Turns out Ciarán Sheehan was tempted to come home to Cork from Australia. While making his way with Carlton, in Aussie Rules football, the All-Ireland medallist kept up with Éire Óg’s performance in the intermediate ranks.
When they edged out Rockchapel in the 2014 final, he was delighted. And shattered.
“I remember watching the speech online and I was just devastated. I remember, Dermot Herlihy mentioned me in the speech, and I remember just thinking, well, I was delighted but upset at the same time, I wasn’t out there that long, and I was thinking, ‘do I go home now?’ All those thoughts run through your head,” Sheehan says.
While a generation of Cork football supporters dreamt for six years of a marauding Sheehan in red and white, he sketches out the benefits of his time as a professional athlete.
“Those six years were an eye-opener, not just from a physical or sports point of view, but holistically, in terms of life in general. Sometimes, I kind of have to kind of wake myself up and say, ‘all right, I’m back here now, facing Down this weekend’. There’s been a lot happening in a short space of time.
“But I’m really looking forward to the game, because Down are a team that we faced in a couple of really tough games along that journey,” Sheehan says.
“We played them in 2011 again, so we’ve had some good battles with them.”
The reporter silently curses that 2011 game for spoiling his ready-made narrative of ten years between Cork-Down clashes, but the 2010 clash was the All-Ireland final.
A query about Sheehan’s strongest memory of the game provokes a laugh: “Apart from the clear-cut goal chance I missed in the first few seconds? Probably the raw emotion at the final whistle; that two minutes sticks with me. The parade and so on, we’d experienced in the semi-final against Dublin, which was a massive game. I’d prepared myself quite well for the volume and the crowds and so on,” Sheehan says.
That raw emotion at the end of the game, though, that really sticks with me.
“After that game, you’re kind of thinking, looking back, whether you took it for granted, playing in an All-Ireland for Cork: Were there going to be more All-Irelands? We absolutely thought so, at the time.
“I remember, at the time, seeing the emotion on the faces of Graham Canty and Anthony Lynch, who’d soldiered for Cork for years and then had won an All-Ireland. It’s funny, now, to look back on it, but I obviously took a different route after that,” Sheehan says.
Before exploring that route, though, he’s mentioned Dublin. That semi-final defeat was another stepping-stone on their route to an eventual five-in-a-row. Did Sheehan see them as the coming power in the land, even then?
“Yes, absolutely. I think we got out of jail in that semi-final, to be honest.
“It was clear there was something on the way, because they were competing and competing well.
“The likes of Bernard Brogan was really starting to shine: he got ‘player of the year’ that season.
“We played them in the league final the following year and they were there, right there with us. We knew there was something coming. Now, we didn’t know the extent of it, but we never underestimated them, and now they’re in a position where nobody would be doing that. It’s a challenge and everyone’s chasing them; I couldn’t have predicted it then, but fair play to them,” Sheehan says.
Sheehan broke onto a team that other counties were chasing. How significant were figures like Graham Canty, in imposing and maintaining standards?
“It’s funny, a lot of things happen naturally. Generally, in the GAA, things probably hadn’t got to the point of professionalism where it is now, but there were a lot of natural leaders in that group, like Graham and Pearse (O’Neill), Noel (O’Leary) and Alan (Quirke); they had that maturity.
“Myself and Aidan (Walsh) were the youngest in the panel and we just fell in: ‘this is the way, lads, you’re either in or you’re out’; it was as simple as that. Nowadays, there are a lot of factors that can influence players on a senior county panel; everything going on in their lives, down to social media, all of those other factors that can impact your performance.
“We were lucky enough to be involved in something that was very internally focused, focused on achieving the ultimate and, luckily enough, we did that. It’s something you look back on with a lot of fondness, but it’s also something that, at the moment, I put way back in the background, because the sole focus, now, is on seeing Cork football become successful, and, hopefully, being part of that,” Sheehan says.
An All-Ireland medallist with professional experience would surely have a lot to offer, but Sheehan stresses the need for balance: offering the benefit of that experience, while also taking lessons from his teammates.
I’m learning as much from them as I hope they’re learning from me — I’m learning probably a lot more from them — and they’re an energetic group of young men, who are eager to wear the Cork jersey and to represent Cork.
“The likes of Ronan (McCarthy), Cian O’Neill, and Kevin Smith have really pushed standards this year, which has been great. I can’t speak about what happened in the past, but I’ve come into a really professional set-up and it’s been outstanding,” Sheehan says.
“There’s a juggling act, in terms of actually getting an idea of how guys think and feel, as would be the case with anything. Hopefully, we’re figuring that out now; and likewise for them with me.
“But, as you progress, every game you play, you start to understand each other a little bit more and get used to playing with each other more.”
Improvement and success are the ultimate aims, with all involved in a hurry to achieve both.
