Christy O'Connor on the highs and lows of coaching the Cork hurlers

After two years involved with Kieran Kingston's backroom, the Clare native is stepping away. Here he explains how he got involved and what it meant to work with the Rebels.
Christy O'Connor on the highs and lows of coaching the Cork hurlers

Cork hurling coach Christy O'Connor after the 2021 All-Ireland hurling final loss in Croke Park. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

IN October 2019, I got a call from Kieran Kingston out of the blue. 

I had never spoken to Kieran before, but he had just been appointed Cork manager and he cut straight to the chase – he asked me if I’d be interested in coming on board with Cork in a coaching capacity.

I had been involved with Micheál Donoghue – who had just stepped down - in Galway as a goalkeeping coach for four years but Kieran laid his cards immediately on the table; he wanted me in Cork primarily as a forwards’ coach.

I was immediately intrigued, but I had to refuse the offer; Donal Moloney, who was going for the Clare job at that same time, had called a week earlier to ask if I would be part of his management ticket, which I had accepted.

Kieran fully understood that I couldn’t turn my back on Clare, but he did end the conversation with a proviso. “If anything changes” he said, “I’ll be back on to you.” 

A few days later, Donal, who was treated disgracefully by the Clare county board, rang to say that he was pulling out. The news was public knowledge that evening, and Kieran texted me the following morning to ask if I would meet him the next day.

We met in the Radisson Hotel outside Limerick and spoke for about three hours. Kieran showed me his plans, which he asked me not to reveal if I wasn’t getting involved, but I felt that he was already showing his trust in me by displaying them in the first place. I told Kieran that I’d ring him back the following day, but I already had my mind made up within five minutes of that initial meeting.

Cork backroom team member Christy O'Connor before the 2020 Munster hurling semi-final against Waterford at Semple Stadium. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cork backroom team member Christy O'Connor before the 2020 Munster hurling semi-final against Waterford at Semple Stadium. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

At our first management/backroom team gathering a couple of weeks later, I was made feel really welcome. The players were respectful and incredibly warm and friendly towards me from the first time I met them.

OUTSIDE VIEW

The chemistry felt perfect, but I often wondered how my move to Cork was widely regarded around the county. Cork never had too many outsiders involved in their senior hurling set-up, if any. In the columns I had written for The Echo over the years, I certainly hadn’t spared Cork, including many of the players I was now coaching.

I had given the county board regular lashings in print, so much so that I was once told of my name – and background – being slaughtered at a full-board meeting. “This fella is telling us what to do, and he from a county with just three All-Irelands.” 

When I heard about it, I replied, tongue in cheek: “That’s a disgrace. Tell that fella that Clare have four All-Irelands!” 

If anything, though, I always felt that being an outsider was one of my greatest assets in Cork. I didn’t know the players personally. I had looked at Cork cold and clinically for years, without bias or agenda. I felt that when I told the players some home truths, and how outsiders viewed them, they couldn’t really disagree with me.

Cork hurling coach Christy O'Connor before the 2021 All-Ireland hurling final loss in Croke Park. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Cork hurling coach Christy O'Connor before the 2021 All-Ireland hurling final loss in Croke Park. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

I also struggled to understand why Cork weren’t trusting themselves more, how they weren’t playing with more confidence, that swagger I always associated with Cork teams. 

As a coach, I always felt that Cork clearly weren’t using their pace enough, and that they were certainly capable of scoring far more goals.

Ultimately, the goal was to win the All-Ireland. The squad did make great progress this year until the All-Ireland final, which wasn’t an accurate reflection of the talent and quality within the group.

Although Kieran was appointed for a three year-term, I had it in my head from the outset that I would spend two years with Cork. The commitment required now at inter-county level is incredible but the long road from Ennis to Cork, especially with a young family, was too much to sustain. It was all the more difficult again on such a bad road between Limerick and Cork.

COMMITMENT

You think the long haul is manageable, but it incrementally sucks the energy out of you. Shortly after I got involved, I got a call from Dónal Óg Cusack. “Look after yourself,” he said, speaking from experience from having coached Clare for two years. “Trying to coach at inter-county level and drive that road three times a week is not good for your health.” 

I soon realised what Dónal Óg was talking about, while I also got to experience what Dónal Óg had faced when coming up against his own people. 

Trying to coach against Clare in the qualifiers in July was torturous, but loyalties had to be set aside. I’m a proud Clare-man but when you’re involved with a group, they have to be your people for that 70-plus minutes.

There were many great memories but one of the highlights was the dressing room after the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny. It was a fusion of unadulterated joy and relief but the visceral and raw emotion that victory triggered was powerful. It offered a poignant reflection of the journey so many of the players, management and backroom had made, of how they had endured so much hurt and pain from three previous harrowing All-Ireland semi-final defeats.

That afternoon was the apex of the journey, but the journey can never be fully defined by winning or losing matches. The road is relentless and thrilling and unforgiving, shot through with joy and despair and unremittingly hard work, where the real beauty and purity of the journey can be distilled into a group of great people all chasing the one goal.

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