Thursday 22 February 2018

Guarding the Kingdom

Patrolling the streets of north Kerry, as well as the Kerry full-back line, keeps Tom O'Sullivan on his toes, writes Kieran McCarthy

Kerry corner-back Tom O'Sullivan took a break from his day job to
talk about this Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final
Kerry corner-back Tom O'Sullivan took a break from his day job to talk about this Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final

IT'S not the most orthodox setting for an interview, sitting in Tom O'Sullivan's light blue Renault Laguna, parked up in a local garage in his home village of Rathmore, staring out at the oh-too-familiar damp Irish backdrop.

But then again, Tom O'Sullivan isn't what you would class as your orthodox inter-county footballer.

For a start he is possibly the most laid-back footballer there is. It's a suggestion he smiles at, knowing full well that it's true. He doesn't even try to deny it. Laughing instead. Heck, even Jack O'Connor wrote as much in his autobiography, and the Kerry boss would know better than most.

"You need to be laid back playing as a corner-back," the 33-year-old laughs.

"If you're playing corner-back in front of 80,000 people with 50 or 60 yards of space around you and one-on-one with a fella, you wouldn't want to be a nervous player, would you? But you do need to be on your toes too, you can't be that laid back, I suppose."

So no text messages from Jack this season, Tom? Like there famously was in 2006 when O'Sullivan pushed all the wrong buttons with O'Connor, missing a training match and not replying to the Kerry manager's text message or voicemails.

"No, none this season," he smiles, "or at least I don't think there was!"

You see, O'Sullivan is a character in the greatest sense, a rogue of the highest order, and he is known for that. But in his profession as a garda, stationed in Moyvane in north Kerry, he has to park that element every day he checks in for work.

There is Football Tom and then there is Work Tom; two facets of his life that have existed side-by-side since 2000, the year when he passed out with the gardai in Templemore and the year that he won his first Celtic cross, in his debut season.

Even this week, in the run-up to Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo, O'Sullivan has work to do, two night shifts in Ballybunion tonight and tomorrow. But he doesn't mind; he enjoys his work, and banter it brings with it.

"It's certainly a job for meeting people because you are always out and about, and chatting. There are a lot of people out there that talk about football, especially when you're living in Kerry, working in Kerry and playing for Kerry," says O'Sullivan, whose work has taken him from Carrigaline to Togher, to Ballybunion and now to Moyvane.

"And in fairness to the people I work with, they are very understanding when it comes to me and football. They cover for me a lot. I can take days off when I need to. It's flexible like that."

Surrounded by passionate Kerry GAA folk, such as Jerry Brosnan who lives next door to the station in Moyvane and who regularly pops in to hop ball with O'Sullivan, he can't escape Kerry football. Not even when he wants to.

With, yet again, speculation rife about his future earlier this year, the rumour mill was bursting at the bolts as the Rathmore man took his time with his laid-back attitude that prompted O'Connor to issue an ultimatum of sorts after a league game in Castlebar.

But -- and it was no surprise -- Tom returned.

"It's very easy to play for a successful team and it's very easy to come back year after year when you are winning," he explains.

"There are a lot of players out there playing the same length of time as me and they haven't won anything. At least I have a few All-Ireland medals to show from it, and I will try and enjoy myself as much as I can now. I have nothing left to prove. There is no pressure on me."

Speaking of pressure, a local newspaper suggested before the Limerick quarter-final that Tom's place was under threat and the dreaded chop was imminent.

But he survived. Plenty of life in this old dog yet.

And having likened playing for Kerry to an addiction after his comeback against Galway, O'Sullivan doesn't fear life after Kerry football: "I don't think it will leave a hole in my life. There are plenty of other things to be done, lots of stuff to try out. I might take up golf, who knows?"

But those that know O'Sullivan will tell you that it won't be easy to wrestle him out of his corner-back jersey.

The last time he faced Mayo in the championship -- the 2006 All-Ireland final win -- he and Mike McCarthy decided, with 10 minutes left in the game, to both retire.

Five years later, O'Sullivan is still here. McCarthy, his former room-mate, has exited stage left, twice.

"Both of us were retiring that day," he recalls, "but it's easy to say 'that's it' after you win an All-Ireland, that you are walking away from it. But then you go back with your club, have the winter break, get past Christmas, and then the hunger comes back around February.

"I am sure if you asked most of the older guys around October if they are going back playing next year, then they would say no. But then the hunger comes back, you miss it."

And hunger is something that Kerry will need in bucket-loads if they are to end Mayo's All-Ireland voyage this Sunday, O'Sullivan stresses -- the five-time All-Ireland winner was impressed by the manner of the westerners' win over Cork.

"Mayo play at a fierce high intensity and that's what we have been trying to replicate over the last couple of weeks in training so we can keep up the intensity and play at their level. If we can't match their level on Sunday, then they are going to beat us," he says matter-of-factly.

"Against Cork there were three or four Mayo lads around the one Cork fella. It looked like they had five extra players. I don't know where they were all coming from."

"Not many expected them to beat Cork. Mayo got their kick in the arse early in the year against London, and after a game like that you either recover from it or walk away from it. They obviously recovered and learned from that game. It improved them as a team. And it's only better that they are getting."

But what Mayo do, what Donegal get up to, or how impressive Dublin were in their win over Tyrone -- "you'd love a nice quote on that, wouldn't you?" -- doesn't bother O'Sullivan. He is not interested in looking at what is going on in his neighbours' backyard, only Kerry's.

"We are where we want to be at this time of the year. We are still playing football in August," he says.

"We were so afraid of the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick after what happened last year. Maybe we were looking too far ahead last year, thinking we would beat Down, so we certainly learned our lesson. Take every game as it comes. That's the proper preparation.

"The players that look ahead are the players that get caught out, and are the players that don't get to play in September."

And Croke Park in September is where O'Sullivan wants to be, not like last year when he joined Kerry team-mate Seamus Scanlon in Castleisland to watch neighbours Cork finally win the big prize.

"You couldn't begrudge Cork that win. I'm not saying I wasn't happy to see them win. But I'm not saying that I was happy either. They were knocking on the door a long time. If it wasn't going to be a Kerry win, the next team on my list would be Cork," he says.

But Cork have had their 15 minutes of fame, now Tom wants the spotlight back, which spells trouble for Mayo.

And in the days leading up to Sunday, the experienced campaigner that is O'Sullivan won't worry too much, that's not his style.

What concerns him now is that the air-conditioning will work on the Kerry coach that will make the familiar trek from the south to the capital, unlike the trip home after the Limerick win.

A man of few worries indeed.

Irish Independent

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