HE was watching television last weekend when he saw the two of them. Anthony Daly, the measured bainisteoir of Dublin.
Diarmuid O’Sullivan, suited and
booted on The Sunday Game.

Dan Shanahan reached into a
memory bank swollen by 12 intercounty seasons and remembered other days. Other attitudes. Like the
Munster hurling final in 1998, when Shanahan came into Daly’s orbit.

“I said that to him, ‘you’re not marking Seanie McGrath now’,” says Shanahan. “He said ‘no, you’re uglier’. That was fair enough. I had no gumshield that time. He was the elder statesman, I was the young fella. I’d say there was worse said to Daly out on the field.”

More recently there was the snap of O’Sullivan and Shanahan on their haunches. Breathing hard, not so hard they couldn’t talk.

“The two of us were down and I said ‘Sully, I’m fecked’, and he said ‘if you are, so am I’. That’s another side of it — we were serious playing it, but if the ball was up the other end of the field you’d end up talking, even though I wasn’t much for talking.”

Shanahan is up front about the timeframe for his own playing career.

realise the time is
getting short. Up to a couple of years ago it was a 15-man game, but now it’s a 20-man game. You have to do extra training to stay at the level, and at times you’d wonder if it’s worth it.

“I love training, and I have great respect for the lads I’m training with. You might be in bad form going into training but a good session will put in good form again.”

He gave young Noel Connors some advice before his first championship match. Nothing dramatic, but Shanahan could remember his entry to a dressing-room with men like Stephen Frampton and Damien Byrne.

“I was stuck in the corner, togging out next to someone from my own club because that’s the only guy you’d know. But then they started taking the piss out of me and vice versa, and it was fine. I know what it’s like for young fellas coming in, they’re looking at the likes of Tony Browne, Eoin
Kelly, and it takes three or four weeks’ training for the young fellas to realise they’re great lads. After carrying lads around a mucky field they get to know each other fine.”

And when they do the slagging starts: “Ah, you’ll rise fellas if Man United lost, or if Mullane did
something cracked the last day. You’ll have great banter. Inter-county hurling has become very serious in the last couple of years, the fun is nearly gone out of it. We take it seriously when we train but we have plenty of craic with each other afterwards.”

And the top marksman when the darts fly? “Eoin Murphy’s very fast off the mark with an answer. But you’d know the witty lads, they all have a third-level education.”

Shanahan doesn’t mind talking about 2008, and the All-Ireland final, but he goes back a bit further.

“In 2007 we conceded five goals to Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final, and any time you concede five goals you’re in trouble, but we still nearly won that game. If we’d won that day we’d have been in better shape for 2008, but last year we did everything right, as far as I’m concerned, going into the game. We just came up against a fantastic team on their best day.

“To beat Kilkenny, we’d need 17-18 fellas playing very well, and they’d need a few not to play well. A good team beat us in the final — a very good team – but it could have been any other team against them in that game and the result would have been the same.

“We didn’t know what effect that had until the championship.
Challenges and league games are fine but nothing compares to championship. The first day against Limerick the weather was a huge factor — people couldn’t see how heavy the rain was, the referee could have called that off at half-time.

“The second day the weather was much better and you could see the
difference — everyone did very well. That’s something Davy has installed, that everyone is part of the team and contributes when they come on.”

The Lismore man sees plenty of
differences between hurling now and 1996, when he started.

“High fielding was easier in the 90s because you’d have space. Now if the opposition knows you’ll win high ball they’ll drop a player back in front of you, and it’s up to you to counteract it. And you can counteract it, by moving, but the game has become harder and that’s one sign of it.

“The speed of the game is now unbelievable, so now if you win a ball you’re nearly looking to lay it off with a handpass rather than going for it like in the old days.”

Elsewhere, it’s been a week of
headlines for the GPA. Shanahan is a strong believer. “You have to respect the GPA. You’re training like a professional and what players ask for isn’t much. I know everyone is suffering with the recession, and the GPA is willing to do what’s necessary.

“The clubs are doing great work and so are county boards, but the work that players are putting in is colossal.

“It’s definitely not a money thing. Being paid to play hurling isn’t going to happen; there might be two counties could do it but that’s all. Recognition is what it’s all about. After all, the Monday after the Munster final I’ll be up at work — and rightly so — but the players should get recognised.

“It mightn’t happen in my era but it could happen that a game will come, with 40,000 or 50,000 spectators in a ground, that the players won’t line out. The mood is that strong.”

He sees bright signs for Waterford’s future: “We’ve won some Tony Forrestal tournaments, De La Salle won a couple of Hartys, Lismore won the Munster B and Dungarvan the C, so you’d be hoping a few come through.”

One of those youngsters is his own brother, Maurice. “I think having him there puts more pressure on me!

