Hurling Retirement

Conor O’Brien considers his step away from cherished Tipperary hurling family

Brian McDonnell

Reporter:

Brian McDonnell

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bmcdonnell@tipperarystar.ie

Éire Óg’s Conor O’Brien steps away from cherished Tipperary hurling family

Conor O'Brien on Eamon O'Shea: "I could not speak highly enough about that man; just a great guy".

On Tuesday, October 25th Conor O’Brien called time on his involvement with the Tipperary senior hurling team - the 31-year-old played 22 championship games before bowing out with two All-Ireland and five Munster championship medals to his name. Those are the cold hard facts of the thing.

When an inter-county hurler sets about retiring a routine, of sorts, kicks into gear. Conor O’Brien met with senior manager Michael Ryan, had a chat and then liaised with County Board PRO Joe Bracken in order to brief the press and public. This is all very sensible and mature stuff, but then comes the kicker: telling the players.

No more cold, hard facts. The emotion of the experience got to Conor when he posted a message to the Tipperary players’ WhatsApp group announcing his intention to retire. O’Brien was about to leave a cherished Tipperary hurling family; he was about to say goodbye to something which had represented a hugely-significant part of the Éire Óg Annacarty-Donohill man’s life.

“It probably was (emotional) when I texted the group the other day to tell the players that I was retiring. I probably would have got a small bit emotional then. You were with lads five and six nights a week for nine months of the year or whatever it is; ten months and more again. You build up massive relationships with lads and you would have nothing but respect for them,” Conor O’Brien told the Tipperary Star.

“It’s a family in its own way because you are just living in each other’s pockets. I got massive joy out of it; the friends that I made hurling are friends that I have for life. There are lads there who would be my best friends. That’s just the way it is and I am sure that happens in every group when you are so tight. In fairness to Liam (Sheedy) the bond that he created (2008-10) in that group has stood the test of time. It’s a similar bond that is there at the moment. It’s special,” O’Brien said as he considered what he was leaving behind.

Conor won a Munster minor medal in 2003 and under-21 provincial medals in 2004 and 2006. The versatile O’Brien then featured on the intermediate hurling team (2004-07) before making the leap to senior. Conor made his National League debut against Dublin in 2007 and won a National League with the Premier County in 2008 before making his championship debut against Cork that summer. Indeed, following a fantastic debut season Conor was nominated for an All-Star award.

BIRTHDAY CAKE

Nothing in particular sparked Conor O’Brien’s decision to retire - it was down to an accumulation of factors: O’Brien could no longer ignore the fact that the candles on the birthday cake are starting to look a little bit crowded, he found himself dealing with a nasty (and persistent) Achilles tendon injury and the family he is working on with his wife Claire is growing.

“At the start of the year I sat down Claire at home - we have a two-and-a-half-year-old at home in Cillian and there is another one on the way in the next three weeks. So, that was going to be two kids at home and it was not going to get less busy anyway,” Conor O’Brien explained.

“We said we would give it one more lash, but last year was very frustrating. I had an Achilles tendon injury that I carried for the whole year. That was something that lingered on and maybe the body was feeling it that bit more. So, it (the decision to retire) was the natural thing (to do) I thought, really. Things were going to be very busy at home and in fairness to Claire she has supported me since we first started going out in 2009.”

O’Brien, however, does not regret the years he gave to Tipperary. He never considered the commitment involved as a sacrifice or a chore - Conor embraced an environment where he could test every inch of himself.

“It becomes addictive - you are looking for that winning buzz the whole time,” Conor O’Brien explained.

“You are striving for that. That’s the kind of environment that you found yourself in and it was just brilliant. People would say to you that the commitment is savage, but at the end of the day it is brilliant. It only really became a sacrifice when the small lad was born - that was the only time when you were not seeing the small lad for maybe two or three days a week. You were going to work for seven in the morning, then you had to go training and you were not back until, maybe, 10 o’clock that night. Other than that I never felt like it was a sacrifice or a chore.

“It was massive for me to be hurling for Tipperary. It was something that I always wanted to do. In 2011, when I got dropped, I would have gladly went and hurled intermediate with Tipp. To be testing yourself at that level, whether it was intermediate or senior, was always something that I had wanted to do. I just loved pulling on the jersey and representing the parish and representing the people. It was never a case of thinking that this is gone for me (in 2011). I just got on with it - I hurled with the club; you drive it on from there as best you can. But that’s not to say that I wasn’t disappointed and crest-fallen when it happened. I was, but you just get on the horse again and you go.”

