O’Connor: “The Demands On The Inter-county Player Are Horrendous Compared To What It Was 20 Years Ago”

Cillian Boggan describes in detail the situation of Wexford hurling and what could possibly be in their future as well the opinions of himself and George O'Connor on the demands of intercounty hurlers today.

There are few players whose careers are on the whole unsuccessful by the measure of medal count, but by the age of retirement have acquired iconic status within their sports. One of these players is George O’ Connor, a two time All – Star winner and winner of a sole All – Ireland medal with Wexford in 1996. The song “dancing at the crossroads” ironically reached No.1 in the Irish charts 25 years ago, and it’s lyrics which describe O’ Connor standing in Hogan and seeing “grown men cry” appropriately conveys the magnitude of the greatest achievement of his sporting career. However that achievement came after a scarring 17 year intercounty career shaped by fellow legends of the 80’s, Tony Doran and Mick Jacob. A player who embodied the 28 year struggle of Wexford Hurling and became the face of a county’s glittering success in his very last game for Wexford.
When George and I met in Johnstown Castle on a mild Saturday morning, 25 years and 25 days exactly since the 1996 final, O’ Connor appeared relaxed as he sipped a strong coffee in a place he described as his “training ground as a chap”. The issue of the pandemic and the new and typically unappealing concept of life in lockdown has been a challenge to many. George spoke of life in lockdown as a “double – edged sword”, conceding that while some may have found the stringent public health restrictions “difficult”, he found it to be a strangely “positive” experience to reset, recharge and evaluate.
George has two daughters and a son Barry. By nature the O’ Connor family are humble, but it wouldn’t be a total exaggeration to describe the family as a sporting dynasty. Both George and his brother John were All – Ireland medal winners with Wexford in 1996. And of the current crop, there were three members of Davy Fitzgerald’s panel which won a first Leinster Championship since 2004 in 2019, Jack, Joe and the ever outstanding Rory. Meanwhile Barry, a former Wexford senior football player, is currently on a professional contract with the Sydney Swans in the AFL. While it is naturally an arduous task to live so far abroad, in an environment which is stark in its cultural differences and detached from friends and family, it remains the dream for many young GAA players. The extraordinary pandemic related travel restrictions introduced by the Australian government, made a return to Ireland impossible for Barry until late this year.  While praising the opportunities afforded by modern technology, George said Barry’s extended absence was “difficult” for the whole family, but also said if Barry “was happy on Mars” he himself would be pleased. O’ Connor jokes that when he saw a stretched and more physically toned Barry standing at the front door after he sprung a surprise visit his first thought was “we’re gonna have a problem getting fed”.
Player Welfare and Professionalism
One of the fundamental questions facing the GAA as an organisation as it moves further into the 21st Century is the question surrounding the sustainability of its amateur code. In most elite sports around the world, the basic principle of financially rewarding elite players for the sacrifice they make to play at the highest level of their games has been long established. The GAA now finds itself in a not dissimilar position to that which rugby found itself during the time when it’s elite players were in every aspect of practice, professional.
O’ Connor spoke of the lifestyle of Barry as a professional athlete and said that the frequency of training and the level of commitment demanded is “much the same” as what might be expected from an intercounty football or hurling player, however AFL players are crucially afforded “time to rest”. George spoke of anecdotal stories of intercounty players training early in the morning before whatever full time occupation they were engaged in and told me he believes “the demands on the player are horrendous compared to what it was 20 years ago”. While he noted that on All – Ireland final day, almost all of the participating stakeholders would receive some form of financial payment, except for the most essential stakeholders, the players, “the people who provide” our entertainment, he stopped short of saying a move to professionalism or even semi professionalism was inevitable. However O’ Connor did concede that on its current trajectory a breaking point on the amateur code is “on its way”.
1996: 25 Years on
For Wexford supporters it is perhaps difficult to comprehend that it has been 25 years since the county last climbed to the summit of hurling. Despite reaching the brink of a return to the All – Ireland final in 2019, no new group of players have emulated the achievement of 1996, or come close. As a result the words of “dancing at the crossroads” continue to ring out as an annual if not bi-annual reminder of a special group of players and a unique achievement. At the halftime break of this year’s Wexford senior hurling final, the class of 96 were honoured in entirely unremarkable and unpretentious circumstances. This was perhaps apt for a player group and unproven manager whom so little was expected from. O’ Connor described the occasion as a rare opportunity for the entire panel to come together and “reminisce on the past”, but now a more retiring figure, George was not overjoyed at having to be presented to a crowd of thousands.
When Wexford captain Martin Storey lifted the Liam McCarthy cup in 1996, he called it the day Wexford got married after spending decades as bridesmaids in hurling terms. That understanding was shaped by years like 1993. In 1993 Wexford locked with Cork for an epic three game series in the National league, drawing two and losing the final match. In basic terms, three opportunities to capture a league title and none taken. Later that year, Wexford reached a Leinster final, not unfamiliar territory, but again were beaten by a Kilkenny team that by this stage had established a comfortable edge over their geographical neighbours.
O’ Connor reflects on that bleak period in Wexford hurling, when there was a decent crop of players and set approach to strength and conditioning but rather tellingly “never addressed psychological focus”. When Liam Griffin was reluctantly appointed Wexford senior hurling manager in 1994, a man who previously had tried and failed to become the county’s minor hurling manager, he took over a team which according to George was “nearly dead”. While some may accuse George O’ Connor of looking through rose tinted glass, he reflects on the appointment of Griffin with the highest possible regard saying “if Liam Griffin hadn’t come in, I was retired”. A question on what exactly Griffin’s contribution to Wexford was, was always going to be excessively broad, but O’ Connor summed up the contribution of Griffin by saying he was going to make Wexford “the fittest, the most difficult to beat and introduce a sports psychologist”.

