’t be hasty but there appears reasons to be hopeful.
Pleas for financial assistance must be looked upon positively
Cost benefit analysis. Anyone who has drafted a business plan will know the phrase and on a grander scale it’s surely what the Government are doing as they weigh up the litany of applications from various organisations on the back of the lockdown.
Close if not top of the pile must be correspondence from the GAA with president John Horan stating he would “hope it would be looked on favourably as we are going to need it in light of our situation (a €50m loss if there are no further games this year)”.
Five years ago, the GPA claimed inter-county fixtures excluding sponsorship and media rights are worth €220m per annum to the economy. That was on the back of a 2010 report by international economic consultants Indecon.
Last year, Horan’s club Na Fianna commissioned work carried out by an Irish firm Whitebarn Consulting and backed by a global network that the club generated approximately €50m per annum for its local economy with the Dublin County Board generating about €1bn of social value every year.
Consider recent events too. The Cork senior footballers are preparing to raise funds for Pieta House as their hurlers did for Marymount Hospice, the Tipperary’s footballers raising thousands for local charities, the Limerick senior and U21 hurlers are doing the same for Milford Hospice, huge efforts of so many sports volunteers for charitable causes during the crisis.
The pleas for financial assistance from their various organisations must be looked upon positively.
Every good turn deserves another.