Having waited in the wings for his opportunity, Graham O’Sullivan has now established himself as one of Kerry’s key defenders. John O’Dowd charts his breakout season
From the beginning of the year, it was pretty obvious that Jason Foley and Tom O’Sullivan were set to form two-thirds of the Kerry full-back line. With plenty of senior experience already under their belts, and coming into their primes as footballers, they were relative shoo-ins to hold their starting spots.
The topic of much conversation was on the potential recipient of the green and gold no.2 jersey. Would Brian O Beaglaoich continue in that role, even though the An Ghaeltacht man looked more comfortable in the half-back line? Or, after such a superb county championship campaign, would the fast-developing Dylan Casey be a bolt from the blue?
After the opening six games of the season (three in the McGrath Cup, three in the National League), we appeared to have got our answer. A newcomer to the panel, like Casey, Dan O’Donoghue attacked the year with such gusto and with such competency in his overall performances that it wasn’t an exaggeration to say that his impact was revelatory.
The Spa defender, forced to bide his time for several seasons despite his key role in East Kerry’s back-to-back Bishop Moynihan Cup victories, had, most certainly, grasped his opportunity with both hands. Accomplishing his primary tasks at the back with aplomb, O’Donoghue was showing that he was more than capable of coming forward to kick a score as well.
At this stage of the 2022 campaign, Graham O’Sullivan was in danger of becoming the forgotten man. A two-time All-Ireland-winning Kerry minor, a former Kingdom under-21, and now in his fourth year in the senior squad, the Dromid Pearses man wasn’t really being talked about by the footballing faithful in the county. From the outside, he seemed to be falling down the pecking order.
How quickly things can change. When Kerry travelled to Inniskeen to play Monaghan in late February in the fourth round of the league, O’Donoghue got a rest after six starts on the spin, with Casey being drafted in. While O’Sullivan, and the Spa man, would be introduced off the bench later that afternoon, it was a leg injury picked up by the latter that would transform both men’s seasons.
O’Donoghue’s momentum, then on a serious upward curve, was stopped dead in its tracks. He hasn’t played for Kerry since. Thankfully back on the training pitch, and restored to club action over the past few weeks, it remains to be seen at this stage if the Spa man has enough work done to be included in the match-day 26 for the upcoming All-Ireland quarter-final.
Yet, such are the vagaries of top-level sport, while the Kerry management were undoubtedly gutted for O’Donoghue, time doesn’t stand still, and somebody else had to step in to fill the void. From the moment he was named in the starting fifteen against Mayo at Austin Stack Park next time out, that man has been Graham O’Sullivan.
Wing-back that horrible, wintry March night in Tralee, the versatile South Kerry man remained in that position for the subsequent clashes against Armagh and Tyrone before reverting to the corner on Gavin White’s comeback from a hamstring injury for Kerry’s stunning victory over James Horan’s outfit in the Division One final at Croke Park.
Finally making his inaugural senior championship start on May 7 at Pairc Ui Rinn against Cork, and adding to that in the Munster final against Limerick three weeks later, Graham O’Sullivan now finds himself with six consecutive full outings under the belt, and with the consistency of his displays, is virtually nailed-on to retain his spot the weekend after next when Kerry and Mayo lock horns for the third time this year.
Dromid Pearses chairman Micheal O Sé is not surprised by the dogged perseverance that has characterised O’Sullivan’s battle to truly make himself a mainstay of this Kerry side going forward. It wasn’t an instant progression from the underage ranks, there have been many false dawns along the way, but the character of the individual has never been found wanting.
“Graham is a pure gentleman, I think he is training to be a teacher, and he will excel at it. He’s really good natured, I took a picture of him the last day at our home game and at half-time all the young lads went over to him, and he started kicking ball with them. He’s just a real genuine lad, with no airs and graces at all, a pure nice lad,” he said.
“He did get injured at one stage in with Kerry, he did his ankle and then he had hamstring trouble, it was just a few bits like that, it just didn’t happen for him for a while, and he didn’t kind of really break through until this year, you could say really. Only for Dan O’Donoghue getting injured, but once he got his chance, he took it. He has nearly nailed himself down there now, he has played very well.
“It can quickly change. For himself too, he was probably kind of looking at it and saying that it’s now or never, that kind of way. I remember in the league earlier on this year when Kerry were winning well against Dublin, he didn’t even get a run in that game. And you were thinking will it happen at all? Then Dan got injured, and Graham just slotted in there, it was seamless really.”
Coming under the managerial wing of Jack O’Connor for the third time, having been with him at minor and under-21 grades, has obviously been a boost to his fellow Dromid man this year but, as was exemplified back in January and February when he struggled for any game-time, there has been no red carpet treatment laid out for O’Sullivan. He has had to fight his corner to get where he is today.
“He was always a great tackler, an unbelievable tackler. He always had the legs, great engine, he can go all day, and I think against Cork, that was pure Graham. Jack knows what potential is in him, he had him at minor level as well. He definitely knew what was there, and it’s been just to get it out of him.
“Frustration might be a strong word, but you always knew that he had it, but it just wasn’t happening for him, for one reason or another. He’s still only 24 I think, we’re watching him a long time, but he is probably just maturing now at the right age. Any management that comes in, there is always a new freshness to it, and it’s just probably a mixture of all those things coming together now,” added a proud Dromid Pearses chairman.
That is it in a nutshell. After three bits and pieces seasons for O’Sullivan at senior level, it really now is all coming together for him. Through his own hard graft and strength of character, through a change of management, through an unfortunate injury to a team-mate, and vitally, through his own footballing ability to take his chance when it came, this really is the big breakthrough.
Barring any unforeseen injury in training, the Kerry defensive sextet is picking itself at this moment in time. The fact that Graham O’Sullivan is one of that six shows how far he has come in the space of three or four months. As the countdown truly begins to crunch time against Mayo, that Kingdom no.2 jersey is in very safe hands.