Bryan Sheehan: Kerry's transformer man
WHEN Kerry's Darragh O Se retired at the end of the 2009 campaign, a host of names were tipped as possible replacements.
Many were obvious suggestions. Seamus Scanlon and Tommy Griffin had both partnered O Se in the engine room; Michael Quirke was on the verge of establishing himself and Anthony Maher had been knocking around the panel for a couple of years.
Another good young player, David Moran, looked ready to deliver on his potential. Whoever it was going to be, it's fair to say that Bryan Sheehan was well down the list.
Hailing from Cahirciveen and with his languid style and brilliant free-taking, Sheehan looked more in the mould of his elegant club-mate Maurice Fitzgerald than that of another St Mary's star, midfielder Jack O'Shea.
Sheehan made his championship debut in the 2005 win over Tipperary and seemed to belong in attack in the eyes of successive Kerry selectors.
And when his first start came against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final of that year, he was given the nod at right corner-forward at the expense of Mike Frank Russell in what was seen as a like-for-like switch.
Pat O'Shea retained the status quo when he took over in 2007, but with Paul Galvin absent through suspension for much of the 2008 campaign, he pushed Sheehan out to the half-forward line in a bid to accommodate the 'Twin Towers' of Kieran Donaghy and Tommy Walsh alongside Colm Cooper.
Tyrone outmuscled Kerry in that year's final, which marked a return to the full-forward line for Sheehan. And when O'Connor came back to guide Kerry to the 2009 title, Sheehan was out of favour and managed just one start.
Midfield wasn't a completely alien position to him. Over the last few seasons, he has lined out at centre-field for South Kerry, who have won four county titles since 2004, and he steered St Mary's to an All-Ireland junior club title earlier this year.
He's also been used as part of the 'B' team midfield in Kerry's in-house games.
Still, he never appeared to be a live option at centre-field for the two Kerry managers he has played under, both of whom would have known Sheehan since his teens.
And it remains to be seen whether O'Connor will leave him in centre-field for Sunday as speculation grows that Kieran Donaghy will be withdrawn, with Darran O'Sullivan moving to full-forward and Sheehan on the wing.
At the beginning of his inter-county career, Sheehan wasn't even an outfield player. He was a Kerry minor for three years from 2001 to 2003, but spent the first two of those seasons in goal before O'Shea switched him to full-forward. O'Connor also used him in goal when he was in charge of Colaiste na Sceilge.
However, the raw materials for midfield are there. At 6" 3' and 14 stone, he has the physique and when O'Connor's hand was forced due to David Moran's cruciate injury, he turned to Sheehan, who has since more than held his own -- including against Cork's much-vaunted midfield pairing.
It wasn't the first time O'Connor repositioned a player. Donaghy was famously posted to the edge of the square to revive the 2006 season, while Eoin Brosnan is now a centre-back, having previously been deployed at centre-field and No 11.
"It raised a few eyebrows," John Evans agreed when he heard Sheehan had been named at midfield for this year's championship opener against his Tipperary side.
"But maybe it was part of a realisation by the player himself and the management that forwards needed pace this year and that's not what Bryan has. And Jack O'Connor knows that being a free-taker isn't enough to get you in the side either.
"So, he went after the only option open to him. And in truth midfield only became open when David Moran got injured. That's not taking away from the lad, he has done well.
"Anthony Maher beside him has done well too. Anthony has been around a couple of years, but I've said before that Darragh O Se really came into his own when he got a few years into his 20s. It's often the case with those big fellas."
In his life as a forward, Sheehan averaged just under three points a game in his 34 championship appearances prior to this season, a stat that is more impressive when you consider that 14 of those outings came from the bench.
Since his switch to midfield, he has averaged 0-4 a game in a campaign that, like his team, hasn't always been stunning but has been consistent enough to get them where they want - Croke Park on the third Sunday in September.
And while Sheehan has adapted his game, the role of the midfielder has also changed, as Declan O'Sullivan pointed out earlier this year.
"Down in Kerry after Darragh O Se going, there was always going to be a lot of talk about midfield," O'Sullivan said. "It's become a big issue, you know, the Kerry midfield, but in the modern game you don't see a lot of high fielding anymore. It's more about the middle eight than the middle two."
Dublin's midfielders have also taken a circuitous route to Sunday's final. Michael Darragh Macauley was a noted basketball player before Pat Gilroy came calling, while Denis Bastick has finally established himself as a midfield regular, despite being initially used as a full-back by Dublin for the 2009 campaign.
And in among them could be Sheehan, the man O'Connor described in his book as someone he "wants more from in terms of aggression".
He hasn't been found wanting in that regard this year and Evans can see him crowning a remarkable transformation with another big performance this weekend.
"It's a completely different game Bryan is playing now," Evans said.
"Before, Bryan relied on his kicking and skill to get him by, but out in midfield, it's about endurance and toughness. He's doing a bit of both now and doing it well."