Love of the game is back for Ben O'Connor
BY SHANE STAPLETON
Sometimes, love needs a break.
Ben O’Connor devoted many great years to the game of hurling but, after retiring from Cork in early 2012 and Newtownshandrum after that, the two-time All-Star needed to do other things with his life.
After all, between playing the sport and making hurleys, there was little time for anything else. The speed merchant had helped his club to an intermediate Cork title at just 16 years of age in 1996, then went on to win the senior in 2000, before lifting the AIB All-Ireland club title in 2004 — not to mention three All-Ireland titles with the Rebels. It was an action-packed ride, but he needed an absence to make the heart grow fond again.
O’Connor has since returned to the sport he loves as manager of neighbouring parish, Charleville, and they’re now looking forward to an AIB All-Ireland IHC semi-final against Graigue-Ballycallan.
Just like Newtown’ in the past, they’ve shot up the ranks — they only won a junior Cork title in 2011, going on to contest the All-Ireland junior decider in 2012 when they lost out to St Patrick’s Ballyragget from Kilkenny. Since then, an intermediate title arrived in 2015, and now their premier intermediate success in the county elevates them to senior for the first time in 2019. It’s been quite an upturn in fortunes for Charleville and their young band of brothers.
“I was just sick of it, to be honest with you,” says O’Connor of needing time away. “I was just burned out from it. I was after spending 13 years with Cork seniors and maybe minor and Under-21 before that. Four or five nights a week training, and while I was at it, it was great.
“When I finished hurling myself, I saw the amount of time being put in and said ‘naw, you have to get away from this and have a break’. I had a young family at the time, so I had a bit of time to myself and at home, a bit of golf, and could get into other things other than just hurling and being totally surrounded by it. I wanted to clear the head and get the love of the game back again because I was burnt out.
“I started going to Cork matches and maybe watching the warmups and seeing how fellas were moving,” he adds of the spark returning.
“That got me going firstly, and then Charleville rang. It isn’t everyone I would have taken over at the time, but I knew there were willing young fellas inside. It’s after turning out great for us, we get on great and it’s suiting both of us.”
The results bear that out, and the 2004 All-Ireland winning captain can’t speak highly enough of the ambition and application of the group, the role of Cork star Darragh Fitzgibbon, not to mention selectors Tony McAuliffe and John Moloney.
“I can tell you one thing, it’s a lot easier to be playing. When I first took over, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was nervous the first night I met the boys. But after two weeks, I was into the swing of things, and I knew the way fellas were able to go and what they were up to. The most difficult part I find about the coaching is once the boys go onto the field, that’s really it.
“You’re depending on them after that — you can do some things outside, and you’re trying to get a word in fast enough then that the game isn’t gone from you. I enjoy the coaching, but that’s because the crowd I have are mad eager. If you asked them to train seven nights a week, they’d do it. So look, that’s the main thing, to have willing people - and the Charleville people are.
“Darragh is the same age as most of the boys inside and they all look up to him. They get as much buzz from seeing him play for Cork as they do from playing themselves. He fits in with the boys and for him to get an All Star after a great couple of years… he probably should have gotten the young hurler of the year.
“Any time the pressure has come on for us, he has stepped up. He’s the best player in the club, and it drives lads on to give 100%, and he’s only going to get better. He’ll be some hurler in three or four years.”
Having been down the same club road himself, O’Connor has plenty of wisdom to impart on his young team. He won an AIB All-Ireland club final against Dunloy in 2004, and lost another two years later on St Patrick’s Day against Portumna on “one of the coldest days ever”. Precious memories were gathered along the way, and those relationships endure.
“When we were winning the county (with Newtown’), everyone was travelling in the one car — four or five in a car. Then when we got out of Cork, we got a bus and it was only a small thing, but heading off in a bus is great for fellas. Stopping off to celebrate on the way home and enjoying the whole thing - it was great.
“Once we got out of Cork, we felt the pressure was off because the main thing was winning your county. Once you get over that, it was like a day out for the boys going off for matches, fellas enjoy that kind of thing.
“It was grand to be with the county and you see those fellas three nights a week for however long you career is,” he adds of the club bond. “But like, when you finish, the only time you see these fellas is at a funeral or wedding, or something like that. Whereas with the club boys, you're meeting up with them every week. It’s the same, but it’s different.
“I quite like the lads I played with in Cork for ten or 11 years, but if I saw them twice in the last ten years, it’s as often as I’ve seen them. You kind of lose contact with them fellas, whereas the boys at home you’re always see them around. Look, it’s one of the best things you could do is win an All-Ireland with the club.”
After seeing off Courcey Rovers by 0-15 to 0-14 at Páirc Uí Rinn in the county final, Charleville beat Lixnaw and Feakle to win Munster. Laying in wait are the Kilkenny champions, spearheaded by Eddie Brennan and James Ryall, with whom O’Connor had many great battles over the years at inter-county level.
“I was against James more so than Eddie who was at the other side of the field,” O’Connor says with a smile. “Eddie is 40 and James isn’t far off, so it’s fair going. Two great servants to their club.
“Everyone you talk to is saying it’s going to be close. It’s the last four of an All-Ireland, and there are no weak teams at this stage. From what little I know of Graigue-Ballycallan, they have the same profile as ourselves: a young team. They have James and Eddie thrown in as the elder statesmen but other than that, they have same age profile.
“We’re expecting a right hard battle and Thurles will suit both teams. We’re hoping the weather will be good and both teams can show their stuff. Hopefully the best team will win and hopefully that’s us, and we’ll hold our hands up if not.”
Charleville play Graigue-Ballycallan in the AIB All Ireland Intermediate Hurling semi-final on Sunday January 19th at Semple Stadium, Thurles. Throw in is at 2pm.