To say Fintan O’Connor is your conventional inter-county hurling selector wouldn’t just be inaccurate: it would be wrong.
That becomes abundantly clear within a couple of minutes of sitting down with the Blackwater Community School, Lismore teacher. “I have a strange background in hurling, I would have never played hurling myself.”
The Kildare-born former rugby coach laughs that his first introduction to hurling was seeing Maurice Shanahan as a first-year student carrying a hurley the same September he started in the school in 2003. But it wasn’t long before principal Denis Ring, he of Harty Cup fame with St Colman’s College, had recruited O’Connor as manager.
“I told him I didn’t have much of a background but he said that he would show me a few drills and we took it from there. Young fellas never say to you that ‘this is boring’ or dull or whatever. They just want to be out on the field. And I just grew to love it then.”
So many of the current Waterford panel passed through his hands in Blackwater - seven by his estimation - and later Waterford IT, who he helped guide to Fitzgibbon Cup glory last year. It was hardly surprising Derek McGrath came a-calling when Willie Maher left. O’Connor’s successes with Fourmilewater and then Cappoquin last year told of a mentor who has embraced hurling in no time at all.
“I was mad to get involved. When Derek asked me to come on board this year, I jumped at the chance. I had a few people saying that I was mad, that I was going to get grief and get this and that. “Derek said to me that people would advise you against it. I was never going to turn down a chance to work with the lads.”
Even to the players he taught in Blackwater, he was never known as Mr O’Connor, business studies and maths teacher; simply Fintan. “When you haven’t played, the last thing you want is lads coming in saying, ‘who’s your man, what’s he talking about?’ But I knew the character of the lads, through school or college. They weren’t that type of person. They wouldn’t be sulking or throwing a strop or saying ‘I’m not listening to you’.
“I am a teacher but I wouldn’t be a highly academic teacher. I work with the autistic kids in school actually, haven’t taught class in the last number of years. I was writing stuff on a board and Brick (Michael Walsh) was saying ‘I thought you were meant to be a teacher’. First time I met him and straight away he was taking the mickey. So I knew I was alright then.”
He tells a story of how Waterford players and management last week spent a morning playing crazy golf in Tramore. “It was like being at a school tour. The messing, the banter and the joking and you love being part of that. And, look, I am the biggest child myself so I am not big on maturity. I was out messing with them, playing crazy golf. Sure everyone would want to be part of that.”
O’Connor can count Pa Cronin as a work colleague, as he can call Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy a friend after their association in WIT. “I have a young fella, he’s four or five and he loves Eoin because he would have come to Fitzgibbon matches and Eoin would have time for every young fella and time for everyone.”
It’s evident O’Connor’s independence of thought appeals plenty to McGrath. When the manager speaks about losing a Munster final being of no advantage to Waterford, his selector differs in opinion.
“It did lessen the hype around the place when we lost the Munster final because we were unbeaten and when you’re unbeaten everyone is waiting for the bubble to burst. It can weigh you down a little but the expectation after the Tipp game was lessened.
“The age profile and demographic of the team is young too and they are better off being busy.
“If they had five weeks to think about the same game, it might weigh them down. But now they don’t have a lot of time to think about the semi-final. By the time we recovered from last weekend (v Dublin), it was almost time for the next match.”
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