Monday 19 March 2018

Marathon man: Tomas O Se’s shaky Kingdom debut a distant memory

Tomas O Se’s shaky Kingdom debut now a distant memory as the supreme half-back has built towards record-equalling championship appearance with grit, class and style

Tomas O Se will make a record-equalling 81st
championship appearance for Kerry today
Tomas O Se will make a record-equalling 81st championship appearance for Kerry today
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

If Tomas O Se had started as he meant to go on, we wouldn't be talking about a record-equalling 81st championship appearance for Kerry or the magnificent career of one of the greatest half-backs of this or any other era.

His championship debut, a Munster semi-final in 1998, ended in disaster, cut short after a torrid 35 minutes in the company of Cork corner-forward Aidan Dorgan.

The sides were level at the break, but Tomas saw no further action as Eamonn Fitzmaurice came in and Seamus Moynihan, Kerry's primary firefighter, stepped back to douse the flames spreading from Dorgan's corner.


It was the end of Tomas' season. Just turned 20, he didn't feature in the subsequent Munster final against Tipperary or the All-Ireland semi-final against Kildare, which Kerry lost.

Inevitably, there was criticism of the decision by the manager to introduce a second nephew. But Paidi O Se knew what he was dealing with.

Tomas had spent the previous year germinating within the squad as Kerry swept to a first All-Ireland title in 11 years and was in that same state of limbo outside the official party of 21 that Mike Hassett also found himself in -- Hassett subsequently withdrew from the '98 squad with his brother Liam.

In the build-up to the '98 Munster championship, O Se had been highly impressive at training, marking Maurice Fitzgerald, then the reigning Footballer of the Year. It had been a straightforward selection.

Ultimately, it backfired. Tomas never played championship football at corner-back for Kerry again. In fact, aside from a brief 20-minute spell in a league match against Mayo in 2005, when he started at midfield, he never played anywhere else except half-back after that ill-fated debut.

From the ashes of that Fitzgerald Stadium bow, however, has risen one of the great modern day players.

Later today, back at the venue where it all began for him 14 years ago, Tomas will equal the record of his older brother Darragh for the number of championship appearances by any player when he steps out for his 81st 'cap'.

It is an incredible record of longevity and achievement, even allowing for the advent of qualifiers and All-Ireland quarter-finals which so many previous Kerry players that enjoyed even longer careers had no access to.

Tomas could well have passed Darragh's milestone in last year's All-Ireland final against Dublin, but suspensions for various misdemeanours have forced him out of four matches since 1998.

His career path has followed a similar trajectory to Darragh's in that the real impact of their talent and leadership was not really felt until they reached their mid-20s.

Both had uneasy starts to their inter-county careers and even younger brother Marc had his shaky moments in 2002 and 2003 until he settled down to become the best corner-back of his generation.

Tomas really only blossomed as an attacking wing-back of such distinction after Paidi's departure in 2003.

Those penetrating raids that he is renowned for really only became commonplace after Jack O'Connor's arrival, and it is significant that of the 3-31 he has scored in his 80 matches to date, a goal against Wicklow in 2002 and a point against Galway later that season were his only yield on Paidi's watch.

As valuable as his scoring ability is, it is the accuracy of his passing that has set him apart from so many of his peers.

Statistics in the two most recent All-Ireland finals that he has played in reveal the influence he has been.

Last year, all 22 of the passes he executed against Dublin found their target, and given his propensity to put ball to boot, some of those had more than a little risk attached to them. In the 2009 All-Ireland final against Cork he passed 21 times and found safety with all but three.

His second point that day, Kerry's last in the 58th minute, underlined everything about the way he played.

As three Cork players converged on Colm Cooper out around midfield and committed a foul, O Se had already made his move to get in behind the cover and gather Cooper's subsequent free.

Scarcely breaking stride, he made the game safe with Kerry's 16th point. He is considered the quietest of the three brothers, who have amassed 227 appearances between them since Darragh made his bow in 1994.

He has never been one to dwell too long on defeats and invariably is the first man to clear a Kerry dressing-room, with trademark baseball cap pulled down over his face, whether they have won or lost.

His gesture in handing Stephen Cluxton the match ball at the end of last year's All-Ireland final -- the ball that Cluxton had just kicked the winning point with -- and his loyalty to Munster's inter-provincial team point to another side of his character.

The red mist has descended on occasion -- he was sent off twice in this year's league -- while his relationship with current Kerry boss O'Connor hasn't always been smooth.

In 2006, Tomas stormed off the field in Fitzgerald Stadium after being substituted against Longford and was gone before the rest of the team had arrived back.

By the following Saturday, however, he was back to his best in Croke Park as they beat Armagh in an All-Ireland quarter-final to revive their season. The ability to put adversity behind him has been one of his greatest strengths.

He is renowned as a ferocious trainer and the ultimate barometer for how a Kerry session is going.

"If it's not hard enough, Tomas will always let it be known. The more punishment there is the more he thrives. He needs it that way to be at his best," a former colleague says.

As an out and out No 5 there are many keen observers outside Kerry who would rank him up with fellow county man Sean Murphy, right half-back on the team of the millennium and century.

His great record of service should influence any reflection on where he stands.

Irish Independent

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