The constituent parts of the most famous story about Seanie O’Leary’s hurling career are well-known, but significant detail lurks behind that familiar narrative.
Most hurling followers will be familiar with the corner-forward’s unusual preparation for the 1977 All-Ireland hurling final. O’Leary, who passed away on Wednesday, was warming up with his Cork teammates on the Croke Park pitch when a sliotar struck him square in the face a few minutes before the parade.
“It destroyed his nose,” recalled Dr Con Murphy decades later.
“Before the parade I brought him into the dressing-room and Ring was inside with me, helping.”
That was Christy Ring. The All-Ireland throw-in was looming but the maestro was anxious about one of the key men on the Cork team.
“When the bleeding stopped he turned to Seanie and said, ‘O’Leary, you won’t be using your nose at all for hurling, get out there,’” said Murphy.
“Seanie had awesome strength. He was a great player. He scored 1-1 in the 1977 final and his nose was badly broken. He was out of action for a while after that game.”
That wasn’t the only time O’Leary was doubtful to play on the biggest day of the year.
Or that Ring was in no doubt he’d play on the biggest day of the year.
“We had to give Seanie a fitness test the day before the 1976 All-Ireland final,” said Dr Con.
“And he clearly wasn’t fully fit. He was hampered in his movements.
“But Ring said, ‘We have to play him.’ I remember strapping Seanie up before the game, and at half-time he was lame.
“I said to Ring, ‘he’s had it,’ but he said, ‘No, no, we have to get him out there.’ Ring was a huge O’Leary fan.”
In hurling terms it stands alone as an endorsement. Ring’s understanding of the game included a sharp appreciation of what a player could contribute to his team. O’Leary’s ability meant his inclusion was non-negotiable, whether injured or not.
His progress followed a familiar groove. O’Leary was the star on two St Colman’s teams which reached Harty Cup finals. In one year - 1969 - he played in one of those Harty Cup finals, won an All-Ireland minor medal with Cork, and helped his club, Youghal, win the Cork intermediate hurling championship. It was a promising augury for the 70s, and O’Leary fulfilled that promise.
Bullish power and superb close control would have made him a dangerous prospect at corner-forward, but when combined with boundless courage and an instinct for goal, he became the platonic ideal of a number 13 or 15. Even at the end of his career in 1984, that instinct was as sharp as ever.
In that year’s Munster final, O’Leary was on hand for the vital goal late on against Tipperary (“I had a very, very average game,” was how he recalled the game years later for this newspaper. “I struck gold alright at the finish but took a long time to do it.”)
In that year’s All-Ireland final he struck twice for goals; befitting one of the greatest corner-forwards in the game, none of those goals came from outside the 14-metre line.
Seánie O'Leary with the “touch” all the greatest hurlers have pic.twitter.com/yjtz3yVTjq— Ray Boyne (@AnalysisGaa) March 17, 2020
The first showcased the quality in his wrists, killing a Jimmy Barry-Murphy handpass to wrong foot Offaly ‘keeper Damien Martin, then the whirling finish; the second came from an improvised ground stroke on the run, and after that second goal O’Leary strolled outfield examining his fingertips while the terrace went berserk behind him. It was the perfect exit, and he knew it.
“I was 32,” he recalled, “But I had a fair share of it done at that stage.”
He came back later. When Cork came with a superb team for the 1999 All-Ireland senior title, he was one of the selectors, but his work had been done already, guiding Imokilly to the Cork senior hurling titles of 1997 and 1998.
The divisional side featuring many of the players who went on to backbone that Cork side, including Diarmuid O’Sullivan. He recalled his start with Imokilly later: “I was put in centre-back.
“Seanie O’Leary came over before the game and said, ‘You’re young. Have a go. No-one’s putting pressure on you. Play away the way you want.’”
Play away the way you want. It could have been O’Leary’s own mantra.