March 29th 2012.
In 1999, barely 19 years of age, Ben O’Connor exploded onto the senior hurling inter-county scene, a star as Cork won a most unexpected All-Ireland title. A couple of years later he was joined on the big stage by twin brother Jerry and together they lit up the game for several years, inspiring Cork to four All-Ireland final appearances in-a-row (2003, 04, 05, 06), winning two, becoming the first set of twins to win All-Star awards in the same year (2005) in the process. For good measure, in 2004, Ben captained Cork to victory, Jerry was named hurler-of-the-year.
Late last autumn, without fanfare, Jerry retired from the inter-county scene; early last week, again without fanfare, Ben also walked away. That’s just their way — no fuss, no trumpet blast, just quietly disappear back into the crowd.
He didn’t want to do this interview, Ben, then asked that it be kept short. Well, after as much squeezing as could be done, here it is, the much abbreviated narrative of the career of Ben O’Connor, in more or less his own words.
Let’s open at the end, the decision that took his teammates and everyone else by surprise, to walk away after taking part in three rounds of the league.
“At the start of the year I wanted to see if I could still do it. I was talking to Deccie (O’Sullivan), the physio, he’d be fairly sharp on things, and between the two of us we said we’d give it a go, see how things went. Everything was going fine in training, I could be up in front in the runs, but matches are different!
“After the Dublin match I realised there were a few things I could have done that I thought I should have done, that a few years ago I might have done, but I didn’t. I’m 33, playing against youngfellas of 21 and 22; I’m not getting any faster and that was probably the main thing, trying to keep up with the pace. I’m not one for hanging around just for the sake of being involved, and if I felt I could contribute something I would have stayed on, but I didn’t think I could. Just decided to go, but it was a hard decision.
“I’ve been up and down to Cork since I was 14, with the underage teams and all, I’ve had 13 great years at senior and made a lot of great friends with Cork. I’ve become used to meeting those fellas so often, more often than I’d been meeting the fellas here at home. With the matches and the training you wouldn’t be able to go socialising and the nights you’d be off with Cork and around home the boys might be training above (in the field) so you wouldn’t get to talk to them — it was the boys in Cork I was becoming friendlier with all the time.”
Already he’s missing it but it’s not just the adrenaline rush of competition, it’s those friendships formed, now fractured — akin, he reckons, to leaving a familiar long-term employment.
“Sure you’re bound to miss it, if you don’t it never meant enough to you in the first place. We went through so much together, a great bunch of fellas. Even before training the craic that would be going on — some fella would be getting it every night! You’d be lucky if it wasn’t you but some fella was always getting it. I’m not going to be bumping into those boys now again, not very often anyway. I’ll miss it, but it comes to every fella.”
He’ll miss it particularly now that Jimmy Barry-Murphy, the man who first gave him his break back in 1999, is back in charge, and the black clouds that blighted Cork hurling for so many years have all cleared.
“Ah definitely, Jimmy gets involved in the slagging as fast as any of the players, a great buzz around the place. It’s a pity I wasn’t able to stick it out for the year, things are going well so far, but as I said to Jimmy when I called him to let him know — I hope to be above in Croke Park in September roaring them on and there’ll be no happier fella to be there. Obviously every fella would love to be involved but when your time goes, it’s gone and that’s it, but we didn’t get a bad sceilp out of it!”
And of course there are the replacements, young James Coughlan from his own club, Newtownshandrum, just for starters, then a certain Conor Lehane already doing justice to Ben’s old number 10 shirt.
“You can’t beat youth — those fellas are mad for road, you can’t beat that. Go through the age profile of the panel at the moment and apart from Sean Óg, Donal Óg, Gardiner and Tom (Kenny), they’re all young fellas, all flyers. Even at club level that’s the way the game has gone, it’s all down to pace. It’s been that way for a while but it seems to be getting faster and faster. Fellas are training different now, a huge emphasis on speed.”
Ironic, in a way, given that his searing pace was one of his great assets. “Yeah but it just shows, the years don’t be long ticking by — it only feels like the other day that I started off. I suppose that’s a sign that I was having a good time, I didn’t feel it passing.”
