Donncha O'Connor never got the credit he deserved as one of Cork's best ever forwards

Donncha O'Connor never got the credit he deserved as one of Cork's best ever forwards
CHAMPION: Donncha O'Connor after beating Down in 2010. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

IT WOULD have been fitting if one of Donncha O’Connor’s two efforts at the posts on Saturday evening in Portlaoise had dropped over the bar instead of drifting off wide.

One of the most reliable Cork forwards of all-time deserved to raise a white flag to give him a suitable send-off. Sport is rarely that fair though.

Instead, the 37-year-old’s last appearance in Rebel red was a timid championship exit to Tyrone. That O’Connor featured at all is a testament to his passion for Cork football and exactly why he should be fast-tracked into a management role at some level.

Donncha O'Connor closes in on Niall Morgan in his last game for Cork. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Donncha O'Connor closes in on Niall Morgan in his last game for Cork. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

He had been considering retirement as far back as 2014, when – like this season — injuries were becoming an issue. The Ballydesmond native came off the bench in Croke Park that summer to blast 1-3 as Mayo narrowly denied a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals, and he decided to soldier on. Even last June, when Cork gave Mayo a savage rattle in the Gaelic Grounds, O’Connor was their spearhead.

This campaign, even during the league, he couldn’t get himself right to contribute. He was willing, but his body simply wasn’t. That’s how the end comes for many inter-county stalwarts.

Burying a penalty against Kerry in 2011. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Burying a penalty against Kerry in 2011. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Whenever he’s been fit, from the start of his career to its conclusion, he’s scored. O’Connor is one of the most underrated forwards on a national level of the past 15 years. Even in Cork terms, he’s generally placed behind Colm O’Neill and Daniel Goulding but he was a real big game performer and an outstanding ball-winner, on a par with any attack in red since Colin Corkery.

His peak was unquestionably 2010 when he recovered from kicking a wild free in a Munster semi-final loss to Kerry which allowed them to force extra time, to go on and shine in Croker when it really mattered. He nailed the penalty in the comeback win over Dublin and fired 0-3 from play, as well as his customary frees, in the All-Ireland final against Down.

Donncha O'Connor celebrates a point against Down in 2010. Picture: Dan Linehan
Donncha O'Connor celebrates a point against Down in 2010. Picture: Dan Linehan

He received neither the RTÉ Man of the Match or an All-Star for his exploits but those who know their football were fully aware of O’Connor’s achievements.

He buried some pressure penalties for Cork outside of the Dublin one, including against Kerry in 2009 and 2011 and in the ’09 Munster final against Limerick. Kerry always viewed him as a primary threat in the Rebel front six, often deploying their best man-marker Marc Ó Sé to track him.

Donncha O'Connor takes on Marc Ó Sé. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Donncha O'Connor takes on Marc Ó Sé. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

He was the ultimate ‘late developer’. Though known as a decent forward for the Duhallow divisional side and in CIT, O’Connor wasn’t a marquee underage forward with Cork.

Once, when invited to tog out for a senior challenge match, he was undermined by self-doubt to the degree that he opted not to get out of the car park after turning up. It’s hard to reconcile such a scenario with the fearless forward he became but a run with the 2005 All-Ireland winning junior side, which also featured Alan Quirke, Daniel Goulding and more, boosted his confidence.

When he got his championship opportunity in 2006 at the age of 25 he took it and showed qualities that made a mockery of his earlier concerns. O’Connor was able to secure ball inside, never shirked the opportunity to go for goal — stitching a few beauties against Kerry, which must have been sweet given his club Ballydesmond is on the border — and was capable of curling over majestic points.

For all those reasons his nous should be passed onto the next generation, but also because he’s a genuinely decent guy.

Like many of the heroes from 2010, O’Connor has no airs or graces, no arrogance off the field even if he was totally driven on it. He might knock another couple of seasons out of club football — John Miskella came off for Ballincollig in the first round of this year’s SFC at the age of 40 — but he must be utilised by Cork regardless.

John Miskella celebrates a score with Donncha O'Connor in 2009. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
John Miskella celebrates a score with Donncha O'Connor in 2009. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

These are dark, dark days for Rebel football.

Confidence has rarely, if ever, been lower, but the county’s U15 and U16 squads lifting tournament trophies last weekend offer a glimmer of light. Quirke was involved with the U16s and the more All-Ireland medallists put in place as mentors of development squads the better chance we have of producing footballers who feel they deserve to compete with the best from Kerry, Dublin and Mayo.

While the Munster final annihilation to the Kingdom and the fact they annexed all four provincial trophies portrays this as a period of utter dominance for the Green and Gold over Cork, the minors, U20s and juniors were only narrowly beaten. All three were on the road and there was no back-door avenue, a farcical situation at minor which meant Cork only got two guaranteed games and Clare slipped into the Munster final without a significant victory.

This could be clutching at straws but maybe the future isn’t as bleak as it seems right now?

And perhaps, like Donncha, there are footballers who were on the fringes of Cork’s underage squads who have the bottle and skillset to make a late burst at senior.

Donncha O'Connor about to kick a point for Duhallow watched by Clon defender Tony Anglin. Picture: Des Barry
Donncha O'Connor about to kick a point for Duhallow watched by Clon defender Tony Anglin. Picture: Des Barry

If players are out there, opportunities will open up next year and in 2020.

Cian Dorgan and Steven Sherlock are two obvious options in attack.

They’re young and light but are two of the most consistent scorers at senior club level. While Dorgan and Sherlock featured in the spring without impressing the management they’re surely worth another go. A leap of faith could be rewarded yet.

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