Why I went back to football – Tipp’s Steven O’Brien
By Shane Stapleton
Steven O’Brien was part of the first modern generation of Tipperary footballers to grow up knowing success.
Munster has been a Kerry-Cork duopoly since the founding of the GAA, a point rammed home due to no other county winning a provincial title at Under-21 level until Limerick in 2000. Waterford made that same breakthrough in 2003, and eventually Tipp followed suit in 2010 and again in 2015 when O’Brien was on the team.
Before that, he’d also won a Munster and an All-Ireland title with the minors — with the latter being Tipp’s first since 1934, and just a second ever. The glass ceiling had been broken.
In the midfielder’s own words, hurling is number one in Tipp, but “because it has such a huge fanbase in the county, it’s different to the football. Any supporter we have is a massive supporter of the football; it’s small, but by God they love it. They epitomise what we’re about, it’s like a local club.”
The Ballina star was earmarked as a special footballing talent from a young age, so it was little surprise when Michael Ryan came knocking in 2016, looking to see if the high tower figure could add to his hurling side.
Another precocious talent, Colin O’Riordan, had just signed for the Sydney Swans in the AFL so losing another young gun was the last thing manager Liam Kearns would have wanted. As it transpired, the Premier County footballers went on an incredible odyssey that saw them beat Cork, their first over the Rebels in senior championship football since 1944, to make a Munster final, before beating Derry and Galway en route to the All-Ireland semi-final.
It was a tough decision for O’Brien to roll the dice with the hurlers, and subsequent events made it all the harder, but he was determined to stick by his guns. “It was the toughest season I’ve had”, says the 24-year-old. “I made the decision in October 2015 to throw my lot in with the hurlers and I knew what I was doing, that I was leaving a good bunch of lads.
“Little did I think that things would pan out like that. We won the (hurling) All-Ireland and that was brilliant, but I couldn’t force my way into the team. In the back of my mind, I suppose I was a small bit jealous of what the footballers were doing because I just wasn’t close to getting into the hurling team.”
“I supported the footballers all the way and went to the matches, wished them well. There were phone calls when we got to the Munster football final seeing would I go back midway through the season; I had George Hannigan ringing me, but my decision was made.
“Then heading into 2017, it seemed like the obvious choice to go back to the football, but I felt I hadn’t given it everything yet, and I didn’t want to look back with regrets. I’m the sort of player who needs to have a hurley in his hand every day, so I did a lot of extra work on my hurling to try to force my way in.
“I played a lot during the league and came on against Westmeath, Dublin and Clare in the 2017 championship. I was satisfied at that stage that I had given it everything I could, and I left no stone unturned. I didn’t want to leave after ‘16 and saying, ‘did I really, really give it my all?’.”
O’Brien returned to the football family and is very happy with his decision. Selector and former goalkeeper Paul Fitzgerald posted a video of manager Liam Kearns leading a singsong after they gained promotion in April 2017, and it typified what is known locally to be a tight-knit and fun group.
“They’re very good,” says O’Brien. “A lot of the lads I played with at minor and Under-21 are the mainstays of the panel now, and a few of the older lads are still there too.
“I didn’t know too many of them when I first came in, especially being from north Tipp where it’s nearly all hurling, and our group was one of the first successful ones underage. The players that were there in 2016 want to get that success back, and those of us who missed it want that too.”
When O’Brien speaks of the group he came through with, there’s little doubting that powerhouse O’Riordan was the brightest prospect of all. Tipp folk would have loved to have seen the duo play together at midfield for years to come, but the AFL came calling for the latter.
“Colin was a great friend of mine all up along,” says O’Brien. “I don’t chat to him quite as frequently now, but we’d be in touch, and wish each other well. He has a huge interest in us and we all keep an eye on how he’s getting on.
“He’s the best player I ever played with, the sort of player who gives you absolutely everything, is the best trainer, and was inspirational at every age grade. In the 2014 Munster senior semi-final against Cork, when he was only after making his debut (aged 19), he stood up in the dressing-room and gave a speech. Even some of the older lads, like George, were telling me that it would make the hairs stand up on your neck.
“That's the sort of character he is, and what Sydney are getting. He’s had a lot of injuries, but it tells you what they think of him that they have kept him on anyway.”
Next up for O’Brien is a date with Down in the qualifiers on June 9th in Newry. The Premier’s defeat to Limerick was a devastating blow after the side had previously suffered relegation from Division 2 of the league.
The group have gotten back to basics, are just focusing on the next game, and want to inject back in more of the fun that made their 2016 journey so enjoyable.
“Maybe we had lost some of our values, even in terms of the craic we were having,” says O’Brien. “We’ve re-evaluated since the Limerick game, who played well, but we don’t think we performed and that’s the most frustrating part.
“We’ve a block of training done now, and I think we’re where we want to be, even in terms of enjoying the camp. Nothing can change what’s happened, so it was about getting back on the horse, realising those inside the group have your back, and pushing on.”