There is one element of the inter-county scene that Ben definitely won’t miss, however — “The travelling up and down to Cork two or three times a week, that was a killer altogether. Two weeks before I packed it in I was above at Newtown pitch, a lovely crisp night under the lights, watching the lads training, and I said to myself — it would be so much easier if this was all I had to do, rather than having to get into the car a few times a week and face into the journey to Cork.
“I’d be gone at five for training at seven and I wouldn’t be home again til quarter to eleven – it was really like a day’s work after a day’s work. Now I can leave the house here at half-six, plenty of time to have a chat with the boys and still be training at seven, and home again before nine.”
There’s something a lot of people don’t know about Ben and Jerry O’Connor, however, don’t even know about Newtownshandrum. Though it is now a hurling-only club the twins were also once part of a very talented football team, came very close to making the breakthrough in Cork.
“We won a North Cork minor A title, beat Glanworth in the final, then went on to lose to Ilen Rovers in the county final. They went on to contest a senior football final years later and about seven of that team played. We were two points ahead with time up and they went the length of the field and banged in a goal, beat us by a point — it was that close.”
So if that goal hadn’t been scored the history books might have been re-written, Newtown beating Crossmaglen rather than Dunloy in the All-Ireland club final of 2004? Not likely!
“Ah we never took it too seriously, we kind of saw ourselves as the Crazy Gang, the Wimbledon of gaelic football — just turn up and have a bit of craic, but we did upset a few people from time to time, football clubs especially. You’d still get an urge now and then for an oul’ game of ball but we couldn’t have kept the two of them going. The exact same fellas were playing the exact same positions; when we quit the football the workload was nearly halved straight away.”
He’s not finished entirely of course; immediately he’s coaching the club U6 team ! but for the first time in their adult careers (which started back in 1996 with an intermediate county title) himself and Jerry will now be able to focus their energy entirely on Newtown. He’s looking forward to it, looking forward also to just being a supporter with Cork, though with reservations — be careful how you behave, should you find yourself next to Ben at a game.
“I hate the criticism from the sidelines, that really gets me. If I go to a match I’ll roar for Newtown, I want to see Newtown winning at all costs, or I’ll roar for Cork, but I won’t roar abuse at another player; whether he’s with Newtown or with the opposing team I won’t say anything bad about them. I don’t know anything about them, I don’t see what good will be achieved by roaring abuse at them — that’s the one thing I hate about the game, the abuse.”
Well, he’ll get no abuse from here, nor from anywhere hurling is played. In Kilkenny, in Offaly, in Galway, wherever hurling is played there is only admiration for the honourable and sporting way Ben and Jerry O’Connor played. And yet when you put that to Ben, he deflects all praise.
“We were lucky enough to have great players around us, at club and county level — think of all the fellas who would have been stars if they’d been with some other club or some other county. We played with the likes of Seán Óg, Sherlock, Fergal Ryan, Donal Óg, Brian Corcoran, all those fellas — you couldn’t ask for better.
“Take Tom Kenny; an unbelievable player for Cork, he often carried the team on his back, and to think he never won an All-Star — that’s a joke. With Newtown we had Pat Mulcahy, Brendan Mulcahy, Phillip Noonan, John Mac(Carthy), Alan T O’Brien — still as fast as any man playing hurling. All those fellas would do anything at all for you, for the club. Every day you went out you knew what you were going to get from them — we were just lucky in the fellas we played with.”
Before we finished he had one request, a few people he’d like to thank.
“Deccie O’Sullivan, the physio inside, he kept me going for a few years when I was almost seized up, himself and Dr Con (Murphy). Then there’s those at home – many an evening I’d be rushing to get to training, a lot of work still to be done, and the Oul’ Fella [his father Bernie, O’Connor Hurleys in Newtownshandrum] would say to me — ‘Go on, leave!’. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
“To the mother (Kathleen), burning out about 25 washing machines on my gear over the years, to my grandmother for feeding me, and to Niamh (his wife) for putting up with me, thanks.”
Yes, Ben O’Connor, but to you also, and to your brother Jerry — ye didn’t just play the game, ye graced the game. Thanks.
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