'Every game from now on is championship'
Talk of Kerry's demise hasn't convinced Darran O'Sullivan, who still sees plenty of hunger in the camp, as he tells John O'Brien
IT was a bright September day when he blazed, comet-like, across our horizon. Something elemental and Kerry about it. The small, spindly legs. The mop of fair-coloured hair. A small ball of fire, leaving scorch-marks on the turf behind him, nothing able to stop him, it seemed, bar the, ahem, close attention of a posse of defenders. They'd knock him down. He'd get up again.
It didn't take a genius to work out that, left to his own devices, Darran O'Sullivan would murder you. Laois had discovered it in the All-Ireland minor semi-final in 2004 when, early in the second half, they lost their wing-back for his second crude tackle on Kerry's talisman. It was the difference between them in the end. Now Tyrone awaited in the final. And, for sure, they would arrive with a plan.
One moment from that final stands out: O'Sullivan in possession, slaloming through a number of robust challenges, like a pinball, until he is finally a mottled heap on the ground, evoking memories of his namesake, Mickey Ned, against the Dubs in 1975 – "everybody's after him" – only this time, thankfully, nobody had to call for a stretcher.
Afterwards the Tyrone mentors angrily denied suggestions that O'Sullivan had been specifically targeted, a claim he still can't accept. "Arra look," he says. "There was like, there was . . . I spent most of that game on the ground. Any time I got the ball, I got kicked. Think they'd a good few yellow cards dished out to different individuals. Look, we just weren't used to it. We were a bit naive at the time. You're under 18s. All you want to do is play. Run around with the ball."
He's not still simmering with a sense of injustice, mind. Ever since his father, Con, first brought him to the Tír Chonaill Gaels club in north-west London, he understood the game exacted a greater physical toll than the soccer he played at the Queens Park Rangers school of excellence. And that sympathy for a young, waif-like forward might be slower in coming than he'd like.
Even now it is the way of things. "You'd get fellas saying, 'well you bring it on yourself'," he says, mimicking a Kerry accent thicker than his own. "You'd get them in the bank sometimes. I'd be limping after a game the day before. 'Well, you bring it on yourself'. And I'd be there, 'How, like? By playing the game the way it should be played?'"
By following his natural instincts. To compensate for lack of bulk, he was gifted blinding speed and never minded the trade-off. In another county, perhaps, a career as a crack sprinter might have beckoned. Every year, without fail, he'd win gold at the Kerry schools' 100m but the big meets fell on weekends and that meant a clash with football and his priority was always clearly defined.
Football always came first. Even in London. Soccer was fun but losing didn't hurt the way it did if he saw Kerry lose in one of the Irish bars Con frequented. That was real pain: the pain of belonging. His first match for Tír Chonaill came, ironically, against the Kingdom. He asked the kid marking him where he was from. "Killarney," came the reply. "Wow," he thought. When Con brought the family back to Glenbeigh, the place was so familiar it felt like a homecoming.
And the green and gold? He'd never dreamed about it. Just played and took each forward leap as it came: Glenbeigh, Mid Kerry, under-age county teams. He was still a minor when Jack O'Connor called one night and he thought it was one of his mates taking the piss. "What's up with you?" one of them asked. "I think Jack O'Connor just called me to go training," he said, still visibly shaken by the experience.
Funny looking back, though. How the next summer Jack would pull him aside before every game, telling him to be ready until when his debut came in the All-Ireland final, he found himself as unprepared as any debutant could be. When Tyrone beat them, he struggled to find a perfect balance between the hurt of losing and the pride of being a fixture. "It just felt a bit strange," he says.
In eight years he's never missed a championship game for Kerry but too many of them were on the periphery for his liking. It reached the stage, he thinks, that if he'd come on and scored 2-10 it would have made little difference. He'd be back warming the bench the next day. He was a weapon to spring late on. A precious "impact sub", two words that give him the shivers so many years on.
At first he was okay with it. Then he got older and crankier. He'd watch Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spring from the bench for his beloved Manchester United to score crucial goals and wonder why the Norwegian striker so placidly accepted his status, never thinking that he'd grow up to become an almost perfect carbon copy. Kerry's own Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
"I remember around 2007 Pat [Flanagan] had the subs do a bit of extra training and I snapped back at him. Sure I only have to be fit for 20 minutes. I was thick and cranky. I was still only 20 or 21 but I'd been around for a couple of years and just getting a bit fed up with it. I was getting a pain sitting on my hole."
He put his head down and bided his time. Nothing else he could do. In 2008, Mid Kerry won the county title and that brought O'Sullivan the Kerry captaincy for the following season. No big deal, though. O'Connor advised him to wear the responsibility lightly and the worst it brought was mean-spirited suggestions that the armband had effectively bought O'Sullivan's safe passage into the team.
"Like, there were a few games where I didn't start that year," he shrugs. "I was in and I was out. I'd a good league and I played well in the Munster final. I won my place back and kept it for the rest of the year. I remember feeling nervous about my place leading up to the final, even though I'd played well in the semi-final."
Four years have passed since he lifted the Sam Maguire that summer. Too long, he thinks. He's heard too much pub talk about how this Kerry team has aged and, more or less, fallen off the graph. A little while back he chanced upon a photo of the 2009 panel and counted 17 players still on active duty, most of the big guns still hanging on and firing.
"Like, Deccie's only 29. Donaghy has just turned 30, Gooch isn't yet 30. Tomás is probably the oldest at 34. But if you look at soccer players, they're not old at 32 or 33. People talk about mileage. I go to training and these boys are still the main fellas. If anything, they're getting even fitter and stronger. The hunger is there. Fellas are still very passionate about playing for Kerry."
