Conor O'Sullivan: 'You can't be feeling sorry for yourself, that's wasting everyone's time'
A survivor of Cork strikes and harsh Fitzgibbon winters, the Rebel defender Conor O'Sullivan tells Cliona Foley why he is unfazed at facing Clare again
CORK'S management had prepared them thoroughly for the ear-splitting din by blaring out crowd sounds at training and corner-back Conor O'Sullivan (24) revelled in the cacophony of his first All-Ireland final.
"It was class!" he recalls of that fateful Sunday three weeks ago.
"The lads ran out, I was six or seven back and heard the noise before I saw anything. You know you're there then, not one seat empty! You're probably taking in the atmosphere for five minutes, but then it was down to business."
What he was totally unprepared for was the emotional slump and sporting purgatory that immediately succeeded that dramatic draw with Clare.
"Anti-climax? Jesus, I must have used that word 20 times the night afterwards, it was the only way to describe it," he says of the post-match banquet where the players and supporters contemplated each other like strangers at a wake.
"It was just dead. I felt sorry for anyone who paid €100 to go to it," O'Sullivan admits. "A plate of roast beef in front of them and us sickened!
"Win or lose you're prepared for the year to be finished. Nobody saw the draw coming and, emotionally, I was shattered," he recalls.
He arrived home on Monday evening to find his dad on the couch reviewing 'The Sunday Game,' but, by week's end, it was business as usual; back training in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the corner turned.
"There were a few fellas with their heads down alright, but then we realised there was another All-Ireland final in three weeks, something you might never get again. So anything the lads (management) wanted, you just did it.
"You can't be feeling sorry for yourself, sure that's just wasting everyone's time.
"To play in a second All-Ireland final now? It's brilliant to get to do it all again and, hopefully, the first game will bring us on a load."
Blessed with a slow, Cork city drawl and charming, laid-back personality, O'Sullivan is coolness personified and apparently unflappable, which explains his magnificent calmness amid the last maelstrom.
Like Anthony Nash (5' 10"), Daniel Kearney (5' 9") and Clare's Podge Collins (5' 7") – and Tommy Walsh before them – O'Sullivan (5' 10") is proof that there's still room in hurling for smallish men to be giants.
Time and time again it was O'Sullivan's deft flicks and fingertip stretches that made vital interceptions and it's no surprise to discover that he plays and coaches a bit of tennis.
"But the backhand would be two-handed now, hurling-style. I'm no Federer, like!" he quips.
To understand his breezy personality and zen-like calm in such a whirlwind you need to go back to the last apocalypse of Cork hurling.
During the third players' strike in 2008-2009, O'Sullivan was recruited for Gerald McCarthy's alternative senior squad and, having only ever had trials as a minor, jumped at the chance. While 10,000 Rebels marched on the streets for their militant hurling heroes, O'Sullivan had no qualms and stuck to his guns.
In a club game for Sarsfields against Na Piarsaigh he clearly heard the cat-call 'scab,' but it didn't bother him.
"Sure I was only laughing," he says. "I didn't care if somebody was giving out to me like that. Fellas will be slating you one day and praising you the next."
When the dust finally settled and Denis Walsh had taken over, O'Sullivan was the only one of the interim senior squad to make the 2009 championship team.
But, still a teenager, he got badly scorched by Tipp in his Munster SHC baptism of fire and, in the immediate aftermath, struggled with confidence and form, which are intrinsic to all hurlers.
It is only in the past two years that he has blossomed for the county, a natural corner-back able to slot into the free role when asked.
He won a Fitzgibbon Cup with UCC in 2012, when his college team-mates included Clare's Darach Honan – "a real gent altogether" – and reckons third-level hurling was the making of his game.
"It's way better than inter-county U-21, you're playing in the rain the whole time and it really toughens you up," he says, noting that Fitzgibbon hurling brought a bite to his game that he badly lacked.
Qualified a year now with a Masters in health economics, he works for Laya Healthcare in Little Island, who are particularly understanding when elite hurling impinges on his work.
And while he never played it – "apart from in the garden at home with the brother" – his other sporting passion is basketball, not just the NBA but particularly the US college game, which he follows slavishly on ESPN.
"I actually took a day's leave last year for the NCAA final," he reveals. "If I'd gone into work it would have been spoiled for me on Twitter, so I actually stayed at home to watch it."
O'Sullivan's family is steeped in Sarsfields, who have contested four of the last five Cork SHC finals, won three, and provide himself, Kearney, Cian O'Sullivan and Michael Cussen to today's panel.
His father currently trains the club's juniors and his young brother Eoin also won a Fitzgibbon with UCC this year.
He credits two men – Wayne Sherlock and Pat Ryan – with his hurling development.
"I played with Pat and he also coached me at underage and last year, when we won the county senior title. He's a genius, probably the best player in Cork club championship for the last 10 years."
Today O'Sullivan will be in the eye of a hurling tornado again, not at all shocked by the way Clare got such a jump on them last time out.
"Sure it was the biggest shock of the year when we beat them in Munster," he notes.
So, it's back to the future then, with goalkeeper Anthony Nash calling the shots behind him and sprinting up and down the field to take frees "like a guy on a Honda 50!"
Nash is one of those vocal goalies then?
"Unreal," O'Sullivan groans with a grin. "He's always in your ear, you'd be sick of him at some stages telling you what you're doing right and wrong, he likes to keep you on your toes!"
It is doubtful that Cork's most laid-back defender will need it.
The alternative interview
Last sporting event you paid into?
An NBA basketball game in America last year between the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. I'm a big Bulls fan.
Sporting event you'd pay most money to see?
The NBA finals or else the NCAA college basketball finals in America. I applied to the ticket lottery for the college finals one year and didn't get them but I'd really love to go to them.
Do you play golf or any other sports?
Tennis. I've coached a bit of tennis for a few years. Anyone who's any way decent would beat me handy but I just enjoy playing it.
Last book you read?
'Scar Tissue', the autobiography of Anthony Keidis, the lead singer with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, an absolute lunatic! It was great – was completely different from anything I'd ever read before.
Taste in music?
I'll listen to anything and love music but I don't actually listen to it before a match. Johnny Cash would be my favourite by far.
Three people you'd invite to dinner?
I'd bring my father first (because he'd only be asking me afterwards what we talked about!), Michael Jordan and Chris Rock the comedian to liven things up.