Wednesday 16 October 2019

'I've known Tom since the cot' - Kerry minor turned AFL star supporting former team-mate from 17,000km away

Rising AFL star O’Connor and Kerry young gun O’Sullivan grew up in Dingle as best friends but this week they are chasing glory on opposite sides of the world – and the Geelong footballer believes Kingdom are ready to dethrone the Dubs

Former Kerry minor Mark O’Connor is pictured in the GMHBA Stadium in Geelong. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Kerry minor Mark O’Connor is pictured in the GMHBA Stadium in Geelong. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Waldron

Mark O'Connor and Tom O'Sullivan won all around them in their teens with Dingle, Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne and Kerry's minors, but now the pair - "who know each other since the cot" - find themselves chasing senior football success on opposite sides of the globe.

Two 22-year-olds, born just three months apart, who have shared so many fields and dreams. And yet, while there are now 17,000km between them, they continue to plot remarkably similar paths.

Tomorrow morning (10.50am Irish time), O'Connor will play his second finals game at the MCG in a week, lining out in the Geelong defence as they look to knock out the reigning champions, West Coast Eagles, in front of a bumper crowd at the spiritual home of the AFL.

Thirty-one hours later, his best friend will be assembling in the parade at a frenzied GAA HQ, plotting to derail Dublin's attack and with it, their five-in-a-row ambitions.

Both men have been in stellar form this year, delivering far beyond general expectations at the highest level of their respective games.

O'Connor is one of the most-improved players in the AFL this year, playing in all bar two of Geelong's regular-season outings - a toe injury sidelining him last month - as the Cats finished the campaign as the most consistent of the AFL's 18 teams.

Mark O'Connor. Photo: Getty
Mark O'Connor. Photo: Getty

The 2014 and 2015 minor All-Ireland winner has already racked up 28 senior appearances since making his Cats debut in 2017 - his first season playing with the oval ball - and is part of a Geelong defence that has been the meanest in the league for the past two seasons.

O'Sullivan has been a somewhat unlikely star of Peter Keane's defence; the diminutive man-marker keeping the likes of Peter Harte, Jamie Brennan, James Carr and Cillian O'Sullivan scoreless as the Kingdom reached their first All-Ireland decider since 2015.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

He then gave Con O'Callaghan one of his toughest games of the summer in the drawn final 11 days ago, further enhancing his reputation as one of the country's best young talents, and he is now the shortest-priced back in the betting for the 2019 All-Stars.

His championship performances may have surprised some, but O'Connor expected nothing less.

"I've known Tom since I was in the cot, our families are friends, so we played on every team together and we spent nearly every day together growing up," O'Connor tells the Irish Independent.

"I'm so happy for how his season has gone, he has been unbelievable and so effective in shutting down opposition forwards. He has always had it in him. He was probably a bit unlucky in the past couple of years not to be getting as much game-time as he has this year.

"He has all the attributes; he's very mentally strong, he always prepares well. He has speed and that competitive edge. It has probably been more evident for management this year, but I think it has been a long time coming."

O'Connor also won All-Ireland minor titles alongside Shane Ryan, Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Killian Spillane, Jason Foley, Gavin White and Seán O'Shea, and the Dingle man believes Kerry's display on September 1 was "a coming-of-age" performance for that crop, and that they will finish the job in two days' time.

"I was impressed by Kerry the last day," O'Connor, who earlier this year signed a deal that ties him to Geelong until 2022, adds. "It was a coming of age for that young team that has been coming through. They didn't take a backward step.

"Only for a few little things they would have come out with the win. In the last five minutes Kerry didn't really help themselves, but I fancy them to finish the job the next day."

In his adopted home of Geelong, 75km south-west of Melbourne, O'Connor is part of a defensive motley crew that Laois' Zach Tuohy has branded 'the Misfits', a carefully recruited group from all walks of life, so unconventional in AFL terms that the journeys of the two Irishmen don't even stand out.

Tuohy and O'Connor are regularly joined in the Geelong backline by a former Olympic steeplechase hopeful and a couple of late-bloomers who had been told by a host of other clubs that they didn't have a future at the game's top level.

A first-place finish in the 2019 table meant that last Friday's underwhelming 61-51 defeat to Collingwood in front of 93,000 at the MCG did not bring the curtain down on the Cats' season. The safety net is gone now, however, and a defeat to West Coast tomorrow would end a largely positive Geelong campaign on a desperately sour note.

Six teams remain in contention for AFL honours and O'Connor is confident the Cats can rediscover the form that saw them win 11 of their opening 12 games.

"Losing is one thing but losing playing badly is a lot more frustrating. But we played well enough all year to give ourselves a second chance, so we're not going to be too down on ourselves.

"We know once we play our brand of football we generally get the better of teams. That's the challenge ahead of us. West Coast were really impressive in their final last week."

Next year O'Connor hopes two Irish Geelong defenders will become three, with fellow Kerryman Stefan Okunbor making waves at reserve level following a couple of injury setbacks.

For now, though, he will have to make do with Okunbor's company for Kerry games, as logistics are considered for the inconvenient 3am throw-in for the All-Ireland replay.

O'Sullivan and O'Connor will exchange 'good luck' texts in the coming days but that's as scientific as the conversation between the bosom buddies will be.

O'Connor's hope is that when he sits in front of the television in the wee hours of Sunday morning, his part of the deal will have been taken care of and he will have a preliminary final against Richmond to look forward to next Friday.

Geelong Cats v West Coast Eagles

Live, tomorrow, BT Sport, 10.50am

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: 'Jim Gavin has achieved what Mick O'Dwyer and Brian Cody couldn't do'

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport