Sunday 26 January 2020

Colm O'Rourke: The best of the best, the greatest back I've seen

‘Darragh, Tomás and Marc Ó Sé all had a certain lack of conformity about them — they were never afraid to give an opinion which was different’. Pic: Eamonn Keogh
‘Darragh, Tomás and Marc Ó Sé all had a certain lack of conformity about them — they were never afraid to give an opinion which was different’. Pic: Eamonn Keogh
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The greatest defender of the modern era has called time. Tomás Ó Sé was a prince of defenders; he could play rough or smooth, and he was the sort of man who you needed on a big day, because he always performed.

The same could be said of big brother Darragh: the big occasion brought the best out of him. He could be poor in a league match in March but would win the midfield battle in September. Yet these two great men were probably not the best footballers in West Kerry, or indeed in their own house. They had to share home with one of the greatest players ever to emerge from the Kingdom of Kerry.

The kid brother was the best of all. Marc Ó Sé has signed off on a glittering career where medals and honours won tell only a small part of the story. He was a back who could play anywhere, and certainly his talents were to a point hidden in at corner-back.

Tomás, like Uncle Páidí, could express himself more from wing-back. He could throw the ball out in front of him and take off, and seldom a game went by without him appearing on the score sheet. Marc was different; he drew the short straw for a decade and was always assigned the best inside forward on the opposing team. And yet even with him being fireman Sam, rushing around putting out fires, he was also able to get up in attack or provide the link from defence to the forward line.

Marking the best forward day after day is a wearing process. The absolute concentration that is needed is not for most players, who like room and plenty of easy ball. Marc Ó Sé brought tight marking to a new level because he seldom seemed to be marking at all. His anticipation and speed got him there first, and when in possession he could take off on a mazy run which often led to a score at the other end.

His tussles with Bernard Brogan were a cat and mouse affair. For many years they went in favour of Ó Sé. This year in the league final the tide turned and Ó Sé had lost that edge. Perhaps in hindsight it may have been the last great tussle for both players.

Afterwards Ó Sé lost his place, and Brogan did not make the impact in this year's championship as he has had in years gone by. Age has wearied both men. Ó Sé sees no future; there is nothing in it for him sitting on the bench, while Brogan will stay on the Dublin merry-go-round. Who would want to get off when three in a row is within touching distance?

For many years I have written in this paper that Kerry were not getting the best out of Marc Ó Sé by marooning him in at corner-back. I'm quite sure every manager thought the same but decided on a needs must policy. Who else would mark the most dangerous player from Cork, Mayo or Dublin?

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The most disciplined defender was given the role. There must have been plenty of times that he would have preferred a different job, somewhere out the field, at half-back or even wing-forward because he would have been equally accomplished there, yet there was no spitting out the dummy: he took on the Sunday challenge and relished winning the big battle with the corner-forward and often with it the war.

This week he was quoted as saying that the finals of 2002 and 2011 were big disappointments. Many might laugh at that, as after winning five All Irelands there should be few regrets. That fails to understand the mentality of big-game players.

The joy is in the winning and the feeling does not last long, but the losses tear at the soul. Especially so if the games should have been won, and in both those finals, against Armagh and especially Dublin, Kerry had control but let it slip with a few basic errors. That sort of thing stays with a player for a life time even if he has five gold medals in the bag.

Once I was in the company of a couple of former players who had a strong disagreement over who was responsible for a match-winning score against them in an All-Ireland final; the fact that it was over 40 years since the game did not dilute the passion in any way.

In fact they both obviously had a lot to get off their chests, and there was no easy access to a recording of the game to determine who was right. They brought their strong opinions to the grave and each still blamed the other.

At 36, Marc Ó Sé has decided that there is no more to give. Like the ageing gunfighter, one bad move and he was easy meat for the young kid on the block - and a back's life-span is normally much shorter than a forward's.

Up front you can make several mistakes, and if you get one ball out of three and score you could still have a good game. Backs don't have that luxury and once beyond 30, there are many - both in the crowd and at management level - who write somebody off after one mistake.

I sometimes wonder what impact the Ó Sé brothers would have made if they had been born in another county. The sporting culture of Kerry shaped them and suited their competitive instincts. They all had a bit of rugged wildness about them - it was a product of the wild Atlantic that they looked over - but it was Marc most of all who had the discipline necessary to make a corner-back. Darragh and Tomás were freer spirits and could not have been tied down in such a restrictive role.

The brothers all had a certain lack of conformity about them, they did not toe the party line all the time and were never afraid to give an opinion which was different. As such they were much more interesting players than some of the zombies who play now, who have no opinion on anything and trot out the full list of clichés whenever they are interviewed and then hope they get a job which requires a bit of personality.

In the era of smaller families it is unlikely that there will be three brothers playing county football together, never mind on All-Ireland winning teams. Over the years there were the Gribbins from Derry, McKnights from Armagh, the great Spillane brothers from Kerry and the Ó Sés, just to mention a few.

Footballers have got better over time, the Ó Sés were the most talented trio of all, and Marc was the best all round footballer of the three. That in my mind makes him the best back I have seen.

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