'Kerry lack somebody to close out games since Darragh left in 2009 – if he had been playing in 2011 against Dublin we would have won'
In his first summer out of the Kingdom furnace, Tomas O Se tells Vincent Hogan of Paidi's enduring influence, his huge pride in wearing the shirt, and why he won't he miss it
The days are simpler now, but smaller too. For two decades, football held him in a closed fist and Tomas O Se imagined that retirement would bring tumultuous freedom.
The game compels a man to be selfish and O Se doesn't deny he met that duty faithfully. When it was gone, he believed he would find time for so much that had been neglected.
It hasn't happened yet. "Still feel as if I'm chasing my tail," he smiles.
You hear the wisdom and iron of his godfather when he speaks. Paidi opened so many windows in the O Se boys' heads, it is like he never died, never left their lives. Tomas grew up as a kind of page for Paidi's obsession. He'd watch him disappear over the mountain towards Dun Chaoin on one of those cruel winter runs and have it timed when to head to the beach with the poles and Paidi's boots.
After maybe 14 miles on the road, Paidi would then assemble this grid of makeshift hurdles up the side of a dune and, in brutal, panting shuttles, do his Ed Moses thing.
His message to his nephews needed no translation. This was what it took to play for Kerry.
Whatever way you boil it down, they followed Paidi's template. So, when the county board ditched their uncle as Kerry manager after defeat by Tyrone in '03, it felt personal.
That hurt never translated into spite or recrimination, yet the story went that maybe they didn't quite pull for Jack O'Connor after. It wasn't true.
When Tomas talks about Paidi, he sees the rogue as well as the giant.
"We were living right across the road as kids, so we saw him training, we saw what Kerry meant to him," he says now. "We saw him sacrificing his job with the guards, we saw him not giving a s**t about the pub.
"Throughout the years being with him, being in his company, the way he spoke about former players, the way he really enjoyed speaking to the Paddy Bawns of this world – he showed you that Kerry was more important than the team you were playing in, bigger than any man.
"To him, it was up there with religion. The history of Kerry was so important to him. And it was important to him not to let Kerry down in any way. That's what we learnt from him. We learnt what you had to do in terms of preparation, we learnt the importance of Kerry, we learnt – in a bad way, I suppose I did anyway – that you had to be selfish.
"And there was no more selfish man than Paidi. He'd say that straight out. You have to be selfish, you have to get yourself right. So I was selfish throughout my career too, in every regard. Work suffered, personal life suffered, everything.
"That's what we got from him, everything that we knew. Kerry was always No 1. Club came second. Paidi was one of the worst clubmen of all time, he'd rarely play with them. To be fair, we gave a lot to the club when we could. But No 1 was Kerry. We did well with the club when Kerry did bad and that was no coincidence.
"I've said it before, he was the greatest Kerryman I've ever seen in terms of what I consider a Kerryman. Kerry is a great, proud county and he was one of the proudest of them all, which lent itself to why we got p****d off when he was removed."
In August of '03, Tyrone suffocated Kerry in Croke Park. At the end of the game, a Kerry supporter came onto the field and struck Paidi. He did not want to leave in those circumstances but two months later, after hearing through a third party of the county board's intentions to seek a new manager, Paidi announced he would be stepping down.
"We all know that Paidi was no saint," reflects Tomas now. "And maybe his time was up, but I didn't like the way he was treated. It was handled badly and that left a sour taste. But he would have been the first man to say Kerry is bigger than any of this.
"Despite what the media think of there being a problem with Jack or whatever, there wasn't a problem with Jack. We rowed in straight away, there was never an issue. I never had a bad word to say about Jack. I think other people made it an issue. I think possibly Jack made it an issue, but it just wasn't one for us.
"Naturally, we were delighted when Paidi won a Leinster with Westmeath the following summer. Because there was a lot of people who doubted his ability. I don't care what anybody says, he brought the life back into Kerry football. He brought a passion back into Kerry football.
"One of the biggest days in terms of that was the '96 Munster final below in Cork, when they beat a Cork team that still thought they were on top of the world. Billy (Morgan) and Paidi on the sideline. It was a kind of a stand that said, 'Kerry are back here and we won't be pushed around!'.
"That day was one of those statements. He brought the Kerryness back into Kerry that wasn't there since Mick O'Dwyer."
