Tuesday 28 February 2017

Vincent Hogan: ‘I couldn’t care less who we’re playing once we’re coming down on Monday with the Cup’

Kingdom scoring sensation Darran O’Sullivan talks to Vincent Hogan about his unconventional journey from the QPR School of Excellence to the dazzling heights of All-Ireland glory at Croke Park

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

FINAL MEMORIES (1) 'The Pig' was a big, unrefined Irish pub on South Ealing Road, next-door to Wickes' hardware shop. He went there, surly and resentful, sat up on a high stool and listened to the faraway Kerry whoops as Maurice Fitz gunned down Mayo.

If he could have picked out Con O'Sullivan in the Croke Park throng on TV, he'd undoubtedly have cursed him. Darran had been harassing his poor father for the previous month to include him in his travel plans. But tickets were scarce, flights expensive and the boy was only 11. Con chose to go alone.There'd be other September jaunts to Dublin.

IN KERRY, THIS is the time of year when things start making sense.

The county's metabolism is geared for an autumnal fuss. This is the seventh summer of Darran O'Sullivan's young inter-county life and it is about to decant his sixth All-Ireland final.

Familiarity brings out the best and worst in him. He was invited to last year's decider and found himself retching at the very thought of it. Kerry had been dumped on their backsides on the last day of July and, somehow, the idea of watching Cork and Down go toe-to-toe was repellent to his system.

So, he observed it at home in Killarney, alone, vexed, restless. "Couldn't go up and watch someone else lifting our cup," he says almost absent-mindedly now. "Ah t'was depressing.

"I just wanted to get it over and get going again. When Cork won, you're thinking to yourself : 'Oh God, I've to listen to this for the next year ... ' T'was definitely a right kick up the arse!"

He had approached the year with big plans and ended up fulfilling none of them. Captain in '09, he knew he was still -- essentially -- a peripheral constituent of the Kerry dressing-room. So, he'd taken a clean break from football and headed to America, pitching up at the Superbowl in Miami where he linked up with Gooch.

The holiday was wonderful, but costly. It left him chasing fitness and he spent last season cursing himself with thoughts of what might have been. By the time the League was over, he knew he was miles adrift of where he needed to be. Then Down handed Kerry their coats.

"Hit me like a ton of bricks," he remembers.

And, maybe, that was the moment Darran O'Sullivan tired of life on the fringes. He wintered in the gym, then threw himself into the McGrath Cup like a zealot. He was an ever-present in the League. And, in this, his seventh Championship summer, he has finally become a player.

It wasn't a case of reinventing himself. More a project of developing what he already possessed.

Jack O'Connor had plucked him straight from minor in '05 and, almost without knowing, maybe he'd just become deferential in a room of kings. Kerry tended to use him as an impact sub. All fine and dandy when you've got 'L' plates on your forehead.

But was he always going to be a kid?

"You can fall into a bit of a trap," he suggests now. "I'd look around the dressing-room and wouldn't be too talkative. I was kind of more 'Yerrah, I'll leave the boys at it!'

"But I knew the better I did as an impact sub, the less chance I had of starting. And there comes a time when you're p***ed off. I mean I like to think I'm not just about coming on with 20 minutes to go and running with the ball.

"I know that's my strong-point, but it's about timing really. I suppose the older I got, the more confident I became. And I started trying a few more things. And people maybe saw parts of my game they didn't know were there.

"You can't keep relying on the likes of Gooch or Declan or Donaghy or Galvin or the O Ses. You have to say to yourself eventually: 'Why don't you do it?'"

It was '98 when Con O'Sullivan brought the family home to Glenbeigh. The first 12 years of Darran's life had been spent in west London, part of a robust Irish community on Shakespeare Street in Ealing. Soccer had been his game and he was sufficiently accomplished to attend QPR's School of Excellence.

Con supported Arsenal, but failed in every effort to recruit his only son to the faith. All of their cousins back in Kerry were devoted to Manchester United and, eventually, Darran followed. He asked for the United kit one Christmas and remembers hurriedly opening the package.

Inside he discovered an Arsenal shirt. Yellow. Dinner that year was silent.

So, Con desisted and Darran became more vocal in his loyalty. His first time at Old Trafford, United beat Arsenal 6-1. The son didn't spare his father.

