Had he listened to those closest to him, James O’Connor might never have taken the reins with Ballyhale Shamrocks as it was generally believed that stepping into the footsteps of Henry Shefflin had ‘poisoned chalice’ written all over it.
hefflin had overseen a glittering two years where Ballyhale had gone unbeaten in knockout hurling en route to back-to-back All-Ireland club titles. Surely the only way was down for his successor?
“I remember ringing up one or two mates of mine that would be big into the hurling and I just asked them their opinion. ‘Jesus, stay away from it, don’t go in there. You’re on a losing horse there like’ were the responses I got back,” O’Connor says.
“I said I could listen to that and go away and keep winning intermediates or senior clubs in different counties, but would you ever again get the chance to take on a team that’s good enough to win an All-Ireland club?
“My own head told me to go and have a crack at this, ‘You’re getting a chance, go for it. If I fail, I fail’. There’s pressure of course, but the way I see it is there’s pressure in every job.”
What has followed under O’Connor, who was born in Cork but played with Waterford club Lismore having moved their as a child, is a continuation of that extraordinary unbeaten run with the Kilkenny kingpins now knocking on the door of history.
No other hurling club has achieved an All-Ireland hat-trick, but rather than shirk away from that talk ahead of their clash with near neighbours Ballygunner. O’Connor is embracing it, and so is his star-studded squad.
“It is mentioned in the dressing-room and it is a motivation. To be the first team to do anything should be motivation for anyone.
“To win your first county, to win your first Munster, Leinster or All-Ireland or whatever, these guys have the chance to win the three-in-a-row, something that no other club have ever done in the history. For me, that’s a massive motivation,” he says.
“It just brings more intensity, more work-rate, more everything to the plate then. These lads can cope with that type of pressure. It’s not as if it’s their first All-Ireland and you’re putting a tonne of pressure on them.
“They’re used to being in the hot kitchen all of the time, they’re achievers. They want to do this, they want to make history and leave a legacy after them, that’s what they want to do.”
To do so on the club’s 50th anniversary would be “the icing on the cake”, but they have lived a charmed life up until this point and required two pieces of magic to keep their All-Ireland dreams intact.
The first came in the dying seconds of their Leinster semi-final with St Rynagh’s when Eoin Cody conjured a last-gasp goal to force extra-time while TJ Reid produced a piece of genius to save their bacon against St Thomas’ in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Many speak of Ballyhale’s stuttering journey to the Tommy Moore decider, but O’Connor prefers to laud the level of opposition that have stood in their way and their ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat despite being unable to field their best 15 at any stage this year due to various injuries.
That looks the case again this weekend with Ronan Corcoran, Conor Phelan and the Mullen brothers, Darren and Kevin, in doubt but O’Connor marvels at their ability to find a way to prevail in any scenario.
“They’re one of these teams that you never have them beaten until you’re out in the car park packing the bus, that’s what they are. I’ve only spent two years with them and I have to say that’s their mentality,” O’Connor says.
“There might be two minutes left and you’re down a point or two and they actually believe they’re going to win still. I’ve never seen the likes of them before. This never-say-die attitude is just unbelievable. It wins them more matches than not.”
Despite an epic finish to the St Thomas’ tie, O’Connor admits that their dressing-room felt like a beaten one with star men like Colin Fennelly and Brian Cody keen to right some wrongs after subdued displays.
“There was no celebrating or anything after, a couple of lads went down to their local pub, had a couple of drinks and went home and most lads didn’t even go out because they were disappointed in their own performance,” he says.
“I’ve seen it over the past two weeks especially, they’re really getting into the frame of mind of an All-Ireland again. There is so much hunger there it’s frightening, there’s so much willpower there it’s frightening.
“I’d love for it just to explode on the day and let them go at it 100 per cent from the start and leave everything out on the field. I’m a horsey man myself and I can tell you, I’m seeing it out on the gallop at the moment.
“When you see fellas after training staying back again on their own, still training because they know that the performance the last day wasn’t good enough, that’s when you know that you’re on a winner. And that’s what these Ballyhale fellas have.”
O’Connor praises the standards which his squad keep themselves accountable to and much like all the greats, the buck stops with them.
“If you’re not hitting that standard, it won’t have to be me … I’ll be saying it to them inside in the dressing-room, but their team-mates will say it to them outside on the field. ‘You need to be doing better’ and that’s their trademark.” he explains.
“Ask any one of them and they’ll tell you, I’ve gone through fellas early on in the league and the championship and whatever but if any fella stepped out of line or did anything that they shouldn’t be doing, he’d be devoured in the dressing-room by players.
“Devoured. He wouldn’t even do it because it’s like walking into the lion’s den, you’d get it from me first of all but I can tell you the players would absolutely pounce on you then and it wouldn’t even be worth it.”
O’Connor, who guided 100/1 outsiders Carrigtwohill to Cork SHC glory in 2011 and also brought Fr O’Neills to the 2020 All-Ireland intermediate club final, says that he has had Lady Luck on his side in recent years.
That’s only a small slice of his story but as Ballyhale chase immortality, he hopes that she won’t desert him ahead of a “mouth-watering” decider.
“Look, I’ve been a very lucky manager over the last 10 years, I’ll be honest with you. I hope that dice will roll one more time for me again,” he says.