“I think it’s more of a case of the responsibility of the individual; previously, I think there was this thing where you just came in and, ‘this is the way’.
“Now, it’s all there for you, and Ronan and Cian and the lads, they really define what we want to be and what we want to do, whereas, when I was there before, there was a natural feeling and culture within the group,” Sheehan says.
“Now, everyone’s trying to get improvement; with high performance and professionalism, you’re looking for that edge. And we’re just trying to carve that out, at the moment, which is why I mention patience.
“That’s external, by the way. Internally, we’re trying to improve as quickly as we can, to be the best we can be. We’re not being patient, I can guarantee you. Externally, we need Cork people to be a little bit patient with what we’re trying to do, to bear with us,” he says.
“Hopefully, that comes sooner rather than later. I understand Cork people want to see success no matter what sport is involved, and that’s a great asset to have, but I think that’s an important message: externally, be patient and stick by us, and success will come.”
These days, Sheehan’s day job is at AA Euro Executive Recruitment, a desk rather than a dressing-room. It’s one of the differences between amateur and professional sport, though maybe not the biggest.
“For me, time is the big thing about professional sport. Not only from a training perspective, but the time you have for recovery. You have all this time that you can actually put into your body, or into the mental side of things,” Sheehan says.
“In GAA, the commitment and the drive is on a par, but in professional sport, there are more resources, because there’s money involved.
“And when you’re professional and money comes into play and looking after yourself to a certain degree . . . It is a ruthless industry — it’s an industry, full stop — and I struggled with that side of it, because the GAA’s bedrock is community, family and team, whereas, this was a little different.
“Now, teamwork and team spirit are elements in professional sport, too, but you have another element to worry about, because your career is also your living. That was a challenge, but in terms of commitment, I think the GAA is on par (with AFL). At the elite level, no matter what the sport is, you need to be obsessed,” he says.
That obsession isn’t just for participants. Coaches in the professional ranks are detail-oriented by definition.
“That’s a big part of it,” says Sheehan. “There may be 12 to 15 coaches and you’ve access to them all the time. The other thing is the ‘coding’ of the vision element of what you do: recording training sessions and coding it, so that you can come back and look at your own individual cuts.
“So you have access to all of that, which you don’t have time for here. And they’re being paid to do it. But in terms of details . . . in Aussie Rules, the coach will say, ‘are you kicking off your right foot enough? If not, we’ll grab you for half-an-hour tomorrow’. Here, lads are working or in college. It’s a juggling act,” Sheehan says.
“I can draw on what I experienced over there and help in the Cork set-up, but I also want to be careful, too, and not step on people’s toes. You want to bring what’s right for the group, which, hopefully, will help improve them.”
Like dealing with on-field situations? Australians in all sports are known for their ability to sledge, for instance. Sheehan laughs again: “There’s plenty of that, but they relish it. Even the guy who gets it expects it and likes it, and he uses it as fuel to get himself to play better.
Did I get it? I did. Half the time, I didn’t understand what they were saying. I got the odd Irish slag off them, but I enjoyed it.
“That willingness to compete is on par. It’s funny when you create an environment or culture where you see the competitiveness come out in guys, and we’re seeing that coming out in our group,” Sheehan says.
“We talked about going back to 2010, but I can go back to 2013, when I left, and the competitiveness at A versus B games, a competitiveness that’s very important to hold onto. I saw plenty of that in Australia, too, but it may be even keener here, because of what you’re representing: the red jersey.
“Over there, you go from WA to Melbourne; you can be anywhere rather than your home club. In fairness, they put a lot of work into the culture as well, but in the GAA, I think that attitude and aggression comes from a place that’s deeper than it would be over there. Which isn’t to say it isn’t competitive there, because it is.”
Back to where we started. Years after questioning himself in Australia, Sheehan rolled back to Éire Óg last September. “That was one of the best feelings I’ve had, to be honest. Coming back to the club and just being accepted. Because there is a little bit . . . I drove through the gates of the club thinking, ‘I haven’t been here a while, how’s the response gonna be’, but I’ve been very lucky.
“There’s a great bunch of lads there. Harry (O’Neill, manager) has done an amazing job, but, then, the club has done absolutely amazing things for me from an early age.”
The fairytale came true. Six years ago he was namechecked in a victory speech, but last October Sheehan was announced in Páirc Uí Rinn as a second-half sub in Éire Óg’s Premier IFC county win.
“It was amazing: they’d done the bulk of the work in the last few years. That’s what you think about when you’re in Australia and you’re playing a foreign sport. You think, ‘Imagine if I was at home. Imagine if Éire Óg went well and we won a county’.
“I’m sure the other Irish lads, that’s what’s running through their heads. It was great to fall back in with the lads and win a medal. I might fall in for a bit of hurling next, though, after six years, I mightn’t be that great,” Sheehan says. You wouldn’t bet against him.