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After 6 years in Australia, the All-Ireland winner starting out again with Cork

Ten years after winning Sam Maguire, Ciaran Sheehan will be back in the Cork ranks for the 2020 season.

Ciaran Sheehan's last game for Cork was in 2013 against Dublin.
Ciaran Sheehan's last game for Cork was in 2013 against Dublin.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AT THE OUTSET of Ciaran Sheehan’s football days with Cork, he came under the guidance of Terry O’Neill.

They won a Munster minor final in Killarney that summer in 2007, Sheehan shooting over four points as Kerry were overturned, then lost the next day against Derry. Some early learning.

When the preparatory work had began many months before, O’Neill was looking out for him.

“Terry was a coach under Mick Evans. He was outstanding for me personally, a mentor of mine in many ways. I was a 16-year-old playing minor. My mom used to bring me to the training sessions, they’d be scattered around Cork. Any pitch you’d get, you’d go to with floodlights.

“She would drive me, she’d bring a book, read that, stay in the car park until we were done. Terry used to bring up frozen seafood from Bantry and give it to her in the car park as we were leaving. Always.

“I’ll never forget that how good he was to me and how he recognised the sacrifices my mom was making.”

Those memories came rushing back last month as he headed down to West Cork to pay his respects. O’Neill had passed away after a short illness. The Castletownbere native filled a multitude of roles over the years in the county’s football circles, with Bantry Blues as they swept up senior crowns in the 90s and later serving alongside Cork bosses Larry Tompkins and Conor Counihan.

Sheehan witnessed the simple kindness and generosity of O’Neill back then. Later when their working relationship was elevated to senior level, a journey that peaked with Cork lifting Sam Maguire in 2010 when Sheehan was a champion at 19 and O’Neill was on the sideline, he saw a sharper and shrewder side.

“Terry was always so straight. There was one time in 2010, I was eating chips in Dinos one night. Terry had this knack for just finding out everything off people. I came into training one night and (Conor) Counihan pulled me aside about it. He gave me a bit of a bollocking or whatever.

“I was leaving after and Terry just called out, ‘Sheehan, spotted in Dinos’. Now he hadn’t seen me but he found out off someone. He knew so many people.

“He was excellent. Just one of those guys you could to go about anything and he’d be straight about it. It’s an end of era, he was a very influential guy in Cork football, a sad time.”

terry-oneill Terry O'Neill during a Cork game in 2011. Source: Cathal Noonan

It reinforced the sense of change for Sheehan, saluting a man who helped shape his Cork career when it was in its infancy, just as he is commencing another chapter.

It’s six years since he drew a line under his Cork involvement. Immersed in Australian Rules, living in Melbourne and coping with injury setbacks since 2013, himself and his wife Amy moved home in September.

He returned to the sanctuary of his club Éire Óg, picking up a county premier intermediate medal in October, and now as Christmas approaches the 29-year-old is back pounding the pre-season Cork beat with an eye to 2020.

You can measure the length of his absence in different ways. Like the fact that there were only four players on Éire Óg’s starting team that he had previously soldiered alongside. Or that Paul Kerrigan is the only one left in the Cork dressing-room that he shared in those 2010 Croke Park celebrations with.

Perhaps there is something telling from the last senior game Sheehan played for Cork. At the time of that quarter-final against Dublin in August 2013, Jim Gavin was just another senior manager trying to get his team up the steps of the Hogan Stand.

By the time he pulled the plug on his Dublin involvement three weeks ago, Gavin had masterminded six All-Ireland days of glory.

It’s a different GAA landscape now.

The decision to return had been one he had mulled over.

“We got married last December and after that it was thinking about what’s the next step. We had a great group of friends built up and it created a life over there for us. We’re still close to a lot of them back here. I think everyone’s intention was to go home but I do know it was hard decision for everyone out there to come home.

“Melbourne is just a great city. It’s the culture, the events that are on the whole time and they just run everything so well.

“I’ll never forget our first day when we landed. We were staying in a hotel across the road from the club and the area is called Brunswick, we ended up living there for four years. But our first walk down the street, we were thinking, ‘What is this dump?’

“There was graffiti everywhere, you were looking around and it was a bit of a culture shock. Within three to six months, we’d got to know it, the people were great there and you just fall in love with the place.

“But I think the pull of home and family and friends always outweighed that.”

Progress in life off the pitch didn’t always correspond to strides made on it. He joined Carlton in November 2013, accepting a concrete offer after a brief foray when on trial four years previous.

His AFL career was officially closed at the tail end of 2017, six appearances an illustration of the hardship endured in trying to get his body right.

He tore his cruciate in the 2011 Munster final for Cork, Australia brought a sequence of tougher fitness setbacks.

ciaran-sheehan-leaves-the-field-with-an-injury Ciaran Sheehan is taken off injured in the 2011 Munster final. Source: James Crombie

Here’s the rundown of all that time spent on the treatment table.

“I played 14 VFL games in my first year, my first senior AFL game after those and played four in all back end of the season. Did pre-season start of 2015, started getting pain on the pubic bone. Managed it for about six months, trying to get back but eventually got to a point where I couldn’t.

“So had to get hip surgery, left and right hip done. That ruled me out for all of 2015. Came back in 2016, went into pre-season, had stress fracture in my foot, it was pretty serious. I was put in a moon boot for six weeks and while I was in that, I flared up my right hip again. So once I came out of the boot, I’d to go back in for surgery on the hip again which ruled me out for most of 2016.

“Came back and played two VFL reserve games, then did my knee, my lateral ligament and ruptured my hamstring tendon off the bone. Got back for pre-season 2017 and that year was great, no interruptions. Got my two AFL games the end of the year. It was seven operations in total over my four years, had an eighth one this year but it was just a clean out of the knee, cartilage stuff.

“There was a part of me when I got injured, I just wanted to solve this stuff myself. I didn’t want anyone else to know about it. I was putting up this wall, I’d sort it out. You just go into this whole other level of focus. It’s relentless in your mind.

“It’s funny like people saying to me you’re body must be crocked. That’s all I’m hearing and I don’t like hearing that. Are people telling me that or am I crocked? I don’t want to be known as ‘the crocked Ciaran Sheehan’. I’m trying to distance myself from that. I’d load of injuries, my body struggled but it’s in great shape now.”

ciaran-sheehan-warms-up Ciaran Sheehan in action for the Ireland International Rules side in 2017. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There was a sizeable shift in mindset from playing Gaelic football for Cork as a CIT student to moving to the other side of the world and trying to make an Australian Rules breakthrough.

Reflection brings about a realisation that he was not always comfortable with that change.

“I do think it’s a ruthless industry. It’s a big change for Irish guys going out there. To be blunt about it, there’s money thrown into the mix and everyone to a certain extent has a target on their back. That was something I wasn’t used to.

“I struggled with that a lot and it probably was a big part of why I didn’t push on and get the opportunity that maybe I felt I should have got. Now I don’t have any resentment but it was all my own feeling how I could have drove myself in a different way.

“I was delisted twice so the anxiety and tension of that time when you’re delisted and not knowing what’s going to happen next is tough. You’re brought into a room, they delist you and say we’re going to pick you up in the rookie draft again. You’re told not to worry or stress which is okay but until it’s done you’re still a bit on edge.

“The second time around I was delisted but you’re coming back into a pre-season and if you come back in good shape, ready to perform and you do two months of pre-season, they’ll think about signing you up.

“That’s going into the unknown again. It’s year on year rookie contracts so it wasn’t like I was setting the world alight either. So there was an element of frustration around all that.

“It’s fair to say myself and (Brendon) Bolton (former Carlton coach) probably didn’t see eye to eye. It was a young group, it was changing all the time. He was brilliant in terms of the strategies and structures. We probably didn’t connect as well as I would have liked to but that’s the way it goes. There’s a lot that has to go your way when you’re in there.”

“You come home and you wonder what people think, do they think you failed? Going over there and not achieving as much as you’d like.

“Maybe there’s regrets here and there in terms of how I managed myself in terms of getting to the next level. But it’s been a great six years though. I don’t regret it one bit.” 

When he left Carlton, he didn’t jump on the first plane home. Two years working with the AFL Players’ Association helped greatly with his transtion and he slipped into living a more routine life in Melbourne.

When they left during the summer, time and space cropped up to travel. Amy’s brother Barry lives in Perth, another brother Kevin is in Austin. On the September weekend sandwiched between the All-Ireland final two-game saga, Sheehan was watching the Texas Longhorns play LSU with over 98,000 college football fans. After that they went to Portugal to a friend’s wedding.

