The big interview with Darran O’Sullivan: Joining the legends

Things didn’t finish up for Darran O’Sullivan as he would have liked, either with Kerry or when he last played against their opponents tonight, Mayo. But instead of all the battles with injury, he now primarily recalls the scrapes and escapades with the likes of Galvin, Gooch, and Donaghy, still grateful that call-up from Jack wasn’t the prank he initially thought it was.

Midweek down by Glenbeigh, and as the wind and rain put the wild into the Wild Atlantic Way, rattling and spitting against the windows of the Rosspoint bar, inside its proprietor and manager is by a fire, spitting and firing out gems himself, reflecting on how lucky and sometimes unlucky he was in 14 years playing with Kerry. The bar may be closed from Monday to Thursday from Halloween to Easter but the owner is opening up.

“The enjoyment was beginning to leave me,” Darran O’Sullivan says on his decision to retire last autumn. “I loved playing for Kerry. Every bit of it. But when you’re trying to do things your body doesn’t allow you to do, you start to get cranky.

“Yet I still maintain that if I trained on a Tuesday and just had a light session on the Thursday, I’d be perfect at the weekend.”

In an ideal world he’d have loved a regimen as flexible and catered to the individual as what a Paul McGrath had in his days with Derby; train as little or as often as the body requires, as long as you are ready to rock on match day.

But Gaelic football doesn’t work like that, especially in Kerry where they’re coming down with forwards. Every training match and session is a game of snakes and ladders: an opportunity to impress and climb, or a potential slippery slope.

With a new manager coming in, O’Sullivan wasn’t going to ask or demand that on certain midweek nights he shouldn’t even be on the board or the training field, just as he understandably never made such a request to Éamonn Fitzmaurice either.

“I wasn’t going to say, ‘Look, big deal if someone else shoots the lights out in training, you know what I can do in the big games.’ If fellas are working their arses off on a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, it doesn’t quite sit right for someone to be swanning in on a Saturday for the A versus B game.”

It wasn’t what he was reared on, back when he was starting out 15 winters ago, just as Peter Keane’s young guns are now. At first he thought it was a prank, someone claiming to be Jack O’Connor and asking him, a kid from a Division Five club repeating his Leaving, to go in with the seniors only months after he’d played in an All-Ireland minor final. When he realised O’Connor and his invite were both for real, he turned up at the field by the Intermediate school in Killorglin to find all the big names and even larger characters there. Darragh. Moynihan. Tomás. None of them shirking the cold November rain.

“They would have been legends already in the game – and they already knew they were legends of the game – but there was no ‘I need a few weeks off.’ It was a great introduction for a young lad. I had taken the day off school and everything to keep fresh. Thought I’d be grand going for runs against these boys. Christ. I can still remember trying to keep up with them. They were powering it out.”

He’d continue to lap and soak it all up from them, “like a sponge”. He recalls the night of the banquet after the 2005 final loss to Tyrone when he softly shuffled his chair into the orbit and conclave of some veterans like a sheepish but curious schoolboy, simultaneously daunted and delighted to be in their company.

“It was the second time in a row I’d lost an All-Ireland final to a Tyrone team and I was there going, ‘God, will I ever win?’ You think there’s this finality that comes with a final. But the lads were there with their few drinks, already planning for next year. ‘We messed that one up. We need to change it. What will we do next year?’ That mindset blew me away.”

Return and adapt and strike back they would, most spectacularly in the form of a basketball player at full-forward. O’Sullivan would play his part in launching the Kieran Donaghy experiment, firing in that first diagonal ball that would cause havoc in the Longford square. The following day out against Armagh they pounced for a goal apiece in the decisive game of that summer of 2006: Donaghy, the Star; O’Sullivan, the Super Sub.

It was a role that for some time O’Sullivan accepted but by the early summer of 2008 was beginning to resent. After Paul Galvin slapped a referee’s notebook in Ennis and in turn was slapped with a three-month ban, O’Sullivan got a phone call from Pat O’Shea, looking to meet up, and assumed it was to relay that Galvin’s misfortune had blown him some good. Not so. When they met for that cup of tea, O’Shea quickly and bluntly announced that O’Sullivan would remain outside the starting 15 for the year. They still had no one like him to come on and finish a game. Somewhere in there was a compliment but O’Sullivan struggled to find or appreciate it.

Twelve months later though O’Sullivan’s loyalty, patience and brilliance would be suitably rewarded. When Gooch and Tomás had their own unfortunate misstep after a qualifier against Sligo, O’Sullivan was promoted to the starting lineup by O’Shea’s predecessor and successor, Jack. A couple of weeks later he startled some Dublin earwigs for three first-half points in front of a silenced Hill, then scored the 1-1 that separated his team from Meath, then started and lifted Sam Maguire in September.

