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'People were pleading with me not to go back' - Irish tales of triumph after retirement u-turns

Cork hurling legend Brian Corcoran and Ireland international Áine O’Gorman speak to The42 about why they went back.

Retirements Read

WHEN THE CORK hurlers returned to the Citywest hotel after losing the 2003 All-Ireland final, there was a familiar face waiting for them in the lobby.

Brian Corcoran, who had put down his hurley for good in 2001, had parked his car there while he headed off to Croke Park to support his former teammates. He was wearing his Cork jersey that day, but had swapped his dressing room privileges for a seat in the upper deck of the Hogan Stand. 

An All-Ireland winner in 1999, and one of the finest dual players ever produced in Cork, Corcoran was contentedly done with his hurling career. While grabbing a bite in McDonald’s before the game, fans assured him that he should be playing, but it didn’t cause any discomfort or doubt. His time was over.

After the three-point loss, Corcoran spent some time commiserating with the team at the hotel before trying to make a quiet exit. But just as he was opening the car door, someone dashed out to invite him back in for the banquet.

He didn’t have a suit for the occasion, but was told his Cork gear would be fine for formal wear. And so he agreed to hang on. The Erin’s Own man continued to insist that his decision was final whenever the retirement topic came up at the dinner table, but as the conversation began to flow, something started stirring in him.

Perhaps the book wasn’t quite closed yet.

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In 2018, the Republic of Ireland women’s team lost one of their most talented players when Áine O’Gorman announced her international retirement. She had just reached the 100-cap mark for her country, which seemed like a fitting point to bring her Ireland career to the finish line.

Similar to Corcoran, the Wicklow native was certain that there would be no Part 2 to her time in an Ireland jersey. Her 12 years of service since the age of 16, coupled with the 13 goals she scored along the way, was her contribution to the international ranks. Being part of the first Ireland women’s team to reach a major tournament would just have to elude her for life.

But she did leave her mark as one of the players who bravely spoke out about poor treatment from the FAI, and successfully lobbied for change for women’s football in the association.

However, as 2019 moved in 2020, with Ireland now playing under new manager Vera Pauw, O’Gorman could feel an old fire lighting up again. Maybe there was an Áine O’Gorman 2.0 to come.

***

Corcoran and O’Gorman are not exactly two of a multitude, but they certainly have some company in the group of Irish athletes who returned to elite sport after retirement. In GAA, Corcoran’s fellow Cork native Juliet Murphy went back for a second bite. DJ Carey is another famous example, along with Kerry icon Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston.

In soccer circles, former Ireland international Stephen Carr comes to mind as one such player who decided that it ain’t over yet.

In O’Gorman’s case, she began her transition from player to fan with ease. She could look on at her old teammates without any pangs of regret.

“I followed their progress and I was their number one fan,” she tells The42, still happily serving Ireland since her return from retirement.

“I did a bit of punditry on RTÉ and stuff. I didn’t really miss it for the first few games. A lot of players I had played with had kind of moved on. Julie-Ann Russell had gone to Australia at the time. Karen Duggan had retired around the same time as me.

aine-ogorman-scores-an-own-goal Áine O'Gorman made her comeback in 2020. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

“I know Stephanie Roche and Niamh Fahey were still in around the squad. Emma Byrne had retired as well, so that core bunch of players that I would have grown up playing with had moved on. That kind of detaches you from it in a way. But obviously you still stay in touch with the girls and see what’s going on in camp.”

Ireland were in the midst of a qualification campaign to reach the 2021 European Championship.

Their first game under Pauw ended in a 3-2 win over Ukraine followed by a 1-1 draw against Greece to complete an unbeaten start in the qualifiers. Pauw had been checking in with O’Gorman since first taking over as manager from Colin Bell, and these results were key to persuading O’Gorman to have a rethink.

“When Vera came in,” O’Gorman begins, “we had a conversation and I said, ‘No, I’m happy with my decision.’ I’m kind of an all in or all out kind of person. I want to be committed 100% and I wasn’t ready at the time.

“Then there was that really good win against Ukraine and we went to play Greece away and got a point from it. I had a lot of time to think about it and felt I was ready and able to give something back to the team.

“I just want to be able to help the team on and off the pitch in whatever way I can.

“It really worked out well for me coming back and re-lit that fire in the belly. I think the big moment was when Eileen Gleeson went in as coach under Vera Pauw. I would have had a good relationship with her during my time in Peamount and UCD.

“When Vera came knocking and gave me the opportunity to go back into the squad for the Greece game, I think it was something I couldn’t turn down. If I had, it’s something I would have regretted for life. It kind of feels like I’ve never left and I’m obviously delighted to be back in.”

Down in Cork in the winter of 2003, Brian Corcoran found himself poking about in his garage in search of a hurley and a sliotar. Unlike O’Gorman whose retirement only affected her international game, Corcoran took a complete break from hurling after the 2001 season.

