MY first encounter with Seán Óg O hAilpín in January 2003 as Cork hurling manager was an abrupt one – he was late for our first training session in the Old Mon Field and I had to tell him it wasn’t good enough.
To be fair, he listened, apologised and later explained the reason. He always gave every last ounce of effort on the training field being highly professional in everything he did both on and off the field, accepting whatever role he was handed without any fuss whatsoever.
That wasn’t the first time I’d met Seán Óg on a hurling field, of course. He was playing U14 with the North Monastery and at training sessions his intelligence shone through considering he came late to the game.
I was coaching the players about support play, which can be difficult for youngsters to grasp, but he copped it straightaway and brought it into his game immediately, working hard on it and offloading to better placed players when he was being closed down in training and in games.
People forget that Seán Óg came to Ireland when he was 11, landing into fourth class in primary school. He worked so hard at his Irish that he went to the AG; the all-Irish secondary school in the North Mon two years later. Famously he gave a superb all-Irish victory speech when captaining Cork to the All-Ireland in 2005.
In secondary school he was a huge influence when the Mon won their last Harty and All-Ireland titles in 1994 while his loyalty to the Gaelcholáiste was always in evidence when he often came back to present prizes at the school. These occasions generated huge excitement among pupils, parents and staff.
In 2003-4, when I was Cork manager, he was outstanding for us, showing great leadership and he had a very positive presence in the dressing-room and was an excellent captain during the league when Ben O’Connor was involved in the club championship.
Around that time we had an awards presentation night in the school, with horse trainer Ted Walsh as guest of honour. He watched Seán Óg make a speech and then speak informally later with the pupils. Ted turned to me and said , ‘He must be a dream to train; he has such presence and charisma’.
When Cork won the All-Ireland in 2004 the view from some respected Kilkenny observers was that Seán Óg’s subjugation of Henry Shefflin was the key to the victory.
I believe he was the most consistent player for Cork over the last ten years. For over a decade he was the man given some of the toughest marking jobs in hurling be it Henry Shefflin, Dan Shanahan or Tipp’s young All Star Noel Mc Grath who he completely blotted out in Páirc Uí Chaoimh this year.
He always went about his business with dedication and commitment and with a great sense of fair play. In all my time watching him play I never saw him draw a dirty stroke while his complete recovery from a serious car accident, which threatened his sporting career, highlighted his determination and courage. He always set the highest of standards of preparation and fitness for himself which never dropped throughout his inter-county career of minor, U-21 and senior over 16 years or so.
In terms of games promotion Seán Óg was a huge asset to the GAA as a whole and to Cork in particular and impossible to replace.
On Leeside he was an icon for young and old: instantly recognisable (even if those new helmet rules reduced that this year), hugely courteous to people and accommodating, particularly with kids.
I have seen Seán Óg sign autographs for kids for hours after training. It wasn’t a chore for him. He did so willingly with good humour and personality. He gave the impression that those kids were most important at that particular time and he felt that he had a responsibility to the younger generation of followers as a keeper of the flame.
A lot of people will be unaware of the amount of time Seán Óg gave to hurling away from the inter-county spotlight. He took many training sessions with kids up the country in the North Ire and in non-traditional hurling areas, which did a huge amount for the game.
He captured the imagination of the Irish sporting public for over ten years, phenomenal for an amateur sportsman in a team setting and he thrilled the Cork GAA fans with his superb wing back play for many years.
“Ní beidh a leithéid arís ann.”
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