This Sunday marks his seventh championship visit to Fitzgerald Stadium, in what is his third coming with the Cork footballers. And similar to the winding roads he navigates thrice weekly to get himself from Kealkill in West Cork up to the city for training, his has been quite the journey travelled.
After nine seasons spent on the inter-county carousel, he was fairly sure he’d seen it all. Then he found himself before a hearings committee above in Croke Park on the Wednesday night before Cork’s Munster semi-final. Most felt his challenge on Waterford’s Brian Looby was an open-and-shut case. O’Connor didn’t. And having never before received a straight red card during his time with Cork, he wanted to avail of the opportunity to clear his name. We’ll come back to that later on.
Let’s go back to the winter of 2013. The end of his first chapter with Cork. O’Connor’s unexpected departure was announced via the Cork GAA website in mid-November. Into retirement he followed Alan Quirke, Graham Canty, Paudie Kissane, Noel O’Leary and Pearse O’Neill. They, however, were all members of the thirty-something club. O’Connor wasn’t long 28.
Moreover, his announcement came a week after he had delivered a performance for the ages in the Cork junior decider. St Colum’s may have fallen to Mitchelstown, but O’Connor’s display was all anyone talked about that particular afternoon.
Many felt he still had much to contribute. O’Connor felt he couldn’t.
“I was burnt out,” he says.
“I was there since 2003, playing minor. That’s over 10 years coming up to Cork for training, games and what not. That’s two hours every night. I had gotten married in 2013, I’d a young family and I was just starting out with my own business. I said it was time to step back from this. I thought I could just do with a break to refresh. I had enough going on and was thinking should I take a different direction.”
The different direction lasted the bones of a year and a half. Late in the spring of 2015, word filtered through the big man from Kealkill was back in the fold.
“I got the opportunity to come back and play in the Munster Championship. The fire still lights. And it was about rekindling that fire. I was well settled in myself. I said if I work hard enough, I might be able to add something.”
He lined out at midfield for their championship opener against Clare, holding his place for the drawn and replayed Munster finals at this weekend’s venue.
“We did ourselves justice in the drawn game against Kerry. Maybe, the weight was on the Kerry shoulders because they were the team at the time. We went down with no real pressure on our shoulders. It’s very much like this game.”
Six days after the replay defeat, Brian Cuthbert’s charges made for Thurles. There ended O’Connor’s second chapter with Cork. Twenty minutes into their fourth round qualifier against Kildare, his right knee buckled. Cruciate torn. Season over. Career, too, potentially.
“I went up to catch a ball,” the 2010 All-Ireland winner recalls. “My right leg got stuck under me. I landed awkwardly. That was it. I was in severe pain.”
He continued: “It was a long road back and so you have to take small steps. You didn’t try and make leaps and bounds. It was about making steady pace. You are going to have setbacks along the way and it was just about getting over them and being positive.”
He was now in his thirties, a new management had come in and so it might have been easier to just walk away.
“I could have. You put up your flag, though, to say you want to be part of the team. The window of opportunity to play inter-county football is relatively small when you are into your thirties. If you get another chance to go back down to Killarney, you grab it with both hands. You want to put yourself in the mix because you’ll be gone long enough.
“If you are a footballer, you like to be playing in big games. There’s a buzz to be got from playing in big games and if you can hang onto that for as long as you can, you will. And also, you don’t go into these things without belief for the management and group of players around you. There is a great panel there. There is a want, there is a spirit.”
He returned last July, took the early part of this spring off – Cork’s concluding league fixture against Down on April 2 was the only one in which he featured, was on the bench against Waterford, came on early only to return to the bench for that “mistimed tackle”, forcing him to sit out the visit of Tipperary.
And so after all that, here he is, facing into another Munster final against the Kingdom. Kerry, the favourites, Cork, well, no one knows what to expect from them. Not much has changed.
“I do believe it will come right for us. You have to have that belief. It is instilled in us. I know we probably let ourselves down a couple of times, but there is a good group of lads there. If a team clicks on any given day, you are in with a shot.”