A throbbing ankle? What former Cork defender Kieran O'Connor presumed was a legacy from chasing fast corner-forwards turned into a nightmare he's battling every day.
When they analyse Kieran O’Connor’s football ledger with Cork, chances are the names of Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan will come up. The brutal, unforgiving spotlight of All-Ireland final day shines a light into every corner.
And onto every corner-back.
The 2007 and 2009 finals were electrified by a pair of peaking Kerry legends. Chastening, character-building Septembers for those at the business end.
“People can say I was unlucky to be marking them at their peak, but I was lucky enough to mark them,” he says now, as trim and healthy-looking as he was for those finals.
“How many can say they got the chance to mark that sort of quality in Croke Park? Two different Cork managers on two different teams asked me to mark those players, so I had to be showing something. We had a very good Cork team a decade ago, but it was also a brilliant Kerry team.”
Gooch ghosted nowhere, but always found space. O’Sullivan might just have been the greatest player of his generation.
“Their movement and skills were incredible,” O’Connor says. “If you could get out in front of them, great, but if the ball is coming into them and it’s good ball, it doesn’t matter how good you are. All you can do is stand them up and slow it down.”
Yet, neither holds a candle to O’Connor’s toughest opponent. The poisoning bastard which presented itself just over a year ago as a throbbing pain in his right ankle. An old injury chasing Gooch or Declan, he thought.
“I was diagnosed with cancer this time last year. Ewing’s sarcoma, which is a bone tumour. There mightn’t be 20 or 30 a year in Ireland. They did bloods and an X-ray, which were all fine, but an MRI showed up something, and the biopsy confirmed it was cancer in the bone. That was October 2nd.”
Note the reassuring compass of the GAA in the middle of this emotional maelstrom.
“My wife Sinead was due a baby at the time, so the timing of the diagnosis didn’t help matters. Between the baby and everything else, we decided to wait until James was born on October 26th. We came home on the 28th and I went back up to Cork to watch the intermediate hurling county final on the Saturday with Isabelle (7) and Ava (5). I got the phone call then to come into hospital on the Bank Holiday Monday to start chemotherapy under Dr Deirdre O’Mahony.”
Now, the sapping scrutiny of everything began. From his bones to his bloods.
“I’d go in on a Sunday and come back home to Aghada the following Friday. It was every second week or as frequent as my bloods would allow. It was two different cycles, 12-4pm every day. I did that for three or four months, but I always knew there was an operation in the offing.”
Kieran, now 39, had managed to shrink the tumour sufficiently to proceed to the delights of an operating table at Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital in Finglas.
Dr Gary O’Toole, the surgeon, shaved off 110mm of bone and attached ligament as part of the repair. The operation was on Valentine’s Day this year.
No flowers please, he said.
A month off before they resumed the chemo. Declan and Gooch, where are ye now.
“That went on until the end of July. At the moment, everything is positive. Yes, there are plenty more tests to come, but all the results are good to date.”
If Kieran never has another day’s poor health, he’s seen one too many cannulas. When he says it’s been “madness” over the past year, only Sinead really understands what that means. Too much for one word to carry, really.
“It’s been very tough, especially for her and our families. I was the one in hospital, but she was the one at home trying to mind the baby and the two girls. Putting them out to school and keep everything as normal as possible. She’s been unreal.
I lost my hair and had to explain that too. The girls told me not to go to that barber again. We’ve been living by a calendar and a schedule of chemo and hospital. Now it’s just tests, but it’s all a bit raw still. You are going from one test to another hoping it will be still grand next time. You can’t do anything about it. It’s hard to explain, but it is uncomfortable. In the chemo, you’re in a bubble, whereas now you are going from normal everyday life into hospital for tests. Somebody said to me lately those tests will start to feel like a normal day, you’ll just go in and do it.
Normality would be nice. Kieran is hoping to go back to work in December with Eirdata, Sinead has taken parental leave from teaching in St Mary’s in Midleton. From day one, the neighbours knew.
“I feel pretty good now. We decided as a family to put it out there straight away. Sinead was expecting and she was going to need as much help as possible. Family and friends were bringing in dinners and everything. The way rumours go, I let it out there.”
He’s putting something else out there. Himself and 12 other local bulls around Aghada — yes, Pearse O’Neill too — have dressed down for a special 2019 calendar, to be launched on Friday, November 16, at the Radisson Hotel in Little Island. Their dignity is long since shed. Anything else that requires modesty was tastily covered with props. It’s a bit of fun to raise awareness of mental health issues and cancer and raise funds for Pieta House and the Mercy Hospital.
“On the night we will have a bit of fun, where they vote for the hottest bull. A few questions and answers too. People from various societies and clubs around the parish are involved. A lot of them have had family members who have had battles with cancer or they have lost someone through suicide or mental health issues. That is a theme running across the 13 bulls.
