Last Sunday’s Cork county final made it real for Donncha O’Connor.
He was in Páirc Uí Rinn watching
“I probably don’t get as worked up now, at this part of my career, but I was at the hurling final last Sunday and there was great excitement there with the music and the crowd, the curtain-raiser building up to the big game . ..
“And I was thinking, ‘this’ll be us next Sunday’.
“It only dawned on me there, because I’d forgotten that you have the parade beforehand behind the band, and all of that.
“In three or four years’ time I’ll be going to these games without a gearbag. Is it bonus territory? It is, but it’s also bonus territory for Michael O’Mahony, the corner-back.
“I probably appreciate it a bit more than him because he’s only 20 and his career is in front of him, but there’s definitely more enjoyment in it for me now. Whether there’ll be enjoyment on Monday morning, we’ll have to see.”
Having served for years in the Cork jersey, O’Connor, now 38, brings his calmness and accuracy to divisional side Duhallow this weekend against Nemo Rangers. The north Cork men were in last year’s decider also, losing to St Finbarr’s. Lessons learned?
“Time will tell on that one, all depending on where we are on Sunday, whether we learned from our mistakes. It’s impossible to say now.
“Last year we were very disappointed with how the game went — we’d have felt the game was there for us a couple of times, that we clawed our way back into it more than once. We started the first half well but they came back into it just before half-time and they took over.
“We got back into it then. We made mistakes — every team makes mistakes — but I suppose it’s a matter of learning from those mistakes.
“Fair play to the Barr’s last year, they won the final fair and square, but we would have felt that with a bit of a rub of the green it could have just gone our way. We met a few times after it, we would have spent a day or two together after it, and there was huge disappointment for the older and younger players alike.
“It was never mentioned once at training this year, that we’d drive it on after last year — we took every game as it came.
“I know that’s a cliche but we didn’t know exactly who we had. With so many dual clubs now in Duhallow, the likes of Kanturk and Newmarket out in the hurling as well, you don’t know who you have from one end of the month to the other.”
Victory early in the championship over Imokilly was a good sign. O’Connor sees it as a vindication of manager Pádraig Kearns’ approach.
“Different players were driving it themselves. We never went back to last year, though you could see that fellas were hurting, and that’s probably why we went so well in the early rounds of the championship. I don’t know what other divisions are like, I can only talk about Duhallow, but Pádraig (Kearns, manager) would do a lot of talking to fellas and if they commit he trusts them, he trusts that they’ll do what needs to be done.
“He’ll just ask if they’re interested in playing and if they say ‘yes’ he writes them down and knows they’ll be there. There’s never a question on the Friday before a championship game whether this fella will be there or that fella. He knows who’ll be there, and the management does plan ahead.”
Much of the credit for Imokilly’s success in hurling is down to their boss, Fergal Condon. O’Connor agrees on the significance of the manager: “Padraig gets on well with lads but he’s not holding a gun to anyone’s head. You’re either committed or you’re not.
“There’s a lot of fellas from last year who didn’t commit this year but he says there’s plenty of footballers in Duhallow, so he just says we’ll get some other lads and drive on with them. It sounds simple but that’s just the way it works.”
They’ll need that drive tomorrow against the kingpins of Cork football.
“Obviously Nemo’s record speaks for itself, they have 21 titles and it wasn’t so long ago they were in an All-Ireland football final. It’d be foolish of us to be concentrating on Nemo, though, because if we don’t bring a performance ourselves we’ll be beaten.
“As big as the task is, as good as Nemo are, we’re trying to get our own show in order first and deal with what Nemo bring then.”
In that context how important is O’Connor’s big game experience? What has he learned that could benefit his colleagues?
You learn not to panic. Every game is different, but if there’s an early goal against you, say, you learn not to panic. That’s easier said than done, but you might get a goal chance yourself soon afterwards — a chance that looks easier than it is — and a point might do you, just to get back into the game.
“You learn that as time goes on but we have a good few young lads — from this year’s U20 Cork team and some just over the age — but it’ll take them a while to learn those lessons. From my perspective you don’t panic as much, but that comes from experience.
“You’d often hear someone say ‘don’t force it’, and that’s basically it. Now, there may come a time when you just have to force it, because time is against you, and I’ve often forced it when it wasn’t on. Learning that comes from a lot of big games.
“It’s hard for a young fella to learn that, but hopefully, they’ll pick up on that — and that we’d be in a situation where we’ll be a few points up and just adding more.”
Tomorrow in particular.