If I’m picked, it’ll be my first start in Killarney.”
Colm O’Neill has had to explain that one to people. Most find it perplexing that he’s yet to begin a championship game there. But then it suddenly dawns on them. Cruciates.
He was there as a 20-year-old in 2009, coming on with five minutes left and slotting over that pressure-laden 45 which looked to have ended Cork’s then 14-year gap in Fitzgerald Stadium before Bryan Sheehan forced a replay.
He was back the following year in the Munster semi-final again as a substitute as they went down to Kerry by a point.
And he returned in 2011 but on crutches, watching with empathy from the sideline as Ciarán Sheehan crumbled to the ground 10 yards in front of him with a similar cruciate injury that too ended his season.
Finding himself laid low again by an ACL tear in 2013, he spared himself the trip to Killarney, preferring to watch it in Dubrovnik as he took in a holiday with his girlfriend. The idyllic coastal Croatian city gave him perspective: it just wasn’t Killarney.
“I’ve definitely had more downs than ups but if it’s something you love doing you’re going to fight tooth and nail to get back. When I was doing the rehab these were the games and the build-ups to these games that you craved. That’s what you did all the hard work for. I always knew if I put it in and got back to the way I was performing there was going to be a kick in Cork and I was coming back into a good set-up.
“I won’t say it was easy at times but it was easy to motivate yourself. You just have to think of the bigger days.”
Three times a victim, three times a survivor, O’Neill knows his travails might never leave him but he has reconciled with that. “It’s definitely something I can’t change. The challenge for me now is to be known as a top footballer as opposed to having done the cruciate three times. But, look, I’m realistic in the fact I can’t change what happened. I don’t know many other inter-county have had done their cruciate three times so I’m unique from that aspect.
“I don’t mind talking about it. I was talking to Podge Collins the week after he did his and he was asking me for a bit of advice and how I found it. You’ll always be asked questions about it and I tell people that I’m not qualified medically but here’s the best way it worked for me. Sometimes it can help.”
He can’t compare what he’s endured to what club players have faced overcoming cruciate injuries. As a county player, he could tap into expertise at the drop of the hat. Those playing at lower grades aren’t so fortunate.
“People will tell you that you’re great to come back but I didn’t find it a huge sacrifice as such. I still felt like I was involved. I know club players who have had it would find it very difficult because they wouldn’t have the support structures that I would have had. I had physios there to call on, I had Dr Con (Murphy) to call on, any of the lads. I was still milling around a team environment so I never felt I was too far away from the lads.
“It could be lonely for club players not having that available to them. A few club players would be onto me looking for advice and I would find those lads getting back to where they were a greater achievement than what I would have ever done. They had more time on their own and didn’t have things like masseuses or physios basically on call.”
Back in January, Brian Cuthbert explained he had wrapped O’Neill in cotton wool for the first half of the season because of his medical history.
“He’s a very special player and I wanted to make sure he was going to be playing many more years for Cork and if I was to forsake three or four months of last season for that to happen I was happy out.”
O’Neill would argue Cuthbert was being too kind to him. He knew himself he wasn’t doing enough to warrant a starting place although it eventually came in the qualifier against Sligo.
“I’d be the first to say that he wasn’t minding me. I wasn’t putting in the performances to start and that’s being straight out about it. I don’t think I would be there if I was there to be minded. I wasn’t performing in training and there were lads ahead of me who were doing better and deservedly got their chances. This year, I’ve a good run of games under my belt and my form has been relatively okay. You want to bring it into championship now.”
O’Neill was one of three nominations for the league player of the year but he can cite you at least three games where he felt he underperformed. There was the win over Monaghan in Castleblayney, which he himself manufactured, although Ryan Wylie had given him a torrid time for most of the 70-plus minutes.
“In fairness to Ryan he probably did get the better of me for a lot of the match. At the end I won two balls and found myself one-on-one in front of the goal.
“If you look in the paper you’d see 2-6 beside my name and 2-2 from play but if you were at the match or watching you’d say I wasn’t in the game as such. So it can be funny like that but I suppose that’s the beauty of the game. I had those chances at the end and it shows you have to stay focused.”
Three weeks later and the only thing O’Neill caught in the first half in Ballyshannon was a cold. As Cuthbert revealed in his post-match interview: “Colm O’Neill went through the first half with one touch of the ball in play and that’s not what we want obviously.”
