The man who was affectionately known as ‘the Canon,’ had the Midas touch when it came to developing hurling talent and coaching teams to success at the highest level, achieving this with St Finbarr’s, Farranferris, UCC and Cork at underage and adult level.
He guided the university to 10 Fitzgibbon Cup victories, including a record eight-in a row and was associated with nine All-Ireland-winning Cork teams.
I first came in contact with him in the 60s, when he was involved with Farranferris.
By appointment, he would call to the then Cork Examiner office in Academy Street to brief me on team news ahead of upcoming Munster Colleges games — he’d always request ‘Farna’ would not be made favourites. Players who worked with him allude to the importance he placed on the right form of mental preparation for games.
Through his wide-ranging involvement he wielded an enormous influence in developing their careers and this was to be reflected especially in his success with Cork at senior level.
It culminated in the Centenary Cup All-Ireland triumph in Thurles in 1984, when he was joint-coach with Justin McCarthy and the 1990 victory which marked the first leg of the All-Ireland senior double.
He wasn’t slow to criticise and while he was shrewd in his dealings with the media, a radio interview given immediately after the 1993 league semi-final win over Tipperary in Semple Stadium got him into hot water when he criticised one of his players who had been dismissed for a striking offence against Nicky English.
A better example is provided by himself — in a video of ‘live’ television interviews in the dressing room following the 1990 win over Galway. He tells Jim Carney: “It takes a team effort and I said a few things at half-time... we are playing with a 10-man team. Some of the lads had to realise we were in an All-Ireland final. I think they got the hang of it at half-time!”
Interestingly, 23 of the 26-strong panel of players “had come under his wing in one way or another”.
Long-serving county board secretary Frank Murphy was a co-selector with him on the All-Ireland-winning Cork minor hurling teams of 1969, 1970 and 1971 (as well as the 1990 senior team). Pointing out that the Canon had a “great sense of humour”, he recalled this story: “In an All-Ireland Championship game he wasn’t happy at all with the forwards in the first half and in particular with one very tall man from Midleton (Kevin Hennessy). He said at half-time: ‘Do you know Kevin, there is only two forwards playing out there?’ to which Kevin said, ‘that’s right Canon... who is the other fellow beside myself?’ In fairness he took that in the spirit in which it was offered.”
At schools level, Fr O’Brien was involved with Farranferris from 1969 and they won the Harty Cup five times, in 1969, ‘71,’ 72, ‘73 and ‘74 and the All-Ireland in 1969,’ 72 and ’74. He enjoyed remarkable success with UCC, coaching 10 winning Fitzgibbon Cup teams in 11 years, including a record eight in a row.
The late Fr Bertie Troy (later Canon Troy) was the coach for the first three All-Ireland winning minor teams he was associated with, going on to coach the winning teams of 1974, ’78 and ’79. And, in 1983, he coached the Cork junior team to All- Ireland success.
He was ‘elected’ as a senior selector the 1983-’84 season, along with Justin McCarthy and the pair had joint responsibility for the coaching and training of the team which brought the MacCarthy Cup back to Leeside after defeats in the previous two finals at the hands of Kilkenny.
Sidelined following two hip operations and knee cartilage surgery, he headed the poll in the election of selectors for the 1989-‘1990 season, which followed a very poor provincial campaign when they lost to Waterford in a replayed semi-final. In a subsequent interview, he told me: “One of the reasons I allowed my name to go forward is because I believe it’s an exciting time to be involved. We have the potential — and will always have the potential. The task now is putting it together.”
It was mission accomplished the following September. En route they shocked champions Tipperary — when Babs Keating’s ill-judged “donkeys don’t win derbies” comment was an undoubted motivation in a powerful Munster final performance in Thurles.
Over the years he also coached a number of club teams, taking Blackrock to four county senior finals and winning the 1985 and 1999 titles. A former chairman of the club, he was president up to the time of his death and a vice-president of the county board since 2003.
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