Conor, of course, appreciated and welcomed the responsibility which came with wearing the blue and gold. It was a factor impressed on him by former under-21 manager Fr Tom Fogarty and senior boss Liam Sheedy, who made a significant impact on the Éire Óg man while speaking at a function hosted by the Templemore Arms Hotel in honour of the All-Ireland winning Tipperary minors in 2006.

“When you pull on that jersey there is a responsibility that comes with it - that idea is always something that has stuck with me through the years,” Conor O’Brien told the Tipperary Star.

“You know how much it means to people the length and breadth of the county. It was always a massive honour to represent my club, first and foremost, and, obviously, my family. And, I would put massive value on county lads performing well for their club. It’s vital. You have to stand up and be counted when it comes to the club hurling - every day you go out you play to the best of your ability; there is no taking it handy. You have to do your business because that is your bread and butter. That is always something that I would have placed huge value on. It’s a great honour and privilege to play for Tipperary, but there is a responsibility too to the club boys that you put it in when you go back.”

In 2010 O’Brien became the first Éire Óg Annacarty-Donohill man to win an All-Ireland senior medal since Pat Fox (you have to trace your finger back to the 1940s to Willie O'Donnell’s name to find another).

Conor O’Brien is not, of course, giving up on hurling entirely. He is already working alongside physiotherapist Paddy O’Brien in order to rehab his Achilles tendon in good time to help his beloved Éire Óg Annacarty-Donohill make an impact on the 2017 club championship. In saying that, however, he does wonder how he will feel once the Tipperary senior hurlers return to competitive action.

“It won’t sink in probably until the new year when the boys are back playing in the league and you’re not,” O’Brien admitted.

“It gets fairly intense - you are there five and six nights a week; you’re living it and you’re breathing it. I would say that it is going to be very weird then. It’s kind of an off-season now so it won’t hit me until the boys are back in there because it’s a family in itself really. You are spending more time with lads for nine months of the year than you would with your own family. I am going to really miss it, but that’s life and you just have to deal with it. The club is going to be a great focus and that’s what we will move onto now.”

Conor pictured in 2010 following the All-Ireland success alongside club colleague Kevin Fox and Brendan Maher as they are swarmed by enthusiastic young Tipperary supporters.

RESILIENT CALLING CARD

Conor O’Brien has endured plenty of setbacks in his hurling career. Indeed, he had to overcome the crushing disappointment of finding himself dropped from the 2011 Tipperary senior hurling panel despite the significant role he played in landing the 2010 All-Ireland title. His response to the situation that he found himself in, however, was exemplary. Conor got his head down and worked like a demon. And, O’Brien’s work was rewarded with a recall in 2012. Indeed, Conor O’Brien’s wide streak of resilience in his calling card - it is his defining characteristic.

He is a father now and with fatherhood comes a change of perspective. And, if there is one lesson that he would like little Cillian to gleam from his experience as an inter-county hurler it is that hard work precedes all worthwhile success.

“It’s about learning to put your mind to something - resilience is the one,” Conor O’Brien revealed.

“It’s about preparation and effort. I know it’s an old saying, but if you fail to prepare you prepare to fail. That goes for any walk of life whether it is going for an interview for a job or preparing for an exam or whatever it is. I mean every day you go out hurling for Tipp it is an exam really in some sense. If you haven’t your work done or if you hadn’t everything right you were going to fail; you were going to be taken to the cleaners. There were ups and downs throughout my career, but you just have to keep going and just drive it on. Hurling is like life. There are ups, there are downs and there are challenges. You just have to stick at it and if you keep working hard enough the wheel will turn.”

2008 WHAT IF

History is littered with little nudges which transformed historic moments and set off a subsequent chain of events. When such moments are studied counter-factually the goal of the historian is to estimate the relative importance of a specific event, incident or person in the grander scheme of things.

Conor O’Brien, during his senior championship debut against Cork in 2008, played a huge role in the development of the modern Tipperary hurling story. Indeed, the experience of that day still stands out in the memory of the Éire Óg man. It remains a personal highlight.

“The first day out in 2008 below in Cork would be one that I would always go back to,” Conor O’Brien said as he considered the trajectory of his inter-county career.

“We had not won in Cork at the time for over eighty years and that was a big game that we targeted. We knew within the group that it was so many years since we had beaten Cork below and it was the start of the team coming really. That was a mighty day below in Cork.

“I always loved hurling in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. I know it is controversial for a fella from Tipperary to say that Páirc Uí Chaoimh might be his favourite field, but I just loved hurling down there. When I was a young lad following Tipp we very rarely played in Thurles. You were always on the road to Cork - that was what you associated with playing championship with Tipp. To be playing down there with the crowds that were there and to come out of it with the win was just unbelievable.”

