THE first time I came across Kieran O’Connor was at some U16 or minor game way back in the day.
When you’re loaded with games and opponents at that age, not everybody stands out but Kieran is the sort of defender that leaves an impression. We knocked around various teams and marked each other in training games or backs-and-forwards and club matches for a time and it’d be fair to say they were rarely enjoyable experiences.
I recall one Kelleher Shield game down in Aghada with particular pain, where I seemed to spend more time running back the field after the corner-back than attacking.
O’Connor was fast, boy was he fast. There was some format of hare-chasing game one night where he was out in front and the gap just kept getting larger and larger to everyone trying and failing to keep up until it got embarrassing.
He was dogged, tight-marking and you basically knew there would be absolutely no handy possessions or easy scores. That every single ball touched was going to be hard won even before you thought about trying to score.
A few years ago I was watching a game in Páirc Uí Rinn and Kieran O’Connor was still there at corner-back, dealing with the latest corner-forward with notions in exactly the same no-fuss way by getting all the basics of defending right.
A young speedy forward went in at the start of the second half and I remember half-expecting O’Connor to struggle at that stage of his career with a proper burst of pace. Yet he gobbled him up and completely shut down the threat for what must have been the thousandth time.
Aghada had largely the same bunch of players who were the club there for an age in football and hurling and nobody gave more of himself than O’Connor over 20-odd years at adult level. Honestly, I half expected to be going into Aghada games in another 10 years and still see Kieran O’Connor bursting out in front of his man and tearing up the pitch for a one-two.
His time with Cork was interwoven with exactly the same level of commitment and mentality. When he was just breaking onto the Cork team in 2005, O’Connor came on as sub in a national league game at home against Tyrone and within a short space of time made a tackle which from memory gave away a penalty and also got him put off as it was some kind of yellow/black card experiment. I recall seeing him walking off the field in devastation.
He sent a text that night to his manager that night saying “Sorry I fucked up” and I remember Billy Morgan mentioning it to me in an interview at the time and being taken by that gesture as an example of the simple genuine willingness and want and sheer honesty to play for and win for Cork.
If it felt a little like O’Connor’s time with Cork was underappreciated, well he went on to play Munster finals and All-Ireland finals at a time Cork were well stacked in defence and always took responsibility for serious marking jobs. He’s referenced some of the tougher days himself but isolated one-v-one with Colm Cooper and piles of spaces in front of him up in Croke Park, there’s not much for a defender to do.
It was interesting to read Graham Canty talk of the bond between that Cork 2005-2010 group at the weekend, and how O’Connor was a massive part of that sort of unforgiving environment where any lack of effort or proper mentality was unacceptable. It’s easy to understand now exactly where O’Connor fitted in and how he could have been vital in developing that kind of culture of doing the right thing all the time, of constantly setting standards and making sure incoming forwards understood the levels required.
This all shouldn’t make any difference of course to the news that Kieran’s rare form of cancer has returned again and after treatment and a leg amputation and now with ongoing further treatment, he's in his biggest battle yet.
It shouldn’t really matter about the years of giving of himself and his time to GAA in Aghada and Cork and yet it does and there has been something in the outpour of support that tells everything about his impact in general life, about what he’s meant to people on and off the field and in the wider GAA community and their desire to look after their own.
It’s impossible to separate Kieran the footballer who you just knew was giving everything of himself in every single game and training from the guy who’s having a tough time now.
I’ve met Sinead over the years at games and functions away from GAA. The phrase couldn’t meet nicer people can be overused and still it’s hard to put it any other way about Kieran and Sinead, adding to that terrible unease on the cruel randomness.
After years of Kieran O’Connor doing the right thing for teams in Aghada and Cork and getting this terrible blow, it feels important that people do the right thing in return now, to give something back at a time there’s little else we can do.