He'd go to QPR games at the time, but only out of convenience. One day, he stood in the crowd, watching United play at Loftus Road and was almost lynched for his reaction to an Eric Cantona winner deep in injury-time.

He'd been maybe nine the Saturday morning that Con first brought him down to Tir Chonaill Gaels for a stab at gaelic football. They went with a buddy of Darran's, Liam Dwyer. Liam was red-haired and the visual manifestation of every cliché about Irish physiology.

But his appearance was an illusion. He was Cockney to the bone and packed it in within a week. Darran never blinked.

He loved the game the moment he played it. Soccer was for Saturday afternoons, Gaelic for Sunday morning. One dovetailed with the other.

By the time the family went home to open a nursing home in Glenbeigh, Darran O'Sullivan knew where he stood. Sure he had aspired, for a time, to be the next Kevin Gallen or Nigel Quashie at QPR. But nothing came of his time in the School of Excellence and the disappointment didn't break him.

He'd already decided the shiniest star in the galaxy was probably Maurice Fitz.

FINAL MEMORIES (2)

"Be ready now!"

Jack's call had become regular as The Angelus chimes. Always the same instruction. He'd phoned before the quarter-final and, again, before the semi-final. "You could make an appearance here."

It sounded like a manager ticking boxes.

So, the week of the '05 final, Jack is on the phone again. "Ya Jack, no worries," says Darran. "I'll be sure to be on my toes." Next thing, he's up in the stand, watching Tyrone do their boa constrictor job on Kerry. The minutes are speeding away and someone's elbow hits him in the ribs.

He looks down on the line and Jack is pointing up. "Darran, you're on!" someone shouts.

The word 'f..k' bolts, unsolicited, from his mouth as he jumps to his feet and sprints. His senior debut in an All-Ireland final. "Nearly tripped going down the steps," he recalls now. There are maybe 20 minutes to save Kerry.

He goes in for Darragh O Cinneide, running like a dervish. After 30 seconds, his hands are on his hips, his lungs are on fire. He's panting. Tyrone are rough and street-smart and unfazed by the kid with the smoking heels. They win by a goal.

"Did I shed any tears or not? Can't remember," recalls O'Sullivan. "Probably got over it quicker than I would losing a final today."

ON THE DAY DUBLIN overcame Donegal, he found himself "flicking" between TV channels. Kieran O'Leary was with him and the sheer weight of stalemate in Croke Park had them checking for updates from Old Trafford. It was a day when United would score as often as Dublin. One for the birds.

The student in him watched Dublin's defenders carry the ball forward, but what could he learn from the spectacle? Donegal conceded that third of the pitch. It was a non-aggression zone, offering nothing in the way of education.

His thoughts on the spectacle?

"Will it ever end?" he smiles. "Look, Donegal have their way of playing and they probably saw it as playing to their strengths. They won their first Ulster title in 19 years with that style. But, as a spectator or a fan, you don't really want to watch it, do you?"

If the physicality was unrelenting, at least he could applaud that. The morning after their own semi-final win against Mayo, he took himself down to Rossbeigh beach and paddled in the icy water. "Felt like I'd been hit by a bus," he smiles. Pain was never a problem.

But, as he watched Diarmuid Connolly get sent off against Donegal, O'Sullivan saw something that repulsed him. It was like watching a man get caught in a fly-trap.

"As a forward, obviously you'd love an oul handy game, kicking points left, right and centre," he says now. "But I love a good physical game too. Most fellas in our dressing-room would. You respect a good hit, like. "To be able to hit a fella 50-50, you know rattle away at each other, there's nothing better than that. It brings the best out of you, I think. It's the niggles I hate. I mean I can deal with it away, I'm a long time used to getting little kicks and pinches. I start to laugh at it.

"But I just think it's so false. I respect a fella who'll go out and give you a good rattle. But a lot of the game now is just niggles. They're only waiting for you to do something. One little thing. Push a fella back now and he'll go down.

"And I've no time for it."

He had two goal openings in the first few minutes of the Mayo game and finished neither. It hadn't been a conscious effort to go for the kill. Just a desire to get ball in hand and test his brittle hamstring.

At work the following week, people weren't slow to comment on his profligacy. In Kerry, no-one tiptoes.

He'd scored a goal in the quarter-final against Limerick that, had it come from the boot of Lionel Messi, might have been declared an eighth wonder of the world. Bryan Sheehan's low delivery and a barely perceptible flick with his heel. As it happens, the score just drew his team-mates' mirth.

