A WEEK of a Compromise Rules games announcement always leads a week of moans about losing players from the GAA.
This week had an extra kicker. Tomás Ó Sé mentioned Kerry defender Mark O’Connor with Geelong who could be at home taking on the Dubs and the thought struck that Mark Keane’s athleticism might have an awful lot to offer a Cork football group that lacks certain specific attributes right now.
And then word dropped of Ciarán Sheehan’s return to Ronan McCarthy’s squad. The sort of news that managed to be a little bittersweet, that worked the thought process from whether this was too late now to ways it might work to a whole heap of what ifs on just what sort of difference a peak Sheehan might have made to a Cork senior team in transition from 2014 to basically last summer.
Kerry have lost players but can generally bring through another talented footballer without fuss (Tadgh Kennelly was a wonderful player but that Kerry team hardly missed him, David Clifford would be another story obviously). Cork not so much and you could certainly consider it a game-changer on the Setanta scale of things when Ciaran Sheehan finished up with Cork in 2013 at a time they were losing a lot of leadership anyway.
Look at the teams from his last game against Dublin and it’s remarkable to imagine that that core Dublin group have gone on to dominate football and Cork start next season in Division 3.
There was a time where Sheehan looked like becoming the sort of player that might lead Cork through a decade or more of titles - he started an All-Ireland final at 19 and it seemed like the most natural thing – and looking back at some of the notes from the time now, it’s the way he was becoming such an allround forward that was impressive.
He could fetch ball in the air and win his own ball from long kickpasses high or low – think of a 15-minute cameo in Killarney 2013 as a targetman. He could set-up scores and link play with kickpasses, his Munster final performance in 2012, his kickpass assist for Colm O’Neill v Donegal later that summer.
He could kick from proper distance, his score v Kerry down the Páirc from way out that no Cork fan could watch now without being a little depressed, three points from play against that Donegal defensive system. Even in that last game against Dublin he was effective as a point to hit with ball inside.
He could play anywhere from 10 to 15, from link to ballwinner to scorer and be effective.
He’s coming back to a very very different game of course and there are real obstacles here before we all start getting carried away (and that’s assuming he can get a clear run without injuries, which has been a struggle) and imagining we will get the answer to our question of what he could bring back to Cork football.
Mikey Sheehy mentioned earlier this summer how Kerry had made a mistake in Tommy Walsh’s reintroduction to inter-county football back in 2016 by rushing him into league games when he wasn’t ready and how a run of club games would have gotten him up to speed more effectively.
Walsh’s situation offers a reasonable comparison for Sheehan now given their positioning and skill-sets and the fact that they might suffer similar problems with touch and speed after a time away from the game and the nagging fact that they’re no longer the same players that they had been.
Whisper this one, but perhaps the less competitive environment of Division 3 football will be more forgiving than say throwing Sheehan in against a Mayo or Dublin at this stage of development. In some ways he’s starting again from scratch with skills and learning for example how he might be able to affect games as a forward in the modern age of football and the sort of movement necessary now to find spaces in those forward lines.
The mark will give any forward with his hands and his physical prowess options to contribute. The boomers from the sidelines are unlikely to flow as easily and playing anywhere in that middle eight now needs the legs and speed of youth.
There’s something here about the decision to step away from Gaelic football too. Sheehan was offered Aussie Rules at 18 but turned it down, stayed, won an All-Ireland with Cork, tore a cruciate, went through a couple of years of not quite fulfillment with Cork and then the lure of a professional sporting existence was too much to resist.
He experienced four years of professional life with all the ups and downs that tends to bring – only a handful of games with Carlton (but still, how many Irish people get to do even that), a lot of injuries and rehab and tough work, the culture and way of life in another country.
Other Cork GAA players have gone over and come back with varying degrees of perceived success and that’s simply the way with any pro sport – it’s been interesting to hear Damien Delaney and John Egan’s stories recently, two athletes who’d have been serious Cork GAA players but who made something in the world of soccer against the odds really.
There’s hardly a sense that Sheehan has missed out on anything looking at Cork football this past five years and yet you always got the feeling with Sheehan that mentions of coming back to play with Cork were more than just fluffy talk (regrets or unfinished business might be a stretch) and that the pull meant a lot while he still had something to give.
Cork have jumped on board with the risks for the possibility of reward here and there’s little hiding what Sheehan might offer if things can be handled – a potential scoring threat, the presence in a forward line that’s probably lacked that sort of ball-winner for some time, and as Ronan McCarthy pointed out, an experience and leadership factor of someone who’s been involved in the preparation and mentality of a professional background.
Sheehan himself has mentioned the excellence expected from everyone in the background at a club like Carlton, just the seriousness they placed on application and training to the best of their ability every day.
It took four years for Tommy Walsh to make an impact at inter-county level with Kerry with his physical athleticism and if Sheehan doesn’t have quite as long, it’ll be another note to follow for Cork football’s road back in 2020.