In current hurling terms, Limerick appear to be the complete outfit if not an unstoppable train, capable and even likely to equal the reputation of the Kilkenny dynasty of the 2000’s. After the shock exit of Limerick at the penultimate stage of the championship in 2019, the process of rebooting the psyche had to be swift and leave no lasting baggage.  Following Limerick’s momentous performance in this year’s All – Ireland final, the work of renowned sports psychologist Caroline Currid with the team was highly praised. However it was in fact Griffin who introduced a young Niamh Fitzpatrick to the Wexford players, a first across the Gaelic games landscape at the time. George refers to Fitzpatrick as a “proper person” and described her core skill as “speaking with conviction and composure” when facilitating visualization for the players. Looking back at the 1996 final in which Wexford faced a hungry Limerick, O’ Connor said “90% of the game is for the public, the last 10% is where it’s won and lost”, and that the now famous traffic light analogy allowed the players to not only enjoy the occasion but conserve vital energy.

Can Wexford win again?

The 2021 All – Ireland hurling final was the second consecutive final which was an exclusively Munster affair. The 2020 final between Limerick and Waterford was the first time the two teams met at that stage of the competition and curiously this year’s final between Limerick and Cork shared the same distinction. Wexford have not won an All – Ireland championship or reached a final since 1996. As George O’ Connor climbed to the top of the Hogan stand a quarter of a century ago, ending a 28 year famine, it might have been unappealing for him to imagine that Wexford would immediately enter into another famine.
Much of Kilkenny’s unprecedented success, even if it has been downgraded slightly to relentlessly competing at the latter end of the championship rather than actually winning it, can be attributed to the invaluable work of second level schools. St. Kierans, Kilkenny CBS and Castlecomar are each dominated by players within the schools championship and this has effectively created a conveyor belt of raw talent at the highest possible pedigree for the intercounty set up. In sharp contrast, St. Peter’s College, the only school in the senior colleges A’ hurling championship with an exclusively Wexford based population, have not won a championship since 1968. However O’ Connor feels that it is not possible to “pigeonhole” the problems of Wexford hurling, but did say that Wexford GAA should place a much greater emphasis on “looking after the academy and not taking it for granted” as a consistently productive academy has been the foundation of success in other counties.
George O’ Connor was an exceptional hurling player and is an outstanding individual. His drive, ambition and commitment can be matched by few across the history of Wexford hurling. O’ Connor made profound sacrifices to hurl for Wexford, sacrifices which would leave permanent scars. However George remains part of an ever more elite band of former Wexford hurlers who have laid their hands on the Liam McCarthy. That singular Celtic cross medal stands as a military like tribute to a man who soldered in the trenches for nearly two decades, not knowing when the war would be won.
Cillian Boggan
Image Credit: The Times