INTERVIEW: Alan O’Connor - The road travelled for Cork’s Alan key

Allianz FL Division 1
CORK V DUBLIN
“When we were coming down in the bus we came through Kealkill and Colm O’Neill said, ‘Alan O’Connor drives up from here for training and matches? I couldn’t do that at all’.”

- John Hayes in Bantry, after Cork won the 2010 football All-Ireland.

4.37pm: Depart Kealkill

The journey is longer tonight with training in Mallow, meaning Alan O’Connor will necklace his way through Ballingeary, Clondrohid, Carriganima and Millstreet and back again over the course of a 120-mile round trip.

Long journeys are nothing new for the big Cork midfielder, as he spent the first 11 years of his life in Lucan, Co Dublin before relocating to West Cork.

His voice still betrays slight traces of his roots (his brother Jimmy never lost his accent), and it took a while to transfer supporting allegiances.

“When I lived in Dublin, I would have gone to Dublin-Cork games and I would have been shouting for Dublin,” he says. “I was going to school with fellas who’d be shouting for Dublin, if I’d gone in with a Cork jersey I’d have been attacked! Maybe there was a bit of fighting my corner too as my father was from Cork and I said it’d be a bit of rivalry or whatever, that seemed to be the way that I wanted it to be.

“When I came down first, I’d have been going to games in Killarney as well, maybe the first few games I’d have been shouting for Kerry, not knowing what passion I’d end up having for Cork.

“The coin flips fairly quickly.”

A natural aptitude for hurling and football helped to effect that change, as the calls started to come from the county selectors. A dual Cork minor, he came on in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final against Kilkenny in Croke Park in 2003, but two weeks later broke his thumb and so missed out on a football clash with Dublin at the same stage.

Forced to rely on the help of others for transport to Cork each week, a call ultimately had to be made.

“I felt that I was pushing my own weight on the hurling alright but that maybe I was able to get on the football team easier,” he says.

His own chauffeur by the time he was ready to leave the U21 ranks, he began to appreciate just what was involved in the regular trips, in terms of time and navigation.

“The first year, you’re heading for places you’ve never been to and you’re panicking, wondering are you going in the right direction,” he says.

The natural question here is to ask if he ever considered getting a job which would allow him to be closer to where he needed to be for football. The answer is that he did.

“After I left school, my focus was on football, I was basically looking for a job in the city. I had done building in school so I was fairly good at carpentry and I felt that I’d be better off doing something else on top of that so that was why I decided to become an electrician.

“John Dineen from Bantry rang me to say that there was an ad in The Southern Star, an electrician wanted in Cork, so I called the number and it turned out that the guy with the job was John McCarthy from Bantry.

“There was a van travelling up from Bantry anyway, that suited me fine, if I had training I’d drive up and get something to eat after work.”

6.10pm: Arrive at Mallow GAA Complex

Entering an inter-county dressing room for the first time is daunting — O’Connor’s namesake Donncha will testify to that.

Alan took a while to assert himself, but was aided by the advice of his elder at midfield, Nicholas Murphy.

“Coming from a small club, maybe I was a bit timid, watching lads to see what they were doing, but you don’t be long learning you have to do things yourself. My first league game was against Tyrone in 2007 at centre-forward. You’d have a lot less time on the ball, you’d be thinking more off the ball than anything.

“Nicholas is a sound man, there’s no better fella to help someone out, and I try to do that now if there’s a young midfielder coming onto the panel. In saying that, he wouldn’t be too shy in f***king you out of it either if you did something wrong, it’s the only way you’d learn.”

By 2008, new manager Conor Counihan felt that the St Colum’s man had learned enough to earn a start, and the No 8 shirt has been his since.

While he has yet to win an All-Star, he has been a model of consistency. He does not make any apologies for eschewing the outside of the boot pass or the mazy slaloms.

Once he has the respect of his colleagues, that is reward enough.

“Every year you’d set a goal, but I had good focus, I was playing well and holding my own in games and getting good feedback from team-mates, that helps a fella too. My role is not the spectacular role, it’s one that a lot of fellas don’t see, running here, there and anywhere.

“The way I look at it is that you only have control what’s in your power, people looking in don’t know what’s happening in the panel. The gratitude I get is other lads on the team working for me and I try to do the same for them.”

8.41pm: Depart Mallow

The Cork team has been named and he has unsurprisingly made the cut for Croke Park tonight. That, the promise of some sleep and the quieter nocturnal roads mean that the journey back west will be shorter.

“Coming back you’re on a bit of a buzz, you have the adrenaline coming from training, you’re thinking about what you can do the next day, and then by the time you’re home you’re only fit to jump into bed.

All-Ireland thoughts are never far away “Nobody wants to lose obviously, but do you become a better player if you win one or if you lose one? We won’t focus on the fact we lost, we’ll focus on what we can do to get better.

“It’s not winning an All-Ireland that makes you great, it’s the days when you’re up the country playing a league match somewhere that you learn a lot about yourself.”

Either way, he’s realistic enough to know where the real priorities are. Two years ago, a shortage of work meant hours were curtailed and he had to take jobseeker’s allowance.

It affected his thought process, not least with a young family.

“I was building a house at the time as well, you wouldn’t be in a great place. I might be travelling up to Cork or wherever and I’d be thinking, ‘Jesus, should I not be out looking for a job or going abroad for work? Things worked out and I wasn’t on it too long, I’m back full-time now with John, he was very good to me.”

9.59pm: Arrive back in Kealkill



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