'We don't want our good run to end'
Declan O'Sullivan believes Kerry can cope with the loss of some key players, as he tells Marie Crowe
N O sooner has the summer started than the rumours surrounding Kerry football begin to circulate. Declan O'Sullivan is impressively dismissive. "I don't know what you're talking about." End of story.
Being a Kerry footballer can be frustrating, admits O'Sullivan. Players are used to the constant flow of tall tales and only wonder what the next story will be or who it will be about. But football is part of the Kingdom's staple diet and he knows that you just have to deal with it.
"Football is all they talk about down at home and some stories can't be bad enough for certain people. If they hear a rumour in the street, they want to talk about it or add to it. The best ever is when they hear it from 'a good source inside the camp'. We just laugh it off, at this stage it's fast becoming a running joke."
O'Sullivan captained Kerry to back-to-back All-Ireland titles at 24, by his own admission "a bit young at the time". The responsibility brought pressure, but no more than goes with the territory. The centre-forward has had more ups than downs in his career and he knows how to handle both.
"I've developed a thick skin but the main thing I do is stay within my own circle of friends. I try not to listen too much to loose talk around the town. If I want to talk about football, I do it with the players. I have developed mechanisms to stay away from the hype or the controversies that might be going on. Experience helps develop patterns and routines and I just stick to them."
When O'Sullivan was captain in 2006, a dip in form saw him dropped by Jack O'Connor, with Colm Cooper taking over the captaincy. The decision by O'Connor to recall him for the All-Ireland final was met with a mixed reaction in the media and among supporters. It was a tough time for O'Sullivan but he has learned from it.
"I had played a lot of football before that, I was a bit tired and the whole team was playing very well at the time. It's water under the bridge and I don't want to be remembered for that incident. The enjoyment goes out of it if you are at the centre of those kind of rumours but I've moved from that time."
O'Sullivan has been guided by Jack O'Connor for most of his playing years and he credits the current Kerry boss for having a big influence on his career. When advice was needed, O'Sullivan often turned to his fellow Dromid clubman for direction. "I've known Jack for a
long time and played for a lot of teams that he has been involved in. We have great respect for each other. He is a fella I've looked up to down through the years from schools football to now."
Their relationship was often scrutinised by the Kerry public and the media. It put pressure on O'Sullivan and forced him to work harder to establish himself as a worthy recipient of a starting jersey.
"I felt like I had to come away from that shadow. I couldn't be relying on Jack to show me any favouritism. People used to think that he was giving me favouritism but I think I've proven myself since then."
O'Sullivan is now recognised as one of the best centre-forwards in the country. He has three All-Star awards and four All-Ireland medals. Amid all the hype that surrounds the game in Kerry, he has emerged as a steadying force on the team and one of their core leaders. And now, in the wake of the Kingdom's recent defections, he is ready to step up to the mark once again.
"I definitely feel now more than ever that I need to be a leader. We've a lot of personalities in the dressing room so it's up to myself and the more experienced fellas to lead from the front. Every team that goes out and wins needs to have a lot of leaders."
As he enters his eighth championship season, he has more pressure than ever to contend with. The departures of Tommy Walsh and Tadhg Kennelly, combined with the retirements of Darragh ó Sé and Diarmuid Murphy have left a huge void in Kerry's starting team.
"At the end of the day, 15 fellas are going to go out to do their best. Yes, we have lost important players, but we can make up for that in other areas by work rate and attitude.
"It will be very difficult to fill Darragh's boots, Seamus Scanlon is the number one midfielder there and it's up to the likes of Mike Quirke, Anthony Maher and David Moran to claim that position. It will be up to all the players around that section to make up for the loss of Darragh."
This year has seen a major transition in the Kerry panel, with up to 11 players being replaced. Even though some of the Kingdom's big names have left, O'Sullivan doesn't see it as the end of his team's successful period.
"Those of us who are still playing for Kerry don't want our good run to come to an end. We have been in six finals in the last six years and there is a great belief within the camp that we can keep it going. I know from talking to some of the lads who retired that when it's over, it's over and you can't get the time back again. So we know that we have to make the most of it and we all intend to do that.
Kerry finished fourth is this year's league, losing to Dublin, Cork, Mayo and Tyrone and O'Sullivan concedes that they didn't expect much more for the campaign.
"The league this year was unusual for us. I suppose the last few years have been very competitive but this year with the lads retiring, it probably panned out the way we expected it to. The new fellas were getting games and we struggled for a lot of it, but the main thing was to stay in Division 1 and we did that.
"Overall, the league was better this year than it was last year, we won it last year but I don't think we learned a whole pile about ourselves. So this year has been good from that point of view. We have blooded new players, we have lost games, we found out what we were doing wrong and what wasn't working for us.
"Sometimes you can overlook the basics. After winning an All-Ireland, you think you have it cracked and then you go into the league with your eyes closed and you forget about the basics. When you start losing a few games, you have to go back to basics, get the workrate and the attitude right and I think the league was good for that. It allowed us to zone in on those things."
And so it's Tipperary today for the first round of the Munster championship and although the provincial structure has come under increasing fire recently, O'Sullivan doesn't believe that scrapping it is the best option.
"From our point of view, there is a lot of history with the provincial system, that's what the GAA is built on. It's part of the history and the tradition of the sport and I think if we take away too much of that it becomes diluted. If you ask any of the Kerry or Cork fellas, or more so the Limerick or Tipperary lads, they will tell you that they want to win a Munster championship. Taking that away from those fellas wouldn't be fair."
One thing that's not going anywhere soon is O'Sullivan's enjoyment of the game. With the questions over Kerry you get the sense they are glad to be getting into action early.
"The whole team are really looking forward to it. Certainly there is a question mark over us at this stage of the year with the fellas leaving. "But we have a point to prove and that's a great way to be going into the year."
End of story.