Although Tipperary were fresh from winning the 2008 National League title that Munster semi-final against Cork was vitally important. Wexford had brought a tumultuous 2007 season to a shuddering halt. Michael Keating’s reign in charge was brought to an end and Tipperary, desperately, required a little encouragement. So too did the management team which was led by Liam Sheedy and featured Eamon O’Shea, Michael Ryan and Cian O’Neill. Sheedy had his work neatly carved out for him, but he needed time to build a new team. And, a defeat suffered then against Cork might have checked the momentum of the project. Indeed, could you argue that 2010 may not have materialised as a result?

The playing group, however, were blessed by the ignorance of youth and blissfully unaware of the potential consequences of defeat.

“We just did not think that way. We were just on the crest of a wave,” admitted Conor O’Brien.

“The confidence was high and you have to realise the low that we came from in 2007 when Wexford beat us in an All-Ireland quarter-final and we were beaten by Limerick after two replays. In fairness to Liam (Sheedy) he brought in a new culture. I mean the training was savage - the running we did with (Cian) O’Neill that winter was just unbelievable. I just absolutely loved it. Liam came in and he was very charismatic and, in fairness to him, he created a bond among that group which was unbelievable and which is still there to this day. Then you had Eamon (O’Shea) who was just a genius and you had Mick (Ryan) who is as honest as the day is long. These were all men who we just had great time for.

“We saw it as a massive challenge to go down to Cork and beat Cork down there. It had not been done in so long and the Cork team of that time probably had a thing over Tipp with the fact that they had beaten us in Munster finals in ’05 and ’06. We managed to beat them in ’07 inside in Thurles in a qualifier, but to beat them in the Munster championship was a massive thing.”

During the opening 20 minutes Cork withdrew corner-forward Cathal Naughton to the middle third of the field. And, the Newtown-Shandrum man proceeded to run riot. Indeed, Naughton had three points on the board and Tipperary in knots before Conor O’Brien was sent for. The game’s defining moment materialised when O’Brien advanced out of his corner and hunted Naughton down. O’Brien stuck a great, big shiny pin in the balloon of the Cork game plan, Eoin Kelly goaled and the momentum of the game shifted in Tipperary’s favour.

“I started on Paudie O’Sullivan. I remember it was after 15 or 20 minutes that they asked me to go out and follow Naughton and, to be honest with you, I would have felt more comfortable hurling out there than in the corner because I would never have really seen myself as a corner-back. I would never have had played corner-back only with Tipp, really. You just go out and try to hurl it as best as you can and it worked out for me that day,” Conor O’Brien added.

LIGHTEN THE MOOD

Following the 2010 All-Ireland final success Tipperary endured some mixed form. And, the criticism often game thick and fast.

“It comes with the territory,” Conor O’Brien said.

“An awful lot of pressure came on the team after 2010 when we didn’t kick on and you would feel it at times especially in 2013 and 2014 when we lost to Limerick. There was massive pressure on the group.

“The difference between winning your first championship game of the year and not winning it is like day and night. When you lose you start questioning everything - am I doing this right, am I doing that right? Then if you win, and you might not have hurled as well, you are still getting the confidence from the actual win itself,” Conor O’Brien told the Tipperary Star.

“You would be aware of the criticism - you don’t bury your head in the sand. We would have got a lot of criticism at times and it did hurt, but you are hurling for Tipp. Everyone has a vested interest in it and I am going to be a supporter now and I am going to want to see Tipp winning. That’s what supporters do. If you are not winning they have a right to criticise; they are paying money to go to matches. I will be doing that myself now next year sitting above in the stand. Now you would be seeing it from a different angle because you know what the boys are putting into it - they train like absolute dogs. I have never seen a group to train as hard and put so much into it.”

Conor O’Brien is brilliant company - the world seems softer around the edges with him around. He is warm, witty and as genial as you might expect of a guy who has spent most of his hurling life living his dream.

Fellow Tipperary panellists have long highlighted the positive influence that Conor O’Brien has had on his teammates. The Éire Óg man can lighten the mood when needs be; always at the ready with a quip, a grin, comment or plain old joke. His playing colleagues were always glad to Conor coming - O’Brien is guaranteed to improve your mood. And, every dressing room needs that.

“I remember when Liam Sheedy came in first he said that you come in here and you train hard, but you bring your personality as well,” Conor O’Brien said.

“So, that’s just who I was and who I am. I just like the laugh, the joke and having the bit of craic. It’s not something that I would have thought about - that’s just the way I am. You take it very seriously, but you have to have the craic too to make it enjoyable.”

Conor O'Brien pictured during a pre-match parade alongside James Barry, Kieran Bergin and Pádraic Maher.