By then his own peers were his greatest mentors. Forty-five minutes before training, he’d often join Gooch and Declan O’Sullivan, kicking points over the bar in Fitzgerald Stadium. “You wouldn’t do it now because training is so tough and intense. But back then when it came to games, you never thought or questioned your kicking because you were doing it so much.”

Then, when collective training would start, he’d be treated to some of the best exhibitions of football you’ve never seen.

“They were all footballers. You could have [Paul] Galvin in training taking up the role as the playmaker, doing ridiculous things – constant dummy solos, scoring from ridiculous angles. But you wouldn’t necessarily see that in a match. He’d be there, ‘Right, I have Gooch and Declan here with me and what they need me to do is get this f***n’ ball. Keep it simple.’ He’d still chip in with a point or two but you’d never see the whole array of skills.

“That’s why when someone asks to pick the best 15 you ever played with or against, it’s hard to go for a Paul Flynn or Brian Dooher as some people would. Because I don’t know what they did in training. I saw everything in Kerry training. Declan O’Sullivan could go full-forward and be our chief scorer.”

Those affairs behind closed doors weren’t all score or love fests though. They could be brutal. He didn’t have to wait until he came up against a Tyrone or Armagh to be welcomed to the big boys’ league; that initiation occurred in front of the empty terraces of Killarney. Tom O’Sullivan stepping on his toes. Marc Ó Sé tugging his jersey, winning a ball, then leaving him flat on his arse with a dummy solo. And then there was Galvin and the glare he might shoot at you.

“One night in my first or second year on the panel, I was soloing up the line and he almost drove me into the stand. I never saw him coming. Then he looked at me as if to say, ‘You’re not going to blow past all of us, like.’ They’d toughen you up, without saying anything, then maybe give you a pat on the head 10 minutes later.

“Even when I was captain in the 2009 final against Cork, Paul early on fecked me out of it, telling me to get on the ball and do something. I remember thinking, ‘Well, feck you too! I’m trying!’ Then I got a ball and kicked a point. I looked out at him as if to say ‘Well, now! Happy?!’ And he pointed at me as if to say ‘Knew you’d react the right way.’”

When he married Laura 18 months ago in Portugal, they were all there or at least invited. As a work colleague with him in Ulster Bank, he’d long forgiven Donaghy the time he and Darragh caught him out, leading him on they were Tony Leen from this parish, feeding and firing him questions for his first big over-the-phone interview. Kieran O’Leary was best man, Gooch, a groomsman.

For years O’Sullivan and Cooper lived two doors down from each other in the same estate in Killarney. They’d watch whatever soccer or rugby match was on the telly together, play golf or go to the swimming pool together, and not being the greatest cooks, often eat out in the town together too. That transferred onto the field.

“The understanding between us was incredible. And a lot of it was just from relationships. Donaghy always knew that if I got in a certain position he was to go to the back post. I wouldn’t even have to look up.

“If I came off Gooch and it wasn’t out of his hands quick enough, I knew to keep going because he was either going to put it over for you or he’d stall for two or three seconds, waiting for you to change your run and then pop you a little pass.

“One of my favourite goals with Kerry, I didn’t even score it – Gooch’s in the 2011 final against Dublin. A lot of my best work was carrying the ball, drawing the last man, then popping it. He knew what I was going to do and he knew where he was and sure he just did what he does, side-footing into the net.”

O’Sullivan was at his most electrifying that season; in truth, he was the most electrifying – and probably best – footballer in Ireland. Had Kerry held out for another eight minutes, he’d have ended that year with the Player of the Year award and more importantly, his buddy Gooch would have walked away with the Sam Maguire. But they didn’t.

“I often think if we had beaten them that day, would we have ever seen this great Dublin team kick on as they did? Now, maybe they’d have come back and won every All-Ireland going since. But it was such a killer for us. And we had it. We were good at holding a lead, playing around with it, not getting caught…”

O’Sullivan, whatever about Kerry, was never quite the same after that. He had played right through that year, starting with a McGrath Cup game he chose to play as a tribute to his grandfather who passed away the same weekend, all the way up to helping Mid Kerry reach a county final and then Glenbeigh win a Mid Kerry final, their first in 36 years. It took its toll, all that January to December football.

“You’d put so much into playing with the county – drink bans training like a dog – that by the time you got back to the club, you were often wiped out. I had nothing left in me. I was going on empty.

“After 2011, that’s when I started getting injuries. The next year we were playing Westmeath away in the qualifiers and I couldn’t start. I came on, got a goal to put us back into it, but coming out, I pulled the hamstring again. I motioned to Gooch, ‘It’s gone!’ And he roared back, ‘Well, you’re not f*****n’ going off!’”

O’Sullivan would later have to limp off, having kicked the score that ultimately decided that match, and he would continue to hobble on over the ensuing years.

