Donncha O’Connor has been one of the very best forwards Cork has produced in the past 25 years, but he has always been an underappreciated footballer, writes Mike Quirke.
One of Cork’s most famous sporting sons — Roy Keane — featured in a fascinating documentary with Patrick Vieira a couple of years ago.
Keane was asked about how he continued to fight so hard for his team and deliver a stunning performance against Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi-final after being booked and knowing he wouldn’t play in the final.
It was a performance that had Alex Ferguson reaching for the superlatives.
“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field,” the United boss said. “Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player.”
But Keane wasn’t having the praise: “That was my job — it’s like praising the postman for delivering the mail.”
It’s rarely you’ve heard the Cork footballers praised for their resilience and fighting spirit in the past few years, but they showed an abundance of those qualities on Saturday evening in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.
But as Keane suggested, effort and heart should be the building blocks and prerequisites for every performance.
At times, it looked as though Cillian O’Connor and Mayo would overpower their lower division opponents who were heavily relying on the excellence of a rejuvenated Donncha O’Connor up front, who picked up right where he left off after coming on at half-time in the Munster final.
He was Cork’s lone attacker for long stages, particularly in the first half and his movement gave his team a real focal point.
Donncha was in college in Tralee when I was there around 2000. I can recall a first round Sigerson Cup game against Mary I where he failed to even get a squad jersey — I think somebody handed him a flag and asked him to do the line.
Imagine that now? It’s no wonder Mary I, a college that could hardly field 15 fellas at the time, beat us. But that episode kind of summed up his whole career.
For me, he has been one of the very best forwards Cork has produced in the past 25 years, but he has always been an underappreciated footballer, both nationally and probably within his own county as well.
Into the winter of his inter-county playing days, he again shouldered the scoring burden and was a constant threat close to goals last weekend, and he gave Cork what they so desperately need — a two-footed inside forward capable of keeping the scoreboard moving.
I was actually surprised he wasn’t brought back on in extra-time, just to try and see it home. They needed somebody with a bit of composure when the pressure was at its greatest, and despite creating the chances, they just couldn’t take them.
For all of Cork’s fight, the game would never have gotten back as close as it did if it wasn’t for the dynamic Seanie Powter.
The stocky half-back isn’t 20 yet, and in both the Munster final and again last weekend against Mayo, he stood up as a big-time leader when it looked as though the game was going away from them.
At seven points down after 10 minutes of the second half, it was Powter who dragged his team-mates back into the battle. It became infectious.
Suddenly, everybody wanted the ball, there was a renewed confidence and belief. Red jerseys were streaming forward like people running down a hill. It seemed like goal after goal chance came their way. They took some, but like the Munster final, they squandered others.
Ruairi Deane was another introduced off the bench for Cork and made a huge contribution, and but for a couple of ever-so-slightly inaccurate hand-passes by him, he could have caused even more damage.
In fairness to Cork, this game wasn’t about individuals, their fightback showed the type of heart, and never-say-die attitude that exists within the group. They battled for balls they had no right to win and won them. They defended in numbers but showed a unity and a willingness to help each other. And they tackled everything that moved. Their effort couldn’t be faulted, especially when they looked dead and buried.
But therein lies the frustration with them. Where has this Cork been? Why can’t they play like that in every game? If they did, they wouldn’t be languishing down in Division Two of the Allianz League or scraping home in the Munster championship against the likes of Waterford and a depleted Tipperary side this season.
Ultimately, on this occasion, it wasn’t graft that caught them, but guile. Too many wides were a symptom of a lack of enough players with the composure to take the right option when the game was there to be won.
It was reported shortly after the final whistle that Peadar Healy had stepped down from his position of manager of the Cork senior footballers. And who knows, if the result went the other way, maybe it would have been Stephen Rochford saying goodbye to his players.
It’s hard not to feel for Healy. He, as the leader of the group, has taken the brunt of the criticism directed toward his team’s poor performances, and in fairness, he never shirked that responsibility. Some of that criticism has been personal and over the top in my opinion.
Yes, at times, it has seemed from the outside like he was in over his head, and he never gave the impression he had the ability to pull everybody together. Certainly, watching Cork play football this season, their game plan didn’t seem overly cultivated, and despite a huge performance on Saturday, their graph hasn’t risen much above a flatline in the past two seasons under his stewardship. But the players are as culpable as the manager in that regard.
They must go back now and start the search for a new manager, and I would suggest they need to think outside the box a little here. They need to trawl not only their own county but the country to find the best candidate to lead them out of the footballing doldrums.
Primarily, they need a strong leader who is not behoved to any sector within Cork. They need somebody not only to get the most out of their current group, but more importantly I feel, they need a guy with the foresight and ability to put structures in place to enable sustained long-term success.
Obviously, he’s tied to his native Kildare right now, but I think somebody like Cian O’Neill would be the perfect fit for Cork football. He’s living and working in the county as a lecturer and department head in Cork IT and has a proven track record and experience with Tipperary, Mayo, Kerry, and now Kildare.
His sports science background would provide a certain expertise with helping to develop a sustainable pathway from U21 to senior level that could continue long after he has moved on.
I know the timing doesn’t work at the moment, and perhaps it’s unlikely they will look outside the county in any case, but a Cian O’Neill would tick most of the boxes of what Cork senior football so desperately needs right now.
But whoever takes charge, they need a type of character who can instil a bit of steel, and a belief that fighting spirit isn’t something to be shown sporadically or for special occasions, it has to become as regular as Roy Keane delivering the mail.
Maybe then their supporters might start to develop a connection with their footballers.
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