“There’s points to be made, but we are having a bit of fun doing so, and it’s raising awareness. As men, we are poor at talking and checking our symptoms.”
Last Sunday, he was back in Cork for the county football final. A year on. The head clear enough to get cranky over the defending.
“When I need to talk, it’s generally to Sinead, but I’d have a couple of close friends and we’d go for a coffee, talking about football, or anything else. Good defending, maybe.
“As a corner-back, you have to be of a different mindset. You have to really enjoy trying to stop one of the best forwards. It’s different to any other position. A lot of corner-backs play there, but don’t enjoy it. You’ve got to enjoy being corner-back, that feeling of holding your man scoreless. Doing your job. It’s a huge bonus if the colleagues out the field can put the opposition off or slow down the pass, the delivery won’t be as good. That gives you a chance.
“I remember we played Castlehaven a few years back — I’d say I was 31 or 32 — in championship and Brian Hurley was after bursting through. He had been a Cork minor in their final (beaten by Tyrone by a point) the day we won the All-Ireland in 2010. The game was in Newcestown. There was defiance there. This young fella is not going to get the better of me. You give him a lot of respect, but then you don’t respect him at all, if you follow.”
O’Connor didn’t play in that final, but had earned his Celtic Cross. When he examines what’s missing in today’s dressing rooms, that day is a robust reference point.
“It’s still about getting 30 or 35 lads on a panel and getting them to buy into every single element. If you have five, even two players who throw things out, then you are going the wrong way. Donncha (O’Connor) said recently about everyone buying into it. Whoever the manager is, he gels everyone together, but he needs buy-in from everyone.
“By 2010, we were lucky, we were all good friends. I also think of what Alex Ferguson used to say about that Man Utd team, we all had fairly settled girlfriends, they all became good friends. We obviously went through a lot of hurt too, that all bonds you. You go on holidays abroad, makes you work that bit harder and, even with all that, we just got over the line by a point. But we got over the line. The margins are ridiculously small.
The recent Mayo lads could so easily have two All-Irelands they lost by a point to an outrageously good Dublin side. Does that make them failures? Does anyone look on them as a great team?
Like many others in the county, he’s a long time waiting for Cork football to emerge from transition.
He’s grown patient, though. “We’ve a huge pick, but Dublin’s success has shown you’ve got to put structures in place, proper academy structures and build from there. Training facilities… we all know the stories about looking for grounds, getting a text at 4pm to be somewhere different at 7.30pm, which isn’t on.
Until all that’s in place, only then, if you are failing to compete for All-Irelands, can anyone really say ‘yes, Cork are great under-achievers’. At the moment, we are not in a good place.”
O’Connor’s Aghada has been bouncing along the basement of the senior grade for a bit now, the likes of Pearse O’Nell still driving it at 39. They’ve been at the top table, incredibly really, since 1991, and a spell in the Premier Intermediate grade mightn’t be the worst thing.
“Diarmuid Phelan was Cork minor captain this year, so there is some talent there. Conor’s (Counihan) been guiding the Under 21s, but you see some of them drifting away, which is disappointing, but you can’t stop fellas. The younger generation is finding it easier to plan their week doing things other than giving a real commitment to football.”
O’Connor came late to the Local Bulls calendar, but he’s glad he did. The mornings are that bit brighter for him this winter.
“When they cut it out, it was contained and the margins were clear. Hopefully, there won’t be side effects, but down the road we can deal with that too. I am getting CT scans and bloods done every three months for the first couple of years. You have to monitor things.”
There’s been precious, inadvertent upsides to this nightmare. Doing the daily school run. Getting away to Lanzarote with Sinead and the care for a few days.
Jumping in the pool with the two girls. Going to the kids’ discos. Twenty-eight, 29 degrees.
The bulls will have a ball...
They might be accused of misleading advertising when the organisers of the Local Bulls calendar for 2019 start using phrases like ‘tasteful photography’. But once the ladies have shielded their eyes from the offensive bits ’n’ pieces on display, everyone’s going to grab one of these things (calendars) for 2019.
The idea was as simple as it was brazen. Raise awareness about cancer and mental health and, in doing so, help fund the work at Pieta House and the Mercy Hospital by parading 13 strapping local bulls to parade their beef to the heels for a 2019 calendar, to be launched in all its g(l)ory at the Radisson Hotel in Little Island on Friday, November 16.
Kieran O’Connor and Pearse O’Neill, two All-Ireland winners from the community at the heart of this (Aghada/Whitegate/Saleen), feature prominently, shall we say.
Tickets for the launch night are €20, and, if you can conjure up a better excuse to part with twenty quid on the night, you’ve a healthy imagination. It starts at 7.30pm with a prosecco reception to steel everyone for the task of choosing the hottest bull on the night.
If you can’t get there, or are too bashful, here’s the bank account to help:
Further details from Jim Reaney