“It makes me feel old having him there. He’s 19, and he’s dedicated, he’s committed, but it’s a fair education to come into the intercounty scene — in the first week on the panel the young fellas meet a dietician who plans their food, a doctor checks them and runs blood tests and so on ahead of training after what happened Cormac McAnallen, God rest him.

“They can’t socialise at all, no drink or anything. Richie Foley was saying all his mates are going to Oxegen, but he can’t.

“But against that, if you won tomorrow … I’ve been lucky enough to be there three times, and the 10 minutes after the final whistle is like nothing else. Losing is desperate, but if you win, there in the dressing-room, the lot of ye together … nothing else is like it. Nothing compares to it.”

Why Rock knows it’s time to roll

SOME rocks eventually become precious stones. A few are gems from the start.

Diarmuid O’Sullivan has three All-Ireland medals and a sackful of memories, but he knows it’s time to go.

“I loved coming down the tunnel, out onto the field. It’s a drug. It’s like you’re giving yourself an injection, the light, the supporters…

“I’ve given 12 years to the full-back line, and any fella will tell you about the pressure. Take Brian Murphy — the pressure that man was under was incredible, marking the top dog every day, and if Eoin Kelly or John Mullane gets a goal, he’s castigated.

“I’ve always believed in my own abilities going out on the field, that I could do a job. Even on the poor days I still believed that.”

The pressure comes in different forms.

“There are journalists but there are also what I call ‘computer hurlers’, fellas on websites criticising people. Their opinion doesn’t matter, and never has, but your family has that, they have to listen to radio stations reading out texts.

“I’d have felt a lot of hurt about that, but I’m a big boy, I can handle that.”

There was hurt last year. He nearly walked away after the Clare game but he stayed on for one last stand against Kilkenny.

“I had one thing on my mind for that game — my own performance. I know there were images of me crying and so on, that I’d retired — I had no decision made at that stage, I was just glad the season was over.

“The whole thing, the pressure — it was just relief that it was over. It was almost physical. Only for a couple of my close games I probably would have walked away after the Clare game, the criticism was so personal.

“That’s just how it is. In the last few weeks, for instance, I’ve met people who were criticising me all last season, yet they’ve been saying ‘when are you coming back’!”

He remembers the friends — Cork team trainer Jerry Wallace (“The work he put into me was nobody’s business”), his employers Lagans, his new mates in Highfield RFC (“They’ve been outstanding, I’m sorry I didn’t do it years ago”).

And his teammates. He e-mailed them yesterday with a simple message: they’d done it all, all together.

O’Sullivan is aware of how Cork are perceived after not one, but two
winters of discontent.

“People will always have their own opinions. Mistakes were made on all sides, and everybody would admit that — on all sides. Since 2002 people have built a persona up about this Cork team that they’re a law unto themselves. That’s not true.

“It’s always been about getting better. Teams prepare to give a performance, but it’s different in Cork, it’s different in Kilkenny. You’re preparing to win because you want to win. That’s what it has always been about, wanting to get to the top of the ladder.”

Having his father Jerry as Cork County Board chairman was another complication. “That was extremely difficult, but only once was it drawn into the gutter, by a certain man who got a phone call.

“My relationship with him has never been anything but unbelievable. He’d be the first person I’d talk to, for instance with this decision.

“Your family is your family. I’m
finished with intercounty hurling now, he’ll step down as county board chairman in a couple of years, he’ll look to new things and so will I. That’s part of life.”

O’Sullivan knows the rumour mill won’t be long cranking up, so he puts his retirement into an exact context.

“I said to (Cork manager) Denis Walsh a few weeks ago I wasn’t
interested in playing in the full-back line but felt I might have something to offer elsewhere on the field, we had a conversation about it.

“I went away, trained with Cloyne for a few weeks and when I spoke to him again he said they’d reviewed it and they’d decided to move on with the younger fellas.

“That’s fair enough, I knew that was the chance I was taking, and best of luck to them. Talking to the players, they’re very happy with him, and I even said to Denis on the phone today, ‘If you get these guys going in the right direction you will have the 30 most committed lads you’ll ever come across; this team can be very good for you and you can be very good for this team’. I think they can be an unbelievable combination.”

Good times? O’Sullivan and Cusack were strolling through Thurles after a game last year when a car pulled up and a voice echoed from within: “I didn’t see the two of ye since I carried you around Thurles.” It was Paul Shelley, reliving the 2000 Munster final. Other notables? The big man is generous.

“Colin Lynch has carried that Clare team for eight years on his own, since Daly and McMahon stepped down. Unbelievable. That’s a man I’d respect.

“Joe Canning — I consider myself a strong man but he just pushed me to one side last year and finished.

“The first player I’d buy for Cork if there was a transfer market would be Mullane. His commitment to Waterford in last year’s All-Ireland final (was) incredible. And a good man to talk out on the field, too.

