I remember distinctly the first time I saw Donncha O’Connor play. I rambled down to Macroom to see a friend make his senior-football debut against Duhallow back in 2004. The full-forward caught my eye immediately for all the things he always brought to his game; constant movement, two-footed, accurate off both. A rarity in Cork football.
I’d the usual conversation with my father afterwards as to whether any new talent had raised it’s head. I mentioned Donncha’s performance and I was asked what his club was. I checked the sheet and saw ‘Ballydesmond’. As his name didn’t ring a bell for us, there was a shameful assumption that he might have hailed from the other side of the border. How wrong we were.
Roll forward a year and he’d an All-Ireland Junior medal in his back pocket. A year later in 2006 he made his bow in Killarney. I was excited to see him there and was even more excited when he thundered a shot off the post early on. He was called ashore before he could inflict any real damage as he became an indirect victim of Anthony Lynch’s red-card and was the fall guy in a tactical re-jig.
He was back for the replay though, as Cork became Munster champions for the first time since 2002. And he stayed there afterwards. Once again it was Billy Morgan steering the ship, putting in the foundations and raging against the machine as only he could.
Cork hit the bottom in 2004 against Fermanagh, but Morgan raised the bar bit by bit, unearthed a few gems, like Donncha, and put Cork football back in a good place. Then with Cork being Cork, there was a strike over how Morgan would be replaced before Conor Counihan finally came into his inheritance.
Throughout this period we got an insight into where exactly Donncha O’Connor sprang from. When he made the senior breakthrough it was almost impossible to believe that a player with this much talent, this much stardust had almost slipped through the net entirely.
But then, in a tremendous interview with Kieran Shannon, we found out that he struggled with believing in just how good he really was. The story of him driving away from a trial game after seeing Joe Kavanagh arriving is famous, insightful and almost tragic. But it makes his achievements all the more remarkable.
Because when he entered his prime from 2008 onwards, he seemed to ooze confidence and came into his own in pressure situations. I’m thinking of the penalty he put away against Limerick in the 2009 Munster Final, in particular.
Then came 2010. The replayed Munster semi-final down the Páirc that year was one of the nastiest games ever played between Cork and Kerry. The hangover from 2009, the way Kerry always respond when they know they’ve a real challenger, the feeling that Cork were in danger of not fulfilling their potential.
As the game drifted towards the end of extra-time, O’Connor went out to take a free and ended up doing nothing in particular with it, and it signalled that the day was done. And maybe Cork and Donncha were too.
But come back they both did and for many his performance against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final is the one that defined him, the one that finally quietened the demons that told him that he didn’t belong.
He didn’t play particularly well in open play on what was one of those days when the Cork footballers did to Dublin what had been done to us for 100 years – win against the grain. But his dead-ball striking was superb. And he was ice-cold in one of the greatest atmospheres that I have ever witnessed.
Time and again Dublin fouled, and each time O’Connor blotted out the crowd and punished the Dublin indiscipline. The penalty was the key score as he used all the space allowed to put it in off the post.
In the aftermath I remember reading about how he blotted out the crowd and focused on his technique and his routine. Watch it back for proof. For his last free, to put Cork ahead for the first time, see how close the second Dublin player is, imagine what he was probably saying. Think of the pressure. But over it went, straight as an arrow and it laid the foundation for his performance in the final.
He will always be my man of the match in that final. He played with freedom for 70 minutes when nerves took hold of many until the final quarter. He was un-markable and had he received more ball the day mightn’t have been as tense as it was! To play with such liberation, such grace on the most important day of all is both rare and wonderful. And when you consider where his journey started from…it’s a great story.
In many ways he encapsulates the paradox that is Cork football. Buckets of potential, crippled with self-doubt but when the shackles are thrown off and the work is put in it’s as good as anything else that is out there, when it wants to be.
He wasn’t happy with just 2010 either. The years that followed have ebbed away and the promise of 2010 went unfulfilled, but the Donncha O’Connor that wore the Cork jersey in those years has been driven, classy and unburdened. He’s been a leader and a beacon as all the things he and his vintage worked so hard for withered around them.
Tragically, Cork still have no forward like him. He always looked like he had time and space because he worked damn hard to ensure that he had time and space. He did things quickly, decisively and was comfortable off both feet.
His movement should be taught to every aspiring Cork forward. He didn’t get the ball on his first run, it was his second, third or fourth as he constantly kept his marker honest, constantly tried to break free. He demanded possession when the pressure was at its highest. He was an atypical Cork forward in many respects.
He will be missed. It’s a shame he didn’t go after the Mayo game last year when his cameo nearly won the game for Cork. But that wouldn’t be him either. He strived to leave his jersey in a better place than when he inherited it.
Plenty has been said about what happened on Saturday last. And there’ll plenty more to go with it. The worst part of it was watching Donncha leave the stage in that way. He has been a tremendous servant. And we should all be thankful that we were lucky enough to see him play, to have him at all.