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Seán Powter: "He came to me and said, ‘cut it back or we are going to have to let you go’"

Cork defender Seán Powter on their 2022 season and playing football in America this summer.

Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

THIS TIME HE had an explanation. Not that it helped. In Seán Powter’s head, he boiled the day down to its basic elements. Finish the Sigerson Cup final. 30 more minutes of football and you are out the other side.

He was racing around in the rain during the first half and pop. It went again. He knew exactly why. His bright and young career has been consistently hampered by chronic hamstring injuries. The 24-year-old UL student limped off; shoulders slumped with overpowering exasperation.  

“It was hugely frustrating,” he recalls with a shake of the head. “The only reason I can see why it happened was the number of games I played at that time. McGrath Cup, Sigerson, McGrath Cup, Sigerson. Back-to-back.

“But then, all the other injuries before there was no reason I could point to. It was just rehab and hope it doesn’t come back.

“The body was under pressure going into the final. They were tight but it was just, ‘get through this game and you’re out the other side.’ I was 30 minutes away.”

sean-powter Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Just how many tears or strains has it been?

“That was my 11th hamstring. No pinpoint reason. You go back and rehab, try do something different. And just hope.”

When fit, Powter has consistently been Cork’s best player on the pitch. Athletic and abrasive, the counter-attacking sweeper brings much-needed steel in defence and surges in attack. As soon as he went down there was concern over his chances of making the Munster semi-final against Kerry. Whatever chance they had with the defender, without him it was recipe for disaster.

Physio Brian O’Connell sat Powter down and laid out the plan. This time, there is no timeline. No targeted return. Take it step-by-step, let your body decide when you are ready. Even if it means missing the Kerry game.

Early on he struggled with that. Always pining, never patient. All he wanted was to play football. He would do anything. Everything. It was too much. A gym or running session every single day on top of club and intercounty training.

Eventually, former Cork manager Ronan McCarthy came to him with an ultimatum. Strip it back or walk away.  

“He came to me and said, ‘look, you have to cut it back or I am going to let you go.’ Pure cold. I realised then I need to calm down. That helped in the long term.

“He said it is for your own good. All I wanted to do was get back playing football. I was doing everything in my power. I saw online if you get jelly blocks, they contain collagen which apparently helps. Then one day I ate a jelly block an hour before a running session. Man, let’s say it didn’t go well!”

The Douglas clubman first joined the senior panel in 2015. It was a dressing room filled with childhood heroes like Paddy Kelly, Donnacha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill and charged with naivety. They went out and played their own brand of developing football. A year later, Powter took on Donegal in a round 4 qualifier. For the first time in his senior career, opponents were dropping off their men. Systematically drifting behind the ball. He could hardly compute it.

Now sweeping is his role and he is one of the best in the country at it. It is purely based on instincts. In the flow rather than hyper-focused.  

“I have to play on flow. A spilt second decision to go to the man or not go, it is better to trust your instinct than thinking it over.

“In training, I tried to think it through and ended up reacting too late. I said forget about that, see how the game plays. Micheál Martin is one of the best communicators, telling me where to go and stuff. A couple of times they break the press and I know just go. Hopefully, someone is covering for me.

“I learned that the hard way. The week before we played Kerry, I was all over the place. Not coming or going. I said forget it then, just play.”

In the weeks prior to their opening Munster championship fixture, selector James Loughrey spelt out their system. Some teams deploy the sweeper and fail because defenders use it as a safeguard, dropping off their man. 

Cork wanted to enact the opposite. Be aggressive, get close. The extra defender takes up the space and is there as a last resort.

kevin-odonovan-ian-maguire-sean-powter-and-rory-maguire-tackle-diarmuid-oconnor Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It worked, to a certain extent. Kerry came to Páirc Uí Rinn and lead by just a single point in the second half. In the final quarter, their conditioning told and they cruised to an 11-point victory. 

“Massive improvement but we lost by 11 against Kerry,” he says with a grimace.

“For a Cork team, we should never be losing by that. But at the same time, we had been a point off the Tailteann Cup. It was a huge improvement.

“My role is reliant on everyone else. You need the whole team to buy in and we did for 60 minutes. Kerry brought on the cavalry and we don’t have that yet.

“It was a quick fix after the league to stop leaking goals. We did that, now we need to build.” 

He is speaking from Chicago, where he is playing football with Wolfetones for the summer. Cork went on to reach the final eight, bowing out against Dublin. In the aftermath of that tie, Powter was one of several inter-county stars who headed Stateside. His friends and family didn’t think he would go, but it was an itch that needed to be scratched.  

“After Croke Park, we went on the beer for a few days and I put away the phone. Then I got a text to see if I was interested.

“I’d a flight booked for the next day, Thursday. We needed to be here by the 1 July. It was all very tight. I landed and slept all day Thursday to get over jetlag. Trained Friday and played a game on the Sunday. Out here, it is man on man. Kick the ball inside. Entertaining open football.

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“The heat is 31 degrees, the scores are off the charts. You are mixing it with lads you wouldn’t know really. Rian O’Neill, Conoy Meyler, Gary Mohan. The Irish community is tight-knit over here. There are club rivalries all right but it is enjoyable.

“This was the first year I thought seriously about it. I’m studying medicine and in a few years, I won’t ever be able to do this. My mother and girlfriend didn’t think I would go. I was also captain of the club. I missed a club championship game to come here.

“Thankfully they were understanding but it was a difficult decision. It is my first time in America. A different lifestyle.

“I suppose with the split season it gave a lot of players a chance to see more. Cork start the championship earlier because of the dual thing but it is nice that you have the decision of what you want to do, play with the club or not rather than someone deciding for you. As an experience, if I never did a summer abroad, I’d regret it.”

 And the standard isn’t half-bad either.

“The last day I was marking Rian O’Neill for 40 minutes. I’d only mark him once a year back home but we are playing them again in a few weeks. Actually, after he went off, Conor Meyler came in! I had to mark him then.”

He’ll return for the rest of Douglas’s championship run and make ready for a huge 2023 with Cork. Over the years, the team has been gutted and refurbished. Three different divisions, new dawns and false hope. 

cork-team-huddle Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Their campaign picked up momentum in the qualifiers this year, back-to-back wins, small celebrations. Enough kindling to plausibly catch fire. How far can they go? Who knows. But his ambition has always stayed the same. 

“The dream is to win the All-Ireland. That is what I grew up watching.

“The Cork football community is quite small. Since I was four or five my dream was to play and win for Cork. We’ve had dark days but I believe we will get there. We have the talent. The quality is in the dressing room. Once it clicks, Cleary and the lads are driving that.

“I go back to the Limerick game, that was big. Lads on the field afterwards signing autographs, realising what good days feel like. They only saw dark days, to have wins at home when we beat Louth and Limerick and the photos and autographs. It is a nice moment for Cork football away from the usual negativity.

“I remember my first time Cork dressing room with those legends thinking, should I be here? Lads who won All-Irelands alongside me. I hope the boys now know they belong here. They belong on the same field as Brian Fenton or David Clifford.

“We have rebuilt that belief I feel. John Cooper marked Paudie Clifford in the McGrath Cup final. I think he had a stinker. Now he is our starting wing-back, one of our best players all year.

“I said to him after our last game, you didn’t think you’d end your year playing Dublin in Croke Park after that wet miserable day running around after Paudie Clifford? He is good enough and stuck at it. It builds belief. We have a core group like that now.”

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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