THE end? It had been rattling around a back room in his head maybe since 2010 when, through suspension, he sat out Kerry's championship eviction by Down.
But he held tight for 2011 and, Heaven help them, Kerry got one hand on the canister that year. Their misfortune, of course, was that Dublin managed two. Kerry should have closed the game out and he reckons, if Darragh had still been there, they would have.
So he kept at it. Horsing himself through more winters when "it's just darkness and lights and sloggin' through the dirt and muck". The league was never his cup of tea (heavy pitches and unfamiliar opponents, ravenous for ball) and over the years it armed him with a personal hatred of some venues, none more so than Castlebar.
Only when the hour went back, and they could reconvene in Killarney where there are no lights, did it feel as if summer was ever reachable.
As a footballer, Tomas O Se always liked to keep the outside world at arm's length. So when people looked at him, they just saw an O Se, another man of granite. He did few media interviews, kept himself to himself at team meetings (which he always hated). People saw his intensity, knowing nothing of where it came from.
Yet every year, he'd return with the same doubts reeling through his head. The very first day he played senior for Kerry, an unheralded Corkman gave him an "awful skinning". Aidan Dorgan, he can admit now, was a perfect prototype of the kind of forward he dreaded marking.
Small and pacy with a low centre of gravity. Marking that kind of man, Tomas likens to chasing a wasp.
A week after that game, he played county championship for West Kerry against East Kerry. Picked at full-back, he had the misfortune to be marking Johnny Crowley.
"If you remember, Johnny was on fire that year ('98)," he grimaces. "F*****g hell, he buried a goal inside two minutes. Then I pulled him down for a peno maybe three minutes later. It's a terrible, terrible feeling to get a skinning."
He mentions a game too from around that time against Wicklow in Killarney. Trevor Doyle kicked four points off him from play. The detail has been singed into his senses with a branding iron. And that's the funny thing. For all the big games and trophies O Se won, the bad days still return to him with sharper clarity.
The nerves? He kept those largely to himself.
But often he'd feel so ponderous in the warm-up to a big game, he'd find himself murmuring to Darragh: "Jesus Christ, I feel f****d!". They both knew it would pass, that it was simply symptomatic of the war he had to wage with his own mind.
"It didn't get easier down the years in terms of nervousness," he says. "I was a very nervous player, but I loved routine. Coming into games, I was grand so long as we were doing something. But I hated meetings. I'd hear lads talking about specific players and situations that might arise and my heart would be absolutely thumping.
"I mean, once a game started, I'd be grand. I was never afraid to attack a game or anything like that. But beforehand, the nerves were always there. Even going in on buses, I would often think, 'I swear to God I wish I was anywhere else than going in here now!'."
He drove himself so hard, always setting the private challenge of being one of Kerry's best three players on any day, that when he fell short of that, his natural setting became "cranky".
In latter years, people saw the accumulation of red cards and mumbled through the cracks in their fingers that, maybe, Tomas O Se was "losing it". Deep down, he knew he'd given them reason.
In March of 2012, Tomas was sent off for the third time in 10 months. It was a league game against Laois in Killarney and Jack O'Connor had phoned him the day before. Tomas was just returning from suspension for a dismissal against Armagh the previous month.
"You need to hold the head now Tomas," said O'Connor.
"No I'm grand, got the head right, I'm good!"
Ten minutes in, a Laois player collided with him and O Se reacted. "Next, the sideline man had his flag up and I knew. I was back home in Cork before the game had even finished. That was the worst day, I just felt like packing it in.
"The thing is I would argue that, when I needed to control it, I controlled it. It was in the league I was getting red cards. And looking back, any of those red cards were really stupid. If I had known I was going to get red, I'd have got my value out of it.
"But just these sad punches like. To be fair, a lot of the lads wouldn't even have gone down. And I'd be there thinking to myself, 'Jesus I'm one right clown!'."
He might have squeezed another year from it but, at 36 in June, he knew he'd have been pushing his luck. The older you get, the more likely you become a target. "Take him on, take him on, burn him!" was a sideline cry he had become familiar with.
He thinks back to '97 now, when he was just coming through as a squad player as Paidi led the Kingdom to their first All-Ireland in 11 years. He recalls the "fervour and madness" of that time with a sense of privilege.