They knew, you see, how daft a man might look in Croke Park if his imagination made him fall over. Declan O'Sullivan was chuckling as Darran wheeled away. He could read the smiles around him.

"Could easily have gone wrong and I'd have looked a desperate fool in a heap on the ground," he shrugs. "I could try it a hundred times and I might only get it right once.

"Look, I can't say I didn't enjoy it. But, after a week, I was fed up of being asked about it. I wanted to move on, because I just felt it was draining the life out of me."

The romance of meeting Dublin is for another generation. He's seen the video of Kerry's 'Golden Years' and understands the intimacy of that team's relationship with the city boys. But those heroes are grey and a little hunched now.

"It's like a fairytale that you've been hearing about for years," says O'Sullivan. "But you don't want to get sucked into the hype of it. Leave it up to the supporters to be getting excited about the old days.

"I couldn't care less who we're playing, once we're coming down on Monday with the Cup."

FINAL MEMORIES (3)

Paidi's animals.

They don't mean any harm, but their voices can be sharp as scalpels. He is Kerry captain, fronting a bank teller's window in Killarney and candour is the customers' plat du jour. It's '09, the summer of scraping past Longford and Sligo in dowdy Saturday evening qualifiers after an unholy Munster replay trimming from Cork.

A big quarter-final victory over Dublin sits as the team's only forceful statement of summer. People see it as a dangerous illusion.

"Can't see it," customers tell him unapologetically the week of the final. And, as they turn away, he reads more than scepticism in their eyes. Of Kerry's seven games to date, their captain has played just one in its entirety.

"In the back of your mind, you know they're saying: 'This lad's only getting a start because he's captain'," Darran recalls now.

Kerry beat Cork by four points. He gets to lift the Sam Maguire. "Told you, didn't I?" the retired doomsayers grin when next they call. "T'would be worse if they didn't care," he smiles.

HE WILL BE A CREATURE of habit from beginning to end this weekend.

Same seat on the bus, same perch in the dressing-room, same pair of lucky jocks. The night of the Mayo game, they were coming out of Jury's after a meal when he spotted Peter Crowley make a bee-line for his place -- the window seat directly in front of Donaghy and Scanlon with their long legs in the exit row.

Peter is young and out of the same Killorglin school that Darran came home from England to. He was trying it on. O'Sullivan ran him.

He is laughing as he talks of "the P45s" handed out by senior men to the Kerry upstarts. Everyone has a distinct place in the dressing-room hierarchy. He lives in the same estate as Gooch and, when in Dublin, they room together.

Tonight they'll be thankful for the distractions of the Premiership and they'll kill time chatting about just about anything, bar Dublin. Gooch is a devout Liverpool man. There's plenty of fuel for a healthy fire.

Darran is into his Twitter and Facebook, too, though stays mindful of the pitfalls. He points to the fact that he has in excess of 2,000 'friends', but knows only "about 30 of them." Recently an entire Twitter exchange he had with Paul Galvin was recycled to make a newspaper article.

Now he tweets with a mine-sweeper's caution. He follows more than leads.

To begin with, he tracked the musings of Dubs like Bernard Brogan, Barry Cahill and Mossy Quinn. He hopped a few balls, then left it. He got a tweet from Tommy Bowe and remembers thinking "How cool am I?" He follows a few professional footballers and golfers.

There is just one golden rule. Darran never tweets about Kerry. "Better to keep my mouth shut," he smiles.

He feels no tension on the big days. Once a cousin mentioned seeing the Kerry bus speed towards Croke Park for a previous final. But something confused him. "You looked like you were asleep," he said to Darran.

"Yerrah, I probably was!"

Donaghy berated him for it once, mistaking the shut-eye for ambivalence. "Get your f***ing head on the game," he shouted. O'Sullivan smiled, telling him it was already there.

"Don't know how or don't know why, I just do," he says. "I put the headphones on and close my eyes. I used listen to Arctic Monkeys, but it was a little too high energy. I'd be wired coming off the bus.

"Now I have a few songs that I'll keep to myself. I'll be away in a world of my own. I tend to wake up just as we're pulling into Croke Park. You're kind of giddy, excited and nervous all at the same time. I love that feeling.

"That's when I know I'm exactly where I want to be."

Irish Independent

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