When they eventually landed back in Ireland, Gaelic football was a comfortable outlet, albeit the game he returned to this autumn was not one he could instantly relate to.

“It’s a different fitness. More repeated efforts up and back as opposed to long endurance efforts with AFL where there’s stoppages. Possession has become way more important, it’s everything now. That’s great, you move with how the game goes.

“I only played 10 minutes against Bantry (his first game back in October) and spent the first five trying to catch my breath. I think that comes with a block of training.

“In the county final I think the occasion would take the breath out of you. I was a bit jittery when I got on the ball a couple of times. The first shot in the final, God I couldn’t have hit that more wide!

“But it’s funny the thing in the back of your head that’s been switched off for six years and then you touch a football or play a game, it starts to come back and it’s part of your brain again.

“Look it was great to be involved. It would have been easy for lads to throw their eyes up to heaven and say who’s this fella but they all welcomed me in. Even if I sat on the bench and didn’t play, it would have been great to be a part of it.

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“To be back home around my mom and my grandparents again is brilliant. That was always the hard part of going back to Australia, leaving them. The timing worked out well for me.”

And now he’s moved back into a slot on the Cork squad. When he met Ronan McCarthy in the Maryborough Hotel a couple of months ago, the Cork boss laid the cards on the table from the off.

“He was outstanding. The biggest thing we talked about was patience. I’m not being put under pressure, I’m on the training panel and we’ll see how it goes.

“If it doesn’t happen this year, it doesn’t happen. If it means it takes a year to get things going again, they’ll roll with that. That was his big message to really take my time.

“He thinks I can add a professional side to it as well and help others out which is great. That was a bit of a relief to be honest. Maybe I had thought I’d be able to play football the way I did before until I saw the way the game is played.

“It’s another challenge. If it does happen early it’s great but it’s more about getting it right as it goes.”

His work helping AFL players, his conversations with GPA chief Paul Flynn and his exposure to a professional environment have all fed into a more considered outlook.

There’s been enough cautionary tales of AFL players hitting roadblocks when coming back to Ireland that will prompt him to dampen any hype.

“I’m completely conscious of it. It’s about hanging in there for as long as I can. If I’m good enough, I’m good enough. If I’m not or if the body breaks down, at least I’ve had a go off it. I guess it’s human nature to think I’ll be straight back at that level. But it’s about patience which I’m totally aware of.

“I’d thought about the transition back but the aspect I never thought about was that there’s people I’ve met around Cork who still see me as that 23-year-old Cork footballer, who went to CIT and won an All-Ireland in 2010. I don’t want people to view me that way.

ciaran-sheehan-with-tomas-ose Ciaran Sheehan in action for Cork against Kerry in 2010. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There’s a lot went on playing AFL and then the couple years after in Australia. If they’re interested come up and ask me, I’m happy to talk to anyone about it. An awful lot has happened to me since and it’s about restarting again now.

“For me to measure success at the moment, it’s about how can I impact Cork football or lads around me. How am I training? What feedback am I getting off coaches? How successful am I in adapting to that level again? I’m not thinking of medals or anything like that.

“There’s a great atmosphere in there now, fellas are mad to get going.”

He’s started a role with AA Euro Recruitment Group and whatever nerves lingered before his first session back with Cork were soon dispelled when he was at the coalface of Cian O’Neill’s intense football drills.

He savoured picking up that county medal with Éire Óg, watched his brother-in-law Brian achieve similar with Russell Rovers in recent weeks and collect a Munster accolade.

There’s nothing guaranteed that this comeback tale will be a happy one. Cork began the decade in the All-Ireland mix, they will start 2020 in the third tier of the league.

But if this opportunity had passed him by, that would have grated more.

“From the moment I flew out of Dublin airport, I thought about playing with Cork again. When you’re playing AFL, you dream of coming home and winning a county with your club, I’ve lived that over the last couple of months.

“Football never leaves your mind. You see that will all the lads around the country that have done that. It certainly never leaves you. I watched every Cork football championship game when I was over there.

“I’m just looking forward to playing games for Cork. That’s what it all comes back to. I think the playing group have a responsibility to represent Cork how people expect. It’s exciting to be involved in.

“It would have been a massive regret if I’d never got another shot at this.”

A new decade beckons and a return to an old way of life.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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