EIGHT years after his retirement from inter-county football, Aghada’s Pearse O’Neill remains a key member of his club’s premier intermediate football team.
The 41-year-old, who hails from the picturesque coastal townland of Lahard, is still keeping a close eye on the progress of the current Cork generation.
An All-Ireland senior winner 11 years ago under the guidance of his club colleague Conor Counihan, O'Neill is hoping that Cork can follow up last year’s shock win over Kerry with another successful campaign.
The victorious team of 2010 is now fully dismantled after Ciarán Sheehan, the last remaining link with that All-Ireland side, called time on his inter-county career in recent weeks.
Now it’s about building a new generation, with Ronan McCarthy giving youth its fling on the biggest stage.
“Dublin have raised the bar sky-high in the intervening years and everybody has to react,” says Pearse.
“Paul Kerrigan and myself were talking and the main thing he remarked was the difference in the training compared to when we started.
“The level of commitment has gone so much higher again. When I was playing inter-county, we all thought that commitment was savage — but now it has pushed on again.
“Obviously, Dubin are still excellent, but Kerry have been very impressive in their league games. Hopefully, Cork will get over Limerick and in the Munster final, who knows what will happen."
In terms of Cork’s displays in the League?
“It’s a pity they did not get promotion. But league and championship are a completely different animal. Get over Limerick first and then see what happens in Killarney. There are a lot of strong players with lots of experience in the Cork team.
“They will be trying to prove that last year was not a once-off. When I was playing we came very close to overturning Kerry on a few occasions, when we were given very little chance going into the match.”
O'Neill admits that he is lucky enough to be still playing club football (and hurling) as he approaches birthday number 42 and that the void left after retiring from the inter-county scene did not last too long.
“Of course, you would like to be involved when you look at the championship game this weekend.
“But life outside top-flight football isn’t bad either. I have club games and three young children, so it’s a time in life with different priorities.
You would be surprised how quickly after retiring that you don’t miss it too much and life just goes on.
“I’m lucky to be hanging in there with Aghada in both codes and enjoying it. My body is still ok. I am not overthinking it — just turn up and play away.
“There’s no doubt there has been a huge change in the past 20 year since I started playing first. In football, it’s also more tactical — take the goalkeeper for example.
“Before he kicks the ball out to midfield time after time — now as a midfielder you rarely catch the ball over your head from a kick-out.”
Finally, this month is a poignant time for everybody in Aghada GAA as we approach the first anniversary of the death of former Cork and Aghada stalwart Kieran O’Connor.
The entire GAA family far and wide seemed to reunite this time last year to mourn the passing of a man that O'Neill had campaigned side-by-side with for club and county.
A year on the thoughts and prayers of the entire Aghada parish will no doubt be again with Kieran’s family on the occasion of his anniversary.
“We all remember Kieran all the time.
He was a great leader on the Cork team and in particular here in Aghada.
“We were together all the way up the ranks as we were the same age. We needed him to be motoring all the time to prop us up as there were only four of us on the age in that bracket.
“He was somebody we always looked up and for 15 years he always got the job of marking the best opposing forward.
“Kieran had a huge engine — running up the field, scoring points and then sprinting back down to mark his man again.”
No doubt as Cork begin their 2021 championship journey, Kieran will be looking down from a high hoping his beloved reds can enjoy a memorable season.
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