Rebel Colm recalls rattle of The Hill
10 Jul 2019
By Shane Stapleton
Colm O’Neill recalls the rattle and hum of the Hill on that day nine years ago. He was crucial part of a Cork team that had been smashing their heads off a glass ceiling for years. Sure, they had won a couple of Munster titles, but the big cup remained elusive.
With the two powerhouses of the previous decade - Kerry and Tyrone - out of the picture in 2010, any one of the Rebels, Dublin, Kildare or Down had a chance to end their famine. With the Dubs five points up with 20 minutes to go and a packed crowd behind them, it seemed as if the Leesiders would come up short in the semis once more.
“Do I remember that game?” says O’Neill with a chuckle. “Jesus, I do. I’m often asked of my favourite memories playing for Cork, and this game is always the one that springs to mind. I didn’t actually start but, every ten or 15 minutes, I’d go out for a warm-up to stay loose, and the atmosphere was just incredible.
“Any time I’d go running up towards Hill 16, they were in full voice and you could feel the earth moving. (Cork Manager) Conor Couinhan gave me the call and I came on with maybe 15 minutes to go. A high ball went into the square and Nicholas Murphy, who is a big man, was in there. We had worked on a move in training where he’d tap the ball down to me, and it worked out, I ended up getting bundled over for a penalty.”
Donnacha O’Connor planted the spot kick into the back of the net and Cork built up a head of steam that the Dubs just couldn’t live with. O’Neill split the posts en route to a famous 1-15 to 1-14 win and a place in the final against Down.
“That semi-final was the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced, and I’d include the final we won against Down in that too,” says the Ballyclough clubman, who retired from county duty due to persistent injuries at the end of 2018. “It’s hard to beat the buzz at Croke Park when you’re playing the Dubs there in front of a full house. Hopefully there will be a big crowd there this Saturday.”
This is the first season since 2014 that Cork have made it to the last eight of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, and it’s their maiden voyage into the Super 8s. Facing the four-in-a-row All-Ireland champions away from home is the toughest possible start for Ronan McCarthy’s outfit, and it will be an interesting experience for O’Neill.
In his first season since retiring, he has been impressed with the progress of the side. They were relegated in the league but finished that campaign with some decent results, they reportedly performed well against the Dubs in a challenge game and pushed Kerry all the way in the Munster final.
Saturday’s opponents last met in the championship in 2013 at a time when O’Neill was side-lined through injury, and a Jack McCaffrey goal helped seal a five-point win for the capital.
The Dubs have retained 13 of their players used that day, while Cork still have seven of that brigade — though the trajectories of the red and blue hordes have diverged hugely since.
“I’ve been impressed with Cork this year,” says O’Neill, who is now a selector with the county at Under 20 level. “It’s a bit different being on the side-line. Everyone knows relegation in the league wasn’t ideal, but there was never a negative word out of anyone.
“I still talk to plenty of the players and we’ve started winning games, and there were a few challenge games against top sides that went well, and then the performances in Munster were strong. So, there are lots of positives.
“People will say the change this year is that myself and Donnacha (O’Connor) are gone,” he says with a chuckle. “Ah no, there isn’t just one thing that has changed this year. But, I know after how 2018 ended with big defeats to Kerry and Tyrone last year, there was plenty of criticism and came back early and worked very hard this season. They had a tough pre-season trying to get up to this level. The group is very positive.
“It’s a fair comment that Cork have beaten Limerick and Laois to get to this stage, and that it’s a huge step-up against Dublin. But you have to look at the performances as a whole and the way the team is moving the ball, the work-rate, the tackling. Even being disappointed to lose to Kerry in the Munster final says a lot.
“Some good young players have gone in there. Liam O’Donovan is playing well at wing-back, he was one of the best players with the Under-20s last year. Brian Hurley is a close friend of mine and he’s nearly back to his best from when he was 19, 20, 21 years of age (after two career-threatening hamstring injuries). I think there’s another level in him, and he’s dovetailing nicely with Mark Collins upfront now.
“The whole team, no one is playing poorly, they’re all solid eight out of ten most days. But, of course, it will be chalk and cheese playing against Dublin. Mark and Brian will have to be patient up there because they probably won’t get as much ball.”
Cork have had a number of near misses in recent championship seasons, and generally the mood has been downbeat since winning the All-Ireland in 2010. Finally, there seems to be positivity around the team and how they are playing, after all the pessimism. “That’s a fair comment and maybe some of the negativity was warranted because of how we had been playing in terms of performances,” says O’Neill. “This year, the lads have performed and even the minors getting to the Munster final was good, they only lost by two points to Kerry and they’re still in it. I’m involved with the Under-20s and we’re out on Friday night against Waterford, and it’s refreshing to see a more positive light on things. Hopefully I’m saying the same thing on Saturday morning after the Under-20 game!”
O’Neill’s inter-county days might be over due to persistent knee issues, but the 30-year-old has found a way to continue on with Ballyclough. “Yeah, I’m in goals this year,” says the 2012 All Star. “It was the only position left for me really. I can run in a straight line, but I couldn’t pivot, so it’s where I can still play and it’s great to be involved.
“You often hear players saying they want to give back to their club, and I hope I can do that for a few years yet. I thought I was going to have to retire fully so it’s great.
“Dublin are going to be a huge test,” he says of Saturday's 7pm throw-in. “We have nothing to lose really, and we should take inspiration from what Laois did against Dublin in the hurling last weekend. This is probably another step-up in terms of the challenge, but we have to try to stay in contention until the last ten or 15 minutes and be in the game. It would be foolish to say we’re going to win, but you want a performance and to push them all the way.”