O’Neill laughs about the game now: “No, no, no, it was pretty self-explanatory alright. There wasn’t much point in doing a warm-down after that game! I’d said the umpires did more exercise waving flags than I did inside that day!
“That’s the way it goes. I was beaten by the better man that day. Neil McGee marked me out of it as opposed to me not even getting on the ball. It’s something I’ve gotten used to. Every game is not like that but you could go through a game and not touch a ball for 10 or 12 minutes and then get two touches in a row and mightn’t touch it then for another five or 10 minutes. You just have to try and be economical as you can. You have to be more patient.”
There is some comfort in knowing he’s not the only inside forward suffering. “Football has changed a lot. I suppose my first experience of playing against a defensive style was Donegal in 2012. They were the masters of it at that stage and Cork were probably a bit naive. We weren’t really prepared to play against the blanket that day and I remember being inside in the full-forward, running 10 yards left, 10 yards right and 10 yards in front and each time having a fella in a yellow jersey blocking me. They seemed to be everywhere. We were very frustrated after that game.
“We’re three years down the line from it now and I suppose we’re a bit more used to it. It’s not so much of a shock now. You visualise situations like that happening in games now. Overall, players are probably more adaptable. You could be corner forward one minute and find yourself out at centre-forward the next, then wing forward, and then back in. You have to add more aspects to your game.
“As a club player, you get on the ball as much as possible but in inter-county football it’s changed especially for forwards. Somebody gave me a stat there a few months ago about the amount of times the Donegal full-forward line touched the ball in last year’s All-Ireland final. I can’t recall off-hand exactly what the number was but I was very shocked by how little it was. If you talk to any inside forward they will say you have to be a lot more patient than you would have been seven or eight years ago. It’s something everybody is used to now.”
O’Neill is staying clear of the doom and gloom merchants. The crushing nature of their Division 1 defeat to Cork left a sour taste after a league campaign including four Ulster trips in which they had been anticipated to struggle. “We discussed it, looked at the video, we moved on and we’ve parked it,” he says of their 11-point loss to Dublin. “We haven’t referred to it since. A lot of people are talking about games in the past but we can’t look back. We have to try and move on. We’ve trained hard for several weeks and hopefully put in a good performance now.
“You have to be happy with the way things are going so far. The league went well for myself personally and overall for the team as well up to the final. I was happy with my form but you’re judged on championship and that’s where you’ll be remembered. We’re not getting carried away with anything.
“The GAA calendar year is a long one and you have peaks and troughs. We did well in other years in the league and not so well in the championship. It’s something that we try to perform well in every year but it’s only the league. Training has been going well and hopefully we can replicate it on the field.”
The Munster semi-final against Clare was a matter of obtaining a result in Páirc Uí Rinn regardless of what shape it came in.
“If we won by two points, six points or 20 points it was a potential banana skin and you’re in a lose-lose situation. All you want to do is get out of there and come away with a win so we were happy with that. There were some aspects of the game that we weren’t happy with but they’ll be analysed. They missed a few good goal chances and if that happens in Killarney obviously we’ll be punished.”
He knows Cork GAA is in need of “a lift” as much as he feels the hurlers have been subjected to excessive criticism. Prior to this interview, the U21 hurlers had their summer ended by Waterford after the U21 and minor footballers had also been knocked out in Munster. On top of that, the minor hurlers’ campaign was ended on Thursday.
There’s part of O’Neill that envies a county like Kilkenny who follow one doctrine.
“Obviously, Cork are a big county but there is a lot of sport in the county. I was in Kilkenny a few weeks ago and I was amazed going through the town and seeing so many young lads playing hurling. There’s no surprise that they are performing the way they are, they’re just born and bred into it.Cork is a proud county and there is expectation but we don’t see it as a burden.
For some reason, Munster final day is always a warm day and Cork people always make a weekend out of it.
“There’s a great camaraderie and rivalry there. Driving through the town, the place is buzzing. We hope to give Cork people a lift.”
Restricting Kerry’s tradition of explosive first halves will put Cork in a strong position to achieve that. “A lot of other teams, not just Kerry, if you let them play and they score four or five points in succession the way football is played today it’s hard to claw it back. It’s something we’ll just have to try and minimise and make sure we go ahead. We’re definitely underdogs.”
It’s a good thing O’Neill’s relationship with odds is a good one. Defying to the last.