“Shefflin has been incredible, too. What has he scored in the championship? He’s big, he’s physical, he can look after himself. Comerford, incredibly talented. Offaly, some of the best hurlers you’d meet in John Troy, the Dooleys. That’s the quality you’re up against.”

A last question about the good days gets an emphatic response.

“Highs? It’s a high every day you play for Cork. I have no regrets when it comes to hurling. None. You’re in that Cork jersey, you’re bulletproof.”

SOME weekend to be a citizen of the People’s Republic, even if most of the Cork people heading east yesterday didn’t have the Bird’s Nest in Beijing in mind. Croke Park wasn’t offering ceremony or choreography so much as conflict and collision, though given the apocalyptic darkness of Dublin on Saturday, a flaming torch wouldn’t have been a bad accessory.

The 71,235 spectators saw Cork take one victory south, a narrower-than-necessary three-point win (2-11 to 1-11) over Kildare in the football quarter-final. In the hurling semi-final Kilkenny put on an awesome display of power and precision to smother the men in red by nine points, 1-23 to 0-17. The Leesiders have been doing a Lazarus act in the last few weeks, but this was one rock they couldn’t roll away from the tomb.

Anyone trying to trace rust on the Kilkenny edges had some evidence early on: three wides in the first seven minutes isn’t what you expect from black and amber marksmen. Cork showed the benefit of those recent championship outings, meeting Kilkenny head-on in contact, and the All-Ireland champions had to rely — not for the first time — on Henry Shefflin to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

We mentioned rocks earlier. Diarmuid O’Sullivan began well and thrived, setting up a Jerry O’Connor point on 20 minutes. When Tom Kenny added another, Cork had a point to spare. Then Kilkenny did what Kilkenny do so well: they got a sniff of blood and opened the arteries.

A sequence of points ended with Eoin Larkin finding open country through the middle of the Cork defence on 23 minutes.

“I suppose a goal is a killer thing at that point of the game,” said Larkin after the game. “When I got it, things opened up for me — we had a two-on-one and I said I’d have a go.”

No sooner said than scored. Larkin tucked his shot into the corner and Cork would have been forgiven for trying to divert the floodwaters recently afflicting the capital to try and slow Kilkenny, but that would hardly have stopped them. Given Henry Shefflin’s form, he’d probably be able to part the waters and lead his team to the
Promised Land anyway.

Kilkenny tattooed 1-7 into Cork during that run of scores, and the men in red were eight behind at the break: it was the same
margin at half-time against Clare in the quarter-final, but there the resemblance ends. When an assassin has you by the windpipe he’s not inclined to offer an oxygen mask, and Kilkenny weren’t likely to facilitate the
resurrection men from the deep south.

Cork died hard — they put together a five-point scoring burst after the break themselves — the goal they needed wouldn’t come. Pa Cronin sniffed an opening on 47 minutes but JJ Delaney, that vanquisher of reputations, came between him and glory.

Afterwards Brian Cody spoke as plainly as ever: “All we could do is prepare and play the game. There were questions asked of us in the first 20 minutes of each half, when Cork were serious, but we weathered the storm and finished both halves strongly.”

For his part, Cork boss Gerald McCarthy had no complaints.

“We have to admire Kilkenny, we gave a marvellous performance up to the 23rd minute but we seemed to take our foot off the pedal a little bit and you can’t do that against Kilkenny, they rapped out an eight-point lead very quickly.

“Against a team like them, that’ll prove impossible to recover.”

In the All-Ireland SFC quarter final which opened the day’s proceedings, at least we weren’t waiting 25 minutes for a score, as happened in Kildare-Fermanagh, or the Amityville Horror as it’s now referred to.

Cork showed more spark than Kildare early on, and a clever finish by John Hayes, followed by Michael Cussen’s flick home, gave them a two-goal cushion they surfed, or at least sat comfortably upon, for much of the game.

In fairness to Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney, he didn’t dawdle, making four substitutions before the break, but his players looked off the pace, and the game was on schedule for a long, slow-puncture of an end game.

Then Cork made a few substitutions themselves, giving the likes of Fintan Goold and Michael Shields game time, and maybe that disruption to the personnel didn’t help their rhythm. They conceded two penalties, and though Alan Quirke saved one, when John Doyle buried the second there were only three points in it.

Conor Counihan won’t have enjoyed the end game, which involved Kildare knocking three times on the door for an equaliser that would have wiped the slow bicycle race against Fermanagh from the memory forever. The Cork boss now faces a reunion with Kerry and Pat O’Shea.

It is permissible to rub your hands at the prospect.

And at the prospect of next weekend. Kilkenny looked unstoppable yesterday. Waterford and Tipperary will have a few opinions on that matter, though next Sunday’s winners face a huge task against a driven team. Another driven team may have spent its last desperate hour together in Croke Park yesterday, with speculation already rife about possible retirements in the Cork camp.

Retirement from playing, that is. A good many of them cemented their standing as legends a long time ago.