The game was plainer and less detailed then. Paidi did almost everything for them bar drive the bus. Now there are small armies delegated to tend a county footballer's needs.
"Kerry now have two masseurs, a physio and a doctor – that's four medical staff – at every training session," he says.
"We'd have all our gear laid out for us when we go in. All you brought was a towel. Every drill you'd be doing would be written down. There was a dietician who'd come out to your house if need be and show you how to cook a proper meal. When I started, John O'Keeffe came in with Paidi and we used to do laps and laps and laps. You'd be flying fit, but there was no ball involved in those laps. We used run up these hills in Killarney and there'd be fellas staying at the top, puking above.
"Twas cruel stuff when you think back on it, but they're the kind of sessions I used to enjoy. I'd love doing well in them because that'd be confidence for the brain.
"But nowadays, the training sessions are so long and, near the end, it used to crack me up having these long sessions with long chats in the middle of the session where fellas would be getting half cold. The game is broken down to such a degree now.
"Jesus, we used to play in Munster finals and you'd barely know the fella you'd be marking!"
LIKE Paidi before him, he became one of the greatest that Kerry ever sent out in the green and gold.
But they had different ideas on football, different interpretations of how to play from No 5. Paidi's view was old school. Hold your ground, mark the No 12. When he was manager, he'd discourage the nephew from making those surges forward that became his trademark.
"There's six fellas up there to do that job, leave it to them!" he'd roar.
Nor did he share his uncle's weakness for piseogs. He remembers one day when they were children, sitting into the car at Ard an Bhothair to go to a match and waiting for Paidi to start the engine.
"What's going on Paidi?"
Then he started smiling. "I think it was some cat he was waiting to see," says Tomas. "Another time he got pulled by the guards for breaking the speed limit and he was nearly delighted. Twas the Thursday before a big game and he just took the penalty points on the chin.
"'Jesus that's good now' he said when the guards had left. 'Cos the same thing happened me in '97!'."
His death left a hole, not just in their lives, but in Kerry itself. But the seas still churn around Slea Head and, on a clear day, the Blaskets still look like they're made of perfect green baize.
Living in Cork, maybe it was easier for Tomas to call time when he did. Last year hurt because they believed they were going to beat Dublin. They'd closed the gates to training and rumour spread that it might have been to conceal how badly they were moving.
But Eamonn Fitzmaurice had them beautifully primed.
"We knew that everybody was expecting Dublin to roll over us," he says.
"Even the Kerry public thought that we were only chugging inside. But I think a lot of the older fellas possibly were just waiting for a big carrot. We knew we'd rattle them as long as we played quick football.
"But I think since Darragh left in '09, we lack somebody to close out games for us, to put in that killer ball to the forwards. If Darragh was playing in 2011, we would have won the All-Ireland. I've no doubt in my mind."
In fact, as he reflects on The Kingdom's failure to go all the way since 2009, it's clear that he feels the team is missing the leadership and steel which could always be relied upon when his older brother was at the heart of the engine room.
"There was a couple of players where physically ... .. Cork around the middle of the field, Dublin with Michael Darragh Macauley, I felt ... ..and I think it's kind of going out of the game ... .if Macauley was coming in, t'was a great strength of Darragh's and I think it's something Kerry are lacking is to physically bate them into the ground or something," he says after considered thought.
"And he'd stand over him for a second as if to say, getting a message across like, 'We won't be bullied here today ... '
"I think that's kind of left Kerry a small bit. Think they need more of that around the middle of the field. They need to be sending out messages. Standing up for yourself. We had fellas all over the field that would do that. You'd always be back up like. If a fella was in trouble ... ..like they can't send off seven fellas."
Tomas says he rang Fitzmaurice a week before making the announcement. "Just told him that I didn't think I could get to where I wanted to be anymore and that it was making me cranky," he says. "I didn't want any hullaballoo."
And there was none. One of the greatest careers of the modern game thus closed out almost discreetly. So Tomas O Se finds himself outside the wire for the first real time since breaking onto the Kerry minors in '95.
Perhaps, in time, it will break his heart, but for now he leaves with no regrets. "Jesus I've played with some of the greatest players that ever played the game," he says. "Men like Gooch, Moynihan, Maurice Fitz, Darragh, Declan.
"Everything I have today, all the friends I have, I got through the GAA, through Kerry. I've had a great innings."