Seanie O'Leary: Small forward always made the big plays for Cork

Éamonn Murphy reflects on the simple brilliance of three-time All-Star attacker Seanie O'Leary, who passed away aged 69 on Wednesday
Seanie O'Leary: Small forward always made the big plays for Cork

Seanie O'Leary in action for the Cork hurlers in 1984. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

IT'S rare a player gets to sign off from the sport he loves on his terms.

Seanie O'Leary managed just that in 1984 though. Already a cult hero with the Cork fans, and a two-time All-Star and three-time All-Ireland winner at that juncture, he departed the inter-county stage by pilfering 2-1 in the All-Ireland final win over Offaly. A dream curtain call.

The Youghal club man has been described time and again as a 'poacher' in the tributes since his untimely passing this week aged just 69. His scores in that Centenary All-Ireland showed just why.

The first goal was simply delightful. Controlling a Jimmy Barry-Murphy stick pass with his back to the goal at the edge of the small square without taking the sliotar to hand, he swivelled and finished to the net. Two touches, one right, one left, mastery of the sliotar in the cauldron of a final; a green flag raised and the Rebel faithful exploding with delight.

His point in that famous game at Semple Stadium was rifled over on the turn from 20 metres after a quick jab lift and the second goal was a ground pull to the net at close range from a breaking ball.

O'Leary had pounced for the winning goal at the same venue in an epic Munster final against Tipp and across his last campaign, he scored more goals than points: 4-3 in three matches. 

It wasn't hard to understand why Christy Ring, a selector with the beloved three-in-a-row winning All-Ireland group from 1976 to '78, was such a fan of the diminutive attacker.

As his former team-mate Tomás Mulcahy tweeted: "a legend - never moved outside the 21 yard line and look at all the goals he scored- 1984 Munster and All Ireland finals - he won them for us..." 

What a full-forward line Cork had in '84: Mul, JBM and Seanie.

Though a very different hurler to Joe Deane, who O'Leary was involved with as a Cork selector in the All-Ireland victories of 1999 and 2004, and Tony O'Sullivan, a rising star and scorer of 0-6 from play as a 21-year-old in 1984, his popularity with the supporters was similarly based on the fact he was small but hugely skillful. All three had wonderful wrists and stickwork. 

Seanie O'Leary of Cork in action against Dick O'Hara of Kilkenny during the 1982 All-Ireland senior hurling final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Seanie O'Leary of Cork in action against Dick O'Hara of Kilkenny during the 1982 All-Ireland senior hurling final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

O'Leary was gutsy of course, famously missing the parade before the 1977 All-Ireland final defeat of Wexford after breaking his nose in the warm-up but driving on regardless, with a little help from Dr Con Murphy and Christy Ring, and firing 1-1. 

He was a prodigious talent from his teens, appearing in successive All-Ireland minor wins, twice reaching the Harty Cup final with St Colman's and making the Cork U21 squad as a minor, which rarely happens in Cork. As a 17-year-old he helped Youghal to an intermediate county and made his Cork senior debut when he was just 19.

O'Leary's exploits are fondly recalled, the big moments when it mattered, the 30 championship goals in 36 games. Hurling fans will ensure that, despite his passing, his memory as a Leeside legend will live on.

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