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Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was honest about the highs and lows of his Cork career in an interview on The Sunday Game. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was honest about the highs and lows of his Cork career in an interview on The Sunday Game. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
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Cork hurling icon Seán Óg Ó hAilpín doesn't hold back on The Sunday Game

CORK hurling icon Seán Óg Ó hAilpín says he has regrets about the "casualties" of the bitter GAA strikes.

The Leeside legend was interviewed by Joanne Cantwell and Des Cahill on The Sunday Game, going through his arrival in Cork from Australia, the importance of GAA to his identity, and the highs and lows of being a Cork hurler.

Seán Óg bursts past Niall Gilligan. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Seán Óg bursts past Niall Gilligan. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Naturally, the standoffs with the county board were the nadir of his career, especially as they led to the departure of Bertie Óg Murphy in 2002, who had been over the U21s when Cork won All-Irelands in 1997 and '98, and later Gerald McCarthy, one of the county's finest ever players.

"In a nutshell the first strike in 2002 was about player-welfare and rights. Unfortunately with these controversies there are casualties so Bertie Óg Murphy had to step down with his selectors. And when I start reflecting that's one thing I do regret, the casualties and that fact that people had to step down.

"I don't think that strike wouldn't have been so highlighted if we didn't back that up with the All-Irelands in 2004 and 2005. We'd have been a laughing stock.

Action from the 2008 win over Galway, Cork's best performance in the Gerald McCarthy era. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Action from the 2008 win over Galway, Cork's best performance in the Gerald McCarthy era. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

"It was bad enough going through one then there was another one in 2007 which involved the hurlers and footballers. Then the worst one was in '09, there's aftermath still to this day over. The biggest casualty out of that was Gerald McCarthy, a Cork great having to step down."

The 43-year-old reflected on that last strike as a "filthy, callous and cold" battle.

"Twelve years on there's not a day goes by that I don't think about what could have been done differently. There are certain actions, in hindsight, I can't speak for the other players but there are certain things I said that on proper reflection I was probably best to just keep my mouth shut.

Meets the fans during the protest for the Cork hurling panel of 2008. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Meets the fans during the protest for the Cork hurling panel of 2008. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

"You had one part, the playing group, looking to go that way and you soon realised that you're not the biggest stakeholder or power-broker in that situation. It's the county board that ultimately govern the association in Cork and they were going the other way.

"We were going two poles apart completely and when you've two camps entrenched in their own beliefs it was only going to lead to ringside tickets in Las Vegas. It was filthy, it was callous, it was cold." 

While the very honest 15-minute piece was a treat for Rebel supporter starved of action in the Covid-19 shutdown, less appealing was the rewatch of the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick, a loss that remains as unpalatable two years on. 

In Ó hAilpín's view, Cork GAA is now moving forward in the right direction. Seán Óg is a minor selector this season in Donal Óg Cusack's set-up, assuming there is a championship in the autumn.

"Cork people now, whether you were anti or pro, there's a willingness now to try and get Cork back to winning ways. The reality is Cork haven't won an All-Ireland since 2005. 

"It was a brave move by the county board to appoint Donal Óg as the minor manager. He brought me in to give him a hand. We would have probably been seen as the two most militant people during that time. It's some sign that they want things to move on and to get Cork back to winning ways."

Donal Óg, Seán Óg and Diarmuid O'Sullivan when they were suspended in 2007. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Donal Óg, Seán Óg and Diarmuid O'Sullivan when they were suspended in 2007. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The Cork U17s landed an All-Ireland in 2017, though the minors, when the grade was still U18, were beaten by Galway in the final the same season. The U21s/U20s fell short to Tipperary in the last two All-Irelands. Close but no cigar.

"We need to produce results. We need Cork teams competing with the belief they're going to win the cup. Is [coaching] as good as playing? No, you're not going to replace that. You're trying to pass on your knowledge and I would have worked with heaps of good coaches at schools level, club and with Cork." 

Seán Óg, whose father is a Fermanagh native while his mother hails from Fiji, was raised Down Under. GAA certainly wasn't his first love before he was uprooted and touched down on the northside of Cork city.

"I hated it! I'll be honest about that. My upbringing was pretty much in Sydney and it was a great childhood. The climate was great. A good wholesome Australian experience until dad delivered the bomb that we were leaving and going to Ireland."

His Irish touchstones were the St Patrick's Day in Sydney and hearing the exploits of the likes of Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who later managed him to minor and senior All-Irelands, and Pat Spillane in All-Ireland final broadcasts on the radio. Joining Na Piarsaigh and hurling to a high level in the North Mon were crucial to settling in Cork.

"The one thing the organisation has nailed on is the inclusion. I'm a living example of that. Because of my different looks, I had an Australian accent, it was a tough few years. The greatest integration was that I joined Na Piarsaigh GAA club. Would there have been any other way I felt included? Probably not."

Seán Óg speaking about how he got first got interested in GAA back in 1995 on the RTE series Summer Pride.
Seán Óg speaking about how he got first got interested in GAA back in 1995 on the RTE series Summer Pride.

From 1995 to 1999, Ó hAilpín collected four All-Ireland medals from minor and U21 to senior, while also representing the Rebels in football. 

It was in the mid-noughties, with a running game introduced by Donal O'Grady from the Newtown club template and sharpened by John Allen, that Cork revolutionised hurling. 

"A lot of my teammates were deep, deep thinkers about the game. It was a testament to the management that they were allowed players to express their feelings and that was taken on board. 

"From that the game was based on support, keep possession but always give options to the guy with the ball. We said if a fella was blown up for over-carrying if was his team-mates fault.

"We just had the right players in the right positions playing a style of game that didn't come overnight, we adopted it, and we did well from it. When you get results why change it?"

Newtown's Jerry O'Connor and Na Piarsaigh's Seán Óg  battling in an U21 final, the decade before winning All-Irelands together. Picture: Des Barry
Newtown's Jerry O'Connor and Na Piarsaigh's Seán Óg  battling in an U21 final, the decade before winning All-Irelands together. Picture: Des Barry

Reaching four All-Ireland finals and winning two meant Seán Óg, after Na Piarsaigh's county final triumph in '04, got to climbs the steps of the Hogan Stand to accept the MacCarthy Cup, memorably giving his speech as Gaeilge.

"That's probably the pinnacle of my playing career.  I felt I'd a duty being the captain. There was only one language I was going to deliver my speech in. 

Cork's captain Seán Óg raises the Liam MacCarthy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 
Cork's captain Seán Óg raises the Liam MacCarthy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 

"Better hurlers never got the chance to go up and collect the cup."

In the mid-noughties he was the poster boy for Cork hurling. A status he looks back on with a dose of humour.

"I never knew I was lovely looking until I put on a Cork jersey! As soon as you start wearing a Cork jersey people want to talk to you and want a piece of you. 

"I partially blame mum for that. The first person people would recognise [from our team] is me because of my Fijian looks. 

The Ó hAilpín brothers Seán Óg, Setanta and Aisake with the county title in 2004. Picture: Des Barry
The Ó hAilpín brothers Seán Óg, Setanta and Aisake with the county title in 2004. Picture: Des Barry

"The circus finishes, the tent comes down and you move on. Other things take centre stage in life."