BY NOEL HORGAN
IT was arguably Alan O’Connor’s finest performance in a Cork jersey – and now he is intent on repeating his 2015 heroics.
In the drawn Munster SFC final at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney two years ago, the St Colum’s man mountain was magnificent, dominating the home side and driving the Rebels to the cusp of a famous win, only to be denied by a late Kerry equaliser. And the Kingdom went on to win the replay.
Ahead of Sunday, O’Connor and Co are under pressure after flattering to deceive this season and the West Cork man accepts that Cork and Kerry have moved in opposite directions since 2015, when two games were needed to resolve the issue in the Munster final at Killarney.
At last Saturday’s press day he hesitated when asked if there are any concrete reasons to feel the Rebels are in with a chance this Sunday, given the gulf that appears to have developed between the teams in the meantime.
‘I suppose being relegated to Division 2 in the league last year didn’t help us, because you need to be playing top-flight football, and Kerry have been involved in games of a higher tempo this season,’ O’Connor admitted.
‘They are definitely rated above us, but if you think back to 2015, we went in with a similarly low profile, and we certainly did ourselves justice, particularly in the drawn match.
‘Maybe there was a lot of weight on Kerry’s shoulders, because they were expected to win handy, whereas we were under no pressure, and we just went out and performed.
‘We’ll try to do that again on Sunday, and, while Kerry have come a long way in the space of two years, if we play as well as we can, we won’t be without a chance.’
Cork’s progress to the Munster final has been far from convincing, but O’Connor contends that coming through a couple of tight games against Waterford and Tipperary has helped to gel the team, and he suggests there were aspects of both performances that were encouraging.
‘They were two intense games, and it took us a while to break Waterford down as they packed their defence with 15 fellas behind the ball more often than not.
‘We showed great fitness and resolve to get through it, and again in the semi-final against Tipperary, who, in fairness, got to an All-Ireland semi-final last year and are not a bad outfit.
‘We got a lot of criticism for our first-half performance against Tipp, but, to be honest, I didn’t think it was that bad, because we missed two goal chances and kicked a lot of wides that we’d normally put over. ‘The bottom line is we aimed to get a Munster final this year, we’re there now, and it’s a two-horse race at the end of the day.
‘That’s the way we are approaching it, and, hopefully, we’ll reinvent ourselves to get over the line.’
Having made his championship debut in 2008, Alan O’Connor won three national league medals, three Munster championship medals and an All-Ireland medal with Cork before announcing his retirement for inter-county football in 2014.
He was just 29 at the time, so his decision to call it a day, along with several others who had been involved in a lucrative era for Cork football under Conor Counihan, seemed a tad premature.
It wasn’t a loss of appetite for the game that prompted his decision to leave the Cork squad however, and he hadn’t ruled out the possibility of returning if his services were required at some stage in the future.
‘I had been with Cork since my minor days, which meant I had been ten years making a two-hour journey up and down to the city for training, so I just thought I needed a break from it,’ O’Connor revealed at the Cork press day last Saturday.
‘There were other reasons why I felt I had to take a step back, because I had a young family and I had started my own business, and it was basically lack of time to give the required commitment that led to my decision.’
Approached by Brian Cuthbert with a view to resurrecting his career two years ago, the St Colum’s clubman didn’t hestitate to answer the call, but it seemed as if his second coming would be short-lived after he sustained a serious leg injury during Cork’s loss to Kildare in an All-Ireland qualifier.
‘I suppose I could have walked away after that, but the way I looked at it was I’d be gone from inter-county football long enough, so I was determined to get back in the mix,’ he said.
Although Cork have fallen on lean times since O’Connor was previously involved, he says he was never going to allow that to influence his decision one way or another.
‘It’s like anything you enjoy, you want to keep doing it for as long as you can, so I was delighted to get the opportunity to come back, and I felt if I worked hard enough I’d be an asset to the panel,’ he said.
‘I’m obviously hoping there might be a return to the good times for Cork, because you don’t go into these things without having belief in the players and the people around you.
‘I know we’ve left ourselves down at times over the past few years, but you have to keep believing, and we showed against Donegal in Croke Park last year we have potential.
‘We are basically a team in transition, and things haven’t clicked rightly for us yet, but we’ve seen glimpses of what we can do, and we know there’s plenty scope for improvement.’
O’Connor will be hoping they show that improvement this Sunday at the scene of one of his greatest performances.