PÁDRAIC MAHER

Although known on the inter-county landscape as a corner-back Conor O’Brien likes to regard himself as a forward. Indeed, he played his underage hurling up front and finished a narrow second in the 1999 All-Ireland Féile skills competition to Kilkenny’s James Fitzpatrick. Over time, however, Conor came to enjoy the mental challenge of pitting his wits against the very best forwards in the country and drew confidence from his experiences in training with Tipperary.

“I enjoyed it and I remember that I used to get massive confidence from Tipp training if I was marking Larry (Corbett), Séamie (Callanan), Noel McGrath or Eoin Kelly,” Conor O’Brien explained.

“If you were holding your own against them inside in training you would never be fearful about what was coming when it came to championship. You would get massive confidence from marking fellas like that and doing well on them. I just ended up playing corner-back and that’s just the way it happened, really.”

Conor O’Brien, however, also loved to get back to his club and show what he could do as a forward for Éire Óg Annacarty. Indeed, Conor conjured one of his most memorable displays during the 2012 county senior hurling semi-final against Thurles Sarsfields at Semple Stadium. Although Éire Óg found themselves out-gunned and lost 1-13 to 2-22 Conor O’Brien was outstanding at centre-back.

Indeed, O’Brien was moved onto his inter-county teammate Pádraic Maher late in the game and plundered two points before selling an outrageous dummy to the Thurles centre-back in the 60th minute. O’Brien scooted in behind Maher before creating a goal for Michael McGrath who lashed home from close range. Four years later the memory of that moment draws a laugh from Conor O’Brien.

“That should have been a free out anyway because I caught the ball three times,” O’Brien explained.

“They shoved me up centre-forward and we were well behind at the time. They said to me to just start running at him. It just happened, really. Coming off the field with Paudie we were laughing about it - I just told him that I had caught him rightly. We had a good old laugh about it. Paudie probably didn’t think that I had it in the locker. I didn’t think myself that I had it in the locker. It was one of those out of body experiences that happen,” Conor O’Brien said with a laugh.

Conor pictured at Mayorstone Garda Station in Limerick with his work colleagues celebrating the 2010 All-Ireland final win - from left: John O'Reilly, Luke Conlon and Eoin Gogarty.

KEY INFLUENCES

In a statement released to the media on Tuesday, October 25th Conor O’Brien took great care to thank those who had supported, encouraged and helped to develop his inter-county career. His playing colleagues, coaches, the County Board, Tipperary Supporters Club, his club Éire Óg Annacarty-Donohill, work colleagues at An Garda Síochána in Mayorstone, Limerick, his family and his wife Claire were all carefully thanked. O’Brien realises that he owes many of the key influencers on his hurling career a debt of gratitude.

“My mother and father, Liam and Sarah, were massive influences on me, obviously,” Conor O’Brien said.

“They were massively supportive. I had two older brothers then in Damien and Ronan. I remember Damien playing minor football for Tipp and the minute you saw him doing that the thing was to try and get there and do that as well. Ronan would have played county minor and county under-21. So, you would have felt that as a natural progression. My sister Fionnuala was a massive supporter as well; she would go to every match.”

“Kevin Fox and Vinny Ryan in the club were huge influences on me when I was growing up. Then down through the years you had men like Fr Tom (Fogarty); the blue and gold just runs through his veins - he taught me that there had to be a massive pride about representing Tipperary and becoming a Tipperary hurler. Then you would have had Liam Sheedy, just a phenomenal man, and Eamon (O’Shea) - it was just an awful pity, we would have loved to have won one while Eamon was there (as manager) for him because he put so much into the group. I could not speak highly enough about that man; just a great guy. And, then you had Mick (Ryan) who you would have nothing but respect for.”

And, just to put a persistent rumour to rest Conor O’Brien, nicknamed ‘Foxy’ from his days in the Waterford Institute of Technology, is not related to Pat Fox or the Fox family - an error regularly made: “The whole place thinks that - the amount of people who would say to me that Pat Fox is my uncle and we are no relation whatsoever. It was just a nickname that I got in college and it managed to stick down through the years. It’s gas”.

On a more serious note, however, Conor O’Brien would dearly love to thank all of those who have come forward during the past few days in order to wish him well and thank him for the contribution that he made to Tipperary hurling.

“I have been very humbled by the response from people,” Conor O’Brien explained.

“I would just like to thank everyone for that, but I will tell you that it was some craic playing for Tipp. That’s the only way that I can put it. It was some craic. There were good days and there were bad days, but on a whole it was just fantastic. If you told me when I went in, in the winter of ’07, that I would come out of it with five Munsters and two All-Irelands I don’t know if I would have believed you. It was brilliant.”