Cork captain O’Donoghue continuing his childhood dream

22 June 2024; Sean O'Donoghue of Cork leads out his team mates for the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship quarter-final match between Dublin and Cork at FBD Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
22 June 2024; Sean O'Donoghue of Cork leads out his team mates for the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship quarter-final match between Dublin and Cork at FBD Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

It must’ve been Seán O’Donoghue’s first-ever media interview when he spoke about fulfilling his family’s Croke Park dreams.

The year was 2014 and the future Cork hurling captain was better known as a promising footballer. He was still a leader back then. That much hasn’t changed since captaining his school Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, to the All-Ireland B football title.

“My grandad’s been going to Croke Park since the late 1950s and he told my father the last thing he wanted to see before he died was one of his grandchildren play in Croke Park,” said the 18-year-old O’Donoghue in the build-up.

“Ever since we got to the final, I’ve had dreams about lifting the cup in the Hogan Stand. I’ve watched Graham Canty in 2010. I can remember the picture of him holding it up. Just to do that would be a dream come true.”

A decade later and he’s still thrilling his GAA-mad family with visits to Jones’ Road as another tussle against Aaron Gillane awaits him tomorrow.

Those duels have become box-office events as the pair wrestle and race for possession with O’Donoghue attacking the sliotar just as keenly as the Limerick dangerman.

He wasn’t always destined to be a defender. He captained the Cork under-21 footballers from centre-forward and was hurling around midfield for UCC when an injury crisis forced him into the full-back line.

He was moulded into the man-marking role under John Meyler but already possessed all the key attributes. Built like a tank but lightning quick, O’Donoghue boasts the stickwork, mental fortitude, and ability to match up one-on-one with any opponent.

“Over Covid, himself and his father put in a gym at home so that he could continue to look after himself. I think he was in the gym 24/7 at that stage and he has all the signs of it now,” says Inniscarra club chairman Liam Linehan.

“Sometimes when fellas put on condition like that, they lose their pace but Seán hasn’t. He’s smart about what he does.

“I’ve seen Seán up in Ballyanly on Christmas Day and Stephen’s Day over the years in the ball wall. That’s his level of commitment.”

O’Donoghue was asked in March if he enjoyed being a corner-back. “That’s a great question,” he replied, hinting at the ups and downs of life in the last line of defence.

He outlined how he enjoys it when he’s walking off with a victory in the back pocket and the feeling of a job well done. Or when he grows into a game and there’s no fear of committing an error. Then he’s not obsessing over the worst-case scenario.

“Your head can tell you if you make a mistake here, you’re dust. I’ve gotten better at dealing with that now and just taking it play by play,” O’Donoghue said.

He’s accepted, too, that the man of the match awards will fall easier to the corner-forward who hits 0-3 than the corner-back who holds his opponent scoreless.

He also gave an insight into his approach to the game. He tries to compel the forward to mark him by beating them to the first few balls and embraces the modern-day imperative of being a good distributor, while admitting that sometimes had come at a cost.

It was an analysis which could have been replayed after beating Limerick in their Munster Championship classic.

Eager to bounce back from his red card against Clare, O’Donoghue sprinted past Gillane to claim an inspirational early turnover and continued to excite with his brilliant front-foot defending. It was easily an eight-out-of-ten performance but for the two balls coughed up for Séamus Flanagan goals from short puck-outs.

“I’d often watch him if there’s a goal goes in against him,” says Linehan. “He’s just head down, get out the field again, get on with it, and try to push for another score rather than dwelling on what’s gone. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

O’Donoghue has spoken about what goes through his head during those moments when a mental reset is required: “I suppose I look at the fella I’m marking and realistically I’ve marked someone who is stronger than him, someone who is faster than him, someone who is a better hurler than him at training. I’m starting to have that mentality now heading into a game.”

O’Donoghue is the first Inniscarra native to line out for the Cork hurlers in championship since Ger Manley in the ‘90s and the first to captain the Rebels since 1970 Hurler of the Year Pat McDonnell. The parish has also produced legendary 18-time All-Ireland-winning dual star Rena Buckley.

Linehan was the manager when O’Donoghue first entered the club’s senior set-up at 17. He remembers holding his breath as the teenage midfielder charged into a collision on his debut, wondering, ‘Is he going to be killed here?’

He needn’t have worried as he shrugged the tackle, claimed the sliotar, beat his opponent, and coolly delivered the ball downfield. Exactly as he does to this day.

He plays in the half-forward line for his club and scored 3-10, all from play, on their way to winning the 2022 Cork premier intermediate crown.

Every year, when he returns from inter-county duty, his presence lifts the standard among his club teammates at training. He’s more than generous, too, in giving his time to take sessions with underage teams.

In his own young career, he was a dual minor and U21. He won a Munster football title at the latter grade against Jack O’Connor’s Kerry in 2016 before losing the All-Ireland final to Mayo. In 2017, he captained a team featuring Seán Powter and Stephen Sherlock as the Kingdom had their revenge.

When many of those Cork and Kerry players meshed together on the UCC freshers team, the Inniscarra man was again made captain and led them to an All-Ireland final. Some say he was a better footballer back then and no doubt, he would be an addition to John Cleary’s panel.

Instead, he chose hurling, went from strength to strength, and will be counted on once again to lead a team out onto Croke Park.

This time, he’ll be carrying another childhood dream of someday becoming the first Cork hurler since Seán Óg Ó hAilpín to climb the Hogan Stand steps and collect the Liam MacCarthy Cup.