At the end of the 2013 season he was told up in the Santry Sports Clinic they couldn’t guarantee he’d return to the field, so he went over to Coventry to have his hips operated on. He religiously devoted himself to the rehab and weights programme, even postponing a marketing course he was undergoing in DIT so he could avail of twice-a-day physio back home. But then, after doing everything right, he did something critically wrong.

“A lot of it was my own fault. I went back onto the field too soon. But you know when you get a chance to touch ball, you’re too stupid to think long-term.”

He’d still show flashes of brilliance. In 2015 he’d score a couple of goals off the bench against Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final and a couple of points upon coming on in the final against the Dubs. In 2016 he’d score another wonder quarter-final goal, a top-corner screamer against Clare. In the semi-final he’d start and pounce for another goal against Dublin. But again injury would be the one thing that would catch up with him.

“I actually tore my quad the first ball I put into Donaghy. But I can still run with a torn quad. Not at 100 percent but between 80 and 90. I can still dictate a lot in a game without hammering balls 60 yards with my left leg.

“You can just play smart. Play 30-yard balls in. My game has changed a lot from when I was younger where I’d just put the head down and run with it. So I knew I could have a big bearing on the game still without my left leg.”

He also knew when making this calculation that he would be out for the final. Just like Roy Keane in a certain semi-final in 1999, there’d be no Munich or Mayo for him. But he’d summon up his inner Turin spirit.

“We had a bit of an obsession with Dublin by then,” he freely admits and beating them at that moment would have been enough. Just before half-time, he’d strike for a goal, but watch it back and you’ll notice he tapped it in with his right foot. It would have been too painful with his left.

Shortly after half-time, O’Sullivan would have to limp off, but in 2017 he’d be back in Croke Park, first with the club, playing on after pulling his quad early on in their All-Ireland junior final win, and then back with Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo. The former was a career highlight, the latter, a low point. No sooner was he on, he was off again.

“It still pisses me off, how I could get a black card running back trying to catch someone. I have no bother with Cillian (O’Connor); I think he’s one of the most intelligent players in the country and what did he do wrong, only step across me? If I hadn’t gotten the black card, I might have retired then. But I didn’t want to go out like a nutcase, giving out to a linesman.”

He’d still finish up much the same way 12 months later – cranky, proud. He wouldn’t feature against Galway in Kerry’s first Super 8 game, prompting him to call up and complain to a selector for the first time in his career.

“Éamonn had enough on his plate so I called Liam [Hassett] and said, ‘Liam, if there’s one thing I’m good at is scoring goals in quarter-finals up in Croke Park! Or if you don’t bring me on, you bring Donaghy on. At least we’ll fight.”

His point would be noted and the next day against Monaghan, Donaghy would start and O’Sullivan would come on to help them eke out a famous draw. But it wasn’t enough. The next game would be their last. At half-time Donaghy would be substituted and O’Sullivan would rail and well up in the dressing room.

“I had a bit of a rage. Normally I wouldn’t be one to talk in dressing rooms because a lot of it is clichés. Fellas reading all these books like Legacy and the whole sweeping the sheds thing. It’s getting kind of boring now. Big deal, you read that and you tidied up after yourself. What do you want? A pat in the back?”

At that point he felt they needed a kick in the ass. What he said came from the heart, not some book. “I started out spitting because I couldn’t get my gumshield out, and then I just let rip. We were being tentative again like we were against Galway. If you’re going to go out, go out with a feckin’ bang. Imagine going out to Kildare in Killarney. You just don’t lose championship games in Killarney.

“We were putting some pictures up here [in the bar] the last day and there was one of myself and Donaghy after the Kildare game, out on the pitch. I’m crying and he’s crying too and got his hand on my head. Mom says, ‘That’s a lovely one to have in the bar!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not putting that up. And everyone laughing at the two has-beens, crying!’”

He’s kept going. With this pub. With the family; 18 weeks ago, himself and Laura had a baby girl, Kaedyn Grace. He’s doing some media work too, being an ambassador and columnist for Paddy Power, while still playing a bit with the club. He’s coping with life away from Kerry, although he’ll admit, the optics hasn’t always looked great on that.

Their first league game against Tyrone, he’d promised to attend with the injured Killian Young. O’Sullivan initially took up a spot in the stand, only for Young to ring and say he was down by the entrance to the dressing rooms. Then Young suggested they go up to the rest of the injured lads up in the enclosed area behind the goal. Reluctantly, O’Sullivan agreed. Next thing he’s photographed mingling with David Clifford and Kevin McCarthy. “I’m thinking, ‘God, I’m looking like some eejit who just can’t let go! Shortest retirement ever!’”

He went to their second game as well, up in Cavan. His father Connie often attended an away league game as a spectator but it was new to O’Sullivan and he wanted to experience it for himself.

And then he was in Tralee for the Dublin game. Again he was to meet Young only the Renard man was late.

“I had got called over by Bomber, so I was sitting with him, Ogie, Mickey Ned. Barney Rock and Jimmy Deