Kieran O'Connor had the right attitude every young footballer should aspire to

Kieran O'Connor had the right attitude every young footballer should aspire to
Tommy Walsh, Kerry, and Kieran O'Connor, Cork, tussle off the ball, in the 2008 Munster football final. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

WHEN Kieran O'Connor is recalled, his doggedness as a defender in Rebel red, his battles with Colm Cooper and Declan O'Sullivan, and his role in a glorious era when Cork reached three All-Ireland finals in four years, will be key touchstones.

In an interview with Tony Leen when he revealed the extent of the cancer that would eventually cost him his life, he recalled with pride facing a pair of generational Kerry talents: 

“People can say I was unlucky to be marking them at their peak, but I was lucky enough to mark them. How many can say they got the chance to mark that sort of quality in Croke Park? 

"Two different Cork managers on two different teams asked me to mark those players, so I had to be showing something. We had a very good Cork team a decade ago, but it was also a brilliant Kerry team.”

Giving his all under the stewardship of Billy Morgan and Conor Counihan thrust O'Connor into the spotlight. His reward was a Celtic Cross in 2010.

Though pulling on the Blood and Bandages was a source of great pride for 41-year-old, who was cruelly taken in his prime, he was first and foremost a family man and a passionate son of Aghada. After his stint on county duty ended, he was a husband to Sinead and father to Ava, Isabelle and James, and a figurehead of his East Cork club.

The Imokilly division is a hurling stronghold, which makes their football achievements even more notable. O'Connor, Pearse O'Neill and Conor Counihan linked All-Ireland victories in 1989-'90 and 2010. 

In 2006, Aghada made it to the senior football semi-final, a year after coming close to gaining promotion to the senior hurling grade, runners-up to Ballinhassig in the PIHC decider. Incredible going from a small club.

Anyone who saw him play hurling or football in the green of Aghada would have been struck by his controlled aggression and fitness. 

He was a deceptively skillful player too. A clip showing his weighted kick-pass to John Hayes in the build-up to James Masters' match-winning Munster final goal against Kerry in 2006 proved as much.

Speaking on RTÉ 2FM's Game On, Graham Canty explained O'Connor was a "ferocious competitor".

"He was someone you could really rely on, whether it was on the pitch or off the pitch. He was a go-to man. If you were in trouble you knew you could confide in him. If you were on the pitch and needed a bit of back-up, no better man to have behind you.

Kieran O'Connor, Aghada holds off a challenge from Graham Canty, Carbery, in 2013. Picture: Larry Cummins,
Kieran O'Connor, Aghada holds off a challenge from Graham Canty, Carbery, in 2013. Picture: Larry Cummins,

"He was a ferocious competitor. It was easy for him then to set out his stall, to organise his life, to get the routine right, to get work right, to get home life right, to get the diet right and everything because he was just a ferocious competitor. That was kind of ingrained him.

"I think it was something he was probably born with and nurtured in Aghada. They seem to breed them tough below there, that's just the way they are, but Kieran was one of the toughest of them all."

He also had a grá for horse racing and part-owned Frere Fontaine, who enjoyed a victory at Limerick racecourse last December. They're a tight-knit bunch down east. His popularity in his community and across Cork football was illustrated by the huge crowds that flocked to Aghada for the 5km fundraising walk in March 2019.

Kieran O'Connor, Sinead and children Ava, Isabelle and James at the Friends of Kieran fundraising 5km walk. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Kieran O'Connor, Sinead and children Ava, Isabelle and James at the Friends of Kieran fundraising 5km walk. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

That support will be more important than ever for his family and friends as they cope with his passing. Kieran O'Connor: another Gael taken far too soon, like Cork footballers of the 1980s John Kerins and Mick McCarthy were before him.

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