Seán Meehan was a microcosm of Cork football in 2022.
Battling injury. Struggling for fitness. Struggling for form. A season-long scramble, essentially.
Seán Meehan is again a microcosm of Cork football in 2023.
Injury has surrendered and disappeared back over the hill. The half-back and his “bulletproof” hamstring are flying up the same hill. Encouraging January form. In front of rather than behind the curve.
Where to start? The pure frustration of 2022 or a 2023 rich with promise?
On the first Sunday of September in 2021, Boherbue played host to a Duhallow derby in Group B of the Cork Senior A football championship. Kiskeam versus Knocknagree. All hands to the pump, all niggles and knocks in the backseat.
Knocknagree ran through and around Kiskeam. Meehan could hardly run at all. The Cork senior’s left leg was so heavily strapped you feared for a tape shortage in the village of Kiskeam.
He knew his hamstring was torn going into that game. He shouldn’t have played, and yet he did. It remains a regret. The hamstring injury lingered on for a good while too.
Meehan was selected at full-back for Keith Ricken’s first competitive game in charge of Cork, a McGrath Cup away assignment to Miltown-Malbay. It was only one of two games that he started and finished last year.
He was again at full-back for their second group outing against Waterford. Substituted at half-time, he didn’t get back on the field until Round 3 of the League. The less said the better about that Derry defeat.
Round 4 was hardly a scrapbook of warm memories either. During a sprint for possession with Galway’s Shane Walsh eight minutes into the second half, he felt a shot in his left leg. Hamstring gone. Season gone.
The joint-captain was the latest fallen soldier scribbled onto a Cork absentee list that was becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of. The defence alone was a shell of itself. Maurice Shanley and Seán Powter were both injured at the time, Daniel O’Mahony and Seán White had opted out for the season, while the Galway defeat would prove Billy Hennessy’s last before he too departed.
Sure, that’s a back six right there.
“Last year was absolutely frustrating,” says the research masters student at MTU Cork.
“It was tough because we were struggling in the League and so all you want to do is help the team, but you can’t.
“I was joint-captain last year. That adds a sense of responsibility. I wouldn’t be too much of a talker, I prefer to use actions rather than words. I couldn’t do that then when the hamstring went, so it was tough, it was very tough.”
Meehan underwent surgery in London a couple of weeks after the Galway defeat, for which he still can’t thank the county board enough.
He saw the last 20 minutes of the county’s All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin, and once the subsequent club season was wrapped up, he and Cork physio Brian O’Connell spent the autumn bulletproofing his left hamstring ahead of the current campaign.
Cork’s 2023 absentee list is no list at all. Save for rehabbing ACL victim Kevin Flahive, all missing persons have been located and returned home.
Meehan is injury-free, as is Shanley, as is Powter, as is Killian O’Hanlon, as is Conor Corbett.
Brian O’Driscoll is back in the fold after time away, as is the aforementioned O’Mahony, as is Ruairi Deane, as is Tom Clancy.
Last season was one long episode of plugging gaps and filling holes. Cork never got close to getting their best 15 out on the field.
Last Sunday, Meehan and a teammate sought to pick a starting 15 for tomorrow’s League opener at home to Colm O’Rourke’s Meath. They couldn’t. The options were too plentiful, the competition too stiff.
The difference to morale in not having a sideline full of the walking wounded is almost unquantifiable.
“It does make a huge difference," the 23-year-old continued. “Even just mentally like, there is nothing worse than seeing your friends out injured and suffering. It is great just for the whole group to be marching on together, and moving on to try and achieve the things we want to achieve.
“The clean bill of health is probably the most important thing for us right now. That’s huge because we have good belief in what the fellas on the panel can do. And as long as they are all available, it’s fantastic and it means we can really drive for the goals we want to achieve.”
They’ve a small bit of momentum behind them too on the results front. Okay, so their McGrath Cup final showing was messy and unstructured at times. But it was a win, a third on the trot. Cork haven’t managed such a run in three years, so they’ll happily take it, pocket it, and march on.
They all know, however, that the serious stuff starts on Sunday. Cork finished sixth in last year’s Division 2. A repeat finish, given two of the 16 Sam Maguire places will go to Tailteann Cup champions Westmeath and one from Sligo/Leitrim/London/New York, would leave the county right on the cut-off point.
“The results from the McGrath Cup were grand. But it is just good to be winning. Winning is a habit.
“John [Cleary] would say, our careers are short and they won’t be long going, so you want to win as much as you can while you are playing.
“The McGrath Cup was a trophy there to be won, and we won it. But after the game the last day, some lads felt disappointed with the way we played. There is a lot to improve on.
“We know we need to finish in the top half of Division 2. Your goal is promotion. But finishing in the top half, that has to happen. Simple as.”
Unlike 2022, Meehan and Cork are in a healthy position to rise to the challenge.