He had taken himself off the grid entirely for both Erin’s Own and Cork. A combination of burnout, changes in how hurling was being played, and family-related matters contributed to his decision to withdraw.

His first daughter Kate had just been born and his mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sport was understandably becoming less of a significance in Corcoran’s life.

He had been on the go with hurling and football since 1992, was a two-time All-Star defender and was a two-time Hurler of the Year winner in ’92, and after Cork’s All-Ireland winning season in 1999.

But when the Cork hurlers started making plans for the 2004 season, they let him know that they wanted him to be part of the charge to glory.

brian-corcoran-tackled-by-henry-shefflen-and-john-power-1291999 Brian Corcoran on the ball for Cork in the 1999 All-Ireland SHC final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Corcoran took some time to consider their offer, and talk things out with his wife Elaine, before deciding that he was in.

But the two-year break away from the sport meant there were a lot of cobwebs that needed tending.

“I had no real expectations or notions of making it back at that stage but I was thinking about how I could help out,” says Corcoran.

“Over the next day or two, I started thinking about it and in the two and a half years I was out, I literally hadn’t held a hurley. I remember going down to the garage to get a hurley and finding a sliotar and bouncing it up and down thinking if I could actually contemplate doing this. I thought about it for the next few days and I didn’t tell anybody.

“I wasn’t fit and I had put on weight so I just started doing a bit of training by myself and got access to the indoor handball alley in Erin’s Own. I started going down there late at night when there was nobody around, just to see if there was some spark. That’s where it started that I was going to do this.

“I was under no illusions that I was guaranteed anything or that I might get back on the team. But I always wanted to play as a forward and Setanta [Ó hAilpín] had lit up the All-Ireland the previous year. He was young and exciting and I thought if I put myself down as a potential impact sub and be able to contribute something, that was what I was aiming at.

“I remember in December, the Erin’s Own manager Martin Bowen came to me and asked if I’d like to be involved as a selector and I said, ‘No, but I’m interesting in playing.’”

 ***

And so, Corcoran’s second coming, at the age of 30, had begun.

There were a few things in his mind that needed to happen for him to commit to this. Firstly, he had to consider how he would feel if the project was a failure. He also had to think about how he would react to being dropped if management determined that he wasn’t up to snuff during the course of the season.

And finally, he was adamant that he could only do this if he was playing in the forwards. A vacancy in defence was of no interest to him.

He communicated all this to then Cork manager Dónal O’Grady when he was officially recalled to the squad in the spring of ’04.

“I did clarify with him that I wanted to be considered in the forwards and if I wasn’t good enough as a forward then that was ok. It went from there.

a-happy-donal-ogrady-after-the-game Source: INPHO

 ”It took a bit of time. I probably never got back fully. Obviously I was playing a different position as well but trying to get fit again was the big challenge because I was way overweight for what I needed to be for inter-county and building up that stamina again.

“Luckily for me, training had moved on and Seanie McGrath was the physical coach for Cork. He was a true believer in specialised training for different positions. So, he really focused on training for a full-forward as opposed to running a marathon. And that really helped.

“It was like a new game because I was up the other side of the pitch and now I was obviously trying to score and create scores as opposed to stopping scores. That definitely added to the excitement of going back. And if Dónal O’Grady had said to me that time that they weren’t going to consider me as a forward but they would as a defender, I would have said, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’”

***

O’Gorman continued playing with Peamount United during her time out from the Ireland squad which kept her engine in good nick when the international reboot started.

Her return was confirmed in February 2020 when her name was included in the provisional Republic of Ireland squad for their Euro 2021 qualifiers against Greece and Montenegro. 

There was a mix of new and familiar faces to greet her when she arrived for her first session, but it didn’t take long to get back to the pitch of international football.

“It does feel like you’ve never left,” she says.

“And then with a new coach or manager, sometimes your schedule can be slightly different but you just slot straight back in.

“I think I had a couple of home-based sessions in the build-up to the camp against Greece, so that helped get me up to speed, and we’ve got a really good crop of players over at Peamount. The training week in and week out would be quite a high intensity.”

aine-ogorman O'Gorman feels as though she never left the Ireland set-up. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The Girls in Green didn’t manage to complete that qualification job for Euro 2021, but a place in the World Cup is in their sights now.

Pauw’s side are currently second in Group A, following victory over Finland and a historic 11-0 result against Georgia. They also played out a draw with Slovakia, along with a 1-0 defeat to heavyweights Sweden.

“I suppose it’s a really special time in women’s football in Ireland,” says O’Gorman.

“It’s been a really momentous year with the equal pay, the Sky sponsorship and the record 11-0 win [over Georgia].

“It capped off the year and we all finished on a high looking into 2022. It’s really nice for the crowd as well who have been a really big part of our journey. The increasing attendance in Tallaght are really vocal and they’re like our 12th player on the pitch as well.”

