Thursday 22 February 2018

Cian O’Sullivan has overcome an injury woes to embody Pat Gilroy’s new breed of Dub defenders

Eight minutes into last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, Tyrone defender Sean O'Neill got possession just outside his own 45-metre line and instantly surveyed the landscape opening up in front of him. For once there was space.

Out towards the Cusack Stand side at the Hill 16 end, Dublin had relaxed the stranglehold that was a feature of the opening exchanges. O'Neill picked his spot and threaded a pass to an area where Mark Donnelly, his team's full-forward, had a headstart.

But over the space of no more than 15 metres, that headstart was obliterated. By the time Cian O'Sullivan had swooped to pick up possession he was more than a metre clear. Over such a short distance it was a staggering turnaround and one of those moments that fuelled arguably the best 35 minutes of football this Dublin team has played.

When O'Sullivan followed it up with another similarly impressive stride to make up ground on Donnelly and pass him out to gather a Justin McMahon pass near the end of the half, Donnelly had a look of bewilderment on his face. Where had this guy come from?

It was O'Sullivan's first 35 minutes of competitive football all season with Dublin, which made his contribution in those terms all the more remarkable. And it made it easier to see why this current Dublin management are so willing to wrap him up in cotton wool for as long as it takes and so anxious to get him back into action when fitness dictates that he can.


O'Sullivan burns opponents with his pace. It is essentially his calling card. But with such quickness comes a downside. He has never known a season with Dublin where his brittle hamstrings haven't ached and eventually torn.

It has led to quite a fractured career since Pat Gilroy called him and a number of his Kilmacud Crokes colleagues into the squad after their 2009 All-Ireland club triumph over Crossmaglen Rangers.

Already this year he has sat out the earlier rounds of the Leinster championship, a pathway he also took in 2011 until that All-Ireland quarter-final. In 2010, he made his first championship start against Wexford but pulled up after only a couple of minutes and took most of the summer to recover.

O'Sullivan has the aura of an established Dublin defender that the statistics can't portray. In four championship seasons to this point, his involvement has amounted to just five starts and three other appearances as a substitute. From those five starts he has finished just three, the All-Ireland quarter-final, semi-final and final last year.

His league involvement has also been affected. In 2010, he started all seven Division 1 games but this year he managed just three after missing the 2011 campaign entirely.

"It's just something that I have had to learn to live with and manage as best I can," he acknowledged. "There is no real cure, you just have to stay ahead of it with prehab.

"If I feel it tightening I tend to take a step back. The management are very understanding of what is required.

"You always have people suggesting different things and remedies. I have tried a lot of different things at this stage. It's one of those things that you are just predisposed to. It's my job to ensure that I keep it at bay."

Often he will rise from his desk in the Irish headquarters of PwC on Dublin's Spencer Dock, where he is in the middle of a three-year training contract as a tax consultant, and take into a stretching routine.

"With the physios, I was able to identify a pattern last year. Every time I was doing exams I was having hamstring troubles. The fact that you are sitting at a desk nine hours out of a day hunched over wouldn't really bode well for getting up at six or seven o'clock in the evening for training.

"Your hamstrings are contracting and then suddenly you are getting up to go out training and you are sprinting around. Now I stand up every hour or so and do a stretch -- even at home."

The Dublin management has long since come to appreciate the value of a fully fit O'Sullivan closing down space in their defence. He's part of a new breed of Dublin defender that Pat Gilroy has developed and placed so much faith in over the last three years -- grounded, disciplined and measured in their approach.

Four of the defence that started last year's All-Ireland final were from Dublin's southside -- O'Sullivan, Kevin Nolan and Rory O'Carroll from Kilmacud Crokes and Mick Fitzsimons from further out in Cuala.

O'Sullivan's second-level school days were spent in Blackrock College and at one stage between 2009 and 2010 there was the unique situation where the renowned rugby stronghold was providing more players to the Dublin squad than any other college with the exception of St Declan's in Cabra, alma mater of the Brogans and Barry Cahill among others.

"Myself, Michael Darragh Macauley, Mark Davoren, Mark Vaughan and Niall Corkery were all there. We weren't all on the Dublin squad at the same time but at one stage in 2010 I think there were four of us," he recalled.

At Blackrock, Luke Fitzgerald was a contemporary and good friend but rugby just never appealed to him in the way Gaelic football did.

He was also a very promising mid-to-long-distance runner and spent summers running in Munster championships out of the Farranfore club in Kerry, not far from his mother's homeplace.

By the age of 13, however, his competitive athletics career was over, the communal feel of team dressing-room overpowering him even at that age.

"When I got into my teen years, the individualism of athletics didn't really appeal to me," he said. "The very tough training regime you go through and with success you don't get to share it with anyone."

With Dublin he has operated at corner-back much more than the centre-back position where he feels more comfortable. He was still recovering from that hamstring tear against Wexford when Meath rolled in five goals against a novice defence just over two years ago. It was, he acknowledges, a turning point in all their careers.

"We haven't suffered a defeat like that since, maybe this year in the league against Mayo. It's hard to look back on those games and put your finger on where it went so wrong. That was a low point for us," he said.

"It galvanised the team in ways because we wanted to prove people wrong that year and show we were better than that."

On Sunday they meet them on very different terms.

Irish Independent

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