He understands why this is so. He looks around at what others have achieved and it puts his own achievements into perspective. No temptation to ever get ahead of yourself. That, he believes, is what makes tradition and nourishes it. "No matter what you've won here, you're always playing catch-up. There's always someone out there who's won an awful lot more."
It doesn't get any easier, of course. He thinks of the scare Westmeath gave them in the qualifiers last summer without getting any credit for it. He sees the gap closing now, not just with Ulster, but right across the board. He cautiously accepts the notion that Kerry have to adapt to meet a new style of football. That journey, he says, is a personal as much as a collective one.
So the old dashing, free-spirited kid with the mop of fair hair is mostly a thing of the past now. He's not in mourning, though. Life has just moved on. He still hears little criticisms, people bemoaning a tendency to put his head down and run up blind alleys that he doesn't think exists anymore. If you counted the number of times he actually runs with the ball, he says, it would be far less than people imagine.
"I don't play like that for the club either," he says. "Kerry will always want to play the kicking game. If we went into training and Eamonn let us have a 15 v 15, it'd be a great game to watch. But it's not realistic. You have to adapt. You want to stick to your main principles, which is kicking, but you have to adjust too because otherwise you'll be left behind."
Where the game is headed, though, he's not certain. A few years ago he'd think nothing of playing a game in the afternoon and then devouring a few hours more on the box that night. Now that inclination is gone. He watched the club final on St Patrick's Day and enjoyed it. He heard the Dublin and Tyrone league encounter was good, but can't vouch for it. Maybe it's an age thing, but football has become a spectacle he can either take or leave.
He's not pointing the finger anywhere in particular. Just calling it as he sees it. If the new rules voted in at Congress last month help improve the game then he'll be happy, although he can't help feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the proposed changes. A black card for cynical fouls is all very well, he thinks, but why not go further?
"Something I always hated is seeing a fella being rugby-tackled to the ground. Always hated it. And then he'd get a mangy yellow card and it's a pop-over free. In soccer when a fella through on goal is fouled, it's a red card. I think that's fair. Goals win games. It's a big call. You take a man through on goal clean out. Should be off. That's how I've always felt."
The off-the-ball stuff kills him. The fact that there are invariably seven men officiating at every important GAA match and, yet, so much goes undetected. "Umpires?" he wonders. "They see things but don't call them. You try to keep your mouth shut during games, you don't want to be giving out all the time. But I'd often go in and have a word. Will ye wake up? Are ye going to do anything.
"And they just fob you off. So you end up shouting at the ref for what he can't see. It's impossible for him to see everything. I dunno. I just think umpires have to be encouraged to call these things. It can be a pain in the arse, like."
Again he's not pointing the finger here, northwards or anywards. Today Kerry head to Omagh to face their old rivals, their Division 1 lives on the line, and he knows old scores will be dragged up, a bright light shone on Paul Galvin, all stoked up to portray a bitter internecine feud that the players themselves don't recognise. He's never felt that way about Tyrone. Not even when they were knocking lumps out of him nine years ago.
A few years ago he was doing an Ulster Bank gig in Belfast when he bumped into Marty Murray, the Tyrone wing-back in that 2004 final. He enjoyed Murray's company and bore no grudge or malice towards him. Murray coached kids in a school in the city and loved his football. The same as any Tyrone footballer he has met or exchanged banter with on social media. The idea of a toxic rivalry. He just doesn't see it.
He has seen the recent fashion, though, of lumping the two teams together as creaking units, growing old together through the noughties and now struggling through difficult periods of transition.
Because of their respective positions – Tyrone sitting merrily on top of the league, Kerry facing doom – people assume the Ulster county is making more rapid progress. O'Sullivan isn't sure.
"When we played them in Killarney last year, I know people said maybe in terms of youth they were ahead of us. I kind of went 'but are they?' Maybe the young lads in Tyrone had to be rushed through that bit quicker. They went through their phase in Division 2. And it brought them on that bit extra. The young lads we have coming through are serious operators. They're coming in at a hard time when there's so many main fellas still around. So it's easier to bring them on slowly. But I think it will be better for them in the long run."
So no crippling sense of panic, then. If Tyrone condemn them to the depths of Division 2 then they'll regroup and deal with it. But they've seen bits of character appearing these past few weeks and that's encouraged them.
It wasn't part of a masterplan to appoint a callow manager and lose their first four league games in such abject fashion but, as it turned out, there was a silver lining all along.
"The way we see it, since we beat Down going forward every game from here on is championship. We'd two games left against Cork and Tyrone, two of our biggest rivals in recent years. Great. You're in championship mode early. Win every game from here until the end of the season."
The challenge has invigorated them. They returned from an intense five-day training camp in Portugal last Tuesday and O'Sullivan was amazed how fresh they felt. He's eight months into a marketing degree in DIT now and likes the extra time it affords for rest and recovery. In Dublin, he shares a home with Donnacha Walsh and makes it to Kerry for one session a week.
He likes the spirit among the bunch now, even if they haven't stopped teasing him for missing a penalty against Down three weeks ago. The decision to shoot with his weaker right foot elicited much feverish comment. O'Sullivan explained that his preference was to use his right when kicking off the ground. In 2009, he had scored a penalty against Meath with his left but that was because, he explains, he lacked the confidence then to shoot with his right.
And now? Should the chance arise, he says, he'll happily step forward and take aim with his right. And if he misses?
"I'll keep running," he smiles, "and I won't stop until I reach the dressing room."