“We’re sitting nicely in the group halfway through the campaign but there’s still a long way to go in that quest for qualifying for the major tournament.”

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One of Corcoran’s wishes when he resumed hurling with Cork was to hopefully play alongside Setanta Ó hAilpín in the full-forward line.

The Na Piarsaigh sharpshooter was an emerging star for Cork at the time, and had scored a fine goal against Kilkenny in the 2003 All-Ireland final.

But he famously decided to head to Australia to pursue the AFL dream, leaving an unexpected vacancy in the Cork attack. 

The following January, Corcoran was up in Dublin attending the Young Scientist Exhibition through work, and decided to do the Croke Park tour while he was around.

As he looked out onto the grass, he daydreamed about whether or not he might be out there later in the season. Whether he was deluding himself, or if perhaps, he might be taking small steps towards ensuring a Rebel man would be walking up the Hogan Stand steps to receive the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

“He [Ó hAilpín] was a massive loss and lining up as a future star of the team.

“It was disappointing from a Cork perspective to lose a talent like that but pressure-wise… there were people calling to my door pleading with me not to go back. Some from my club and some I barely knew and they’re knocking on my door. In fairness to them, it was well-intended and they thought it was a big risk and you’ve a good reputation in Cork. If you go back and it doesn’t work out, you’ll make a fool of yourself.

“If anything, it probably made me even more determined. I’m probably a bit stubborn which is not one of my better traits but often if I’m told I can’t do something, it kind of motivates me even more to try.

“But look, it was a big ask and I could have made a fool of myself but I literally asked myself if I was ok making a fool of myself going back.”

Cork’s 2004 season was far from straightforward, as they were bested in a ferocious battle with Waterford in the Munster final. It was arguably one of the greatest games in modern GAA history, but Corcoran feels they should have made more of their advantages that day to see it out.

Waterford played most of the second half with 14 men after John Mullane was sent off, and Cork also had the wind behind them in the second period.

brian-corcoran-celebrates-scoring Corcoran celebrating a score in the 2004 All-Ireland final. Source: INPHO

That bump aside, 2004 ended in triumph for Cork. They regrouped for the qualifiers and finished the year as All-Ireland champions. Dethroning Kilkenny with an eight-point victory in the final was a satisfying way to complete the mission, with Corcoran scoring a famous point from a difficult position towards the end of the contest.

His fist pump to the crowd as the ball squeezed inside the post was the artist’s signature on a lovely painting.

Cork repeated the trick in 2005 as they accounted for challengers Galway in the final. Corcoran’s second stint with Cork was far shorter than his first, but it was also far more fruitful as he was now a back-to-back All-Ireland winner.

Along with that, he also picked up another All-Star before departing the Cork scene for the second and final time in 2006. Thoughts of a three-in-a-row were too alluring to walk away from, but he still left with a hefty haul of goods in the end.

“The reality is that I was very lucky to be part of a great squad at a time in the cycle when Cork were very competitive,” says Corcoran. “I started in ’91, ’92 and came on to a strong Cork team at that stage but a team that was ageing. A lot of guys ended up retiring shortly after that. We had a lean spell for the rest of the 90s up to ’99.

“To come back then and win two All-Irelands, it was kind of hard to believe it. That indicated in my own mind that I made the right decision. It was great to be back, I was enjoying it. The commitment was even bigger than when I retired because it had gone more professional but the difference was I was enjoying it.

“I found out after the 2004 All-Ireland that management actually didn’t want to bring me back. There was a split in the camp. Some people wanted to give me a chance and others felt I was out too long. Dónal was the one who put his foot down and said they were going to give me a chance.

“The person who told me was one of the people who wasn’t in favour of bringing me back. I appreciated his honesty but it was interesting to note. And I wouldn’t blame them for voting against it.”

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O’Gorman’s second chapter with Ireland hasn’t produced the same amount of silverware as Corcoran, but similar to the GAA great, she also would have missed out on some milestone moments if she didn’t reconsider her retirement plans.

Last year was a particularly memorable time for the Ireland team. In August, the FAI announced that equal match fees would be paid to the men’s and women’s senior teams going forward. The following month saw Sky come on board as the primary sponsor for the women’s national side.

And then in December, they ruthlessly made history with their 11-0 win over Georgia in their World Cup qualifier, the biggest competitive victory ever registered by an Irish men’s or women’s senior international team.

denise-osullivan-celebrates-after-the-game-with-aine-ogorman Source: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

O’Gorman would have regretted letting those moments pass her by if she declined Pauw’s call to come back. With the rest of her Ireland story still unwritten, O’Gorman can pack even more into her career in the green jersey.

‘They say you should never go back’ may be the life philosophy of many, but she is continuing to disprove that theory.

“Absolutely no regrets. I’m probably enjoying now more than ever. I think when I did go back I appreciated putting the jersey on more than ever and I’m just trying to enjoy every moment that you’re out there playing, and working as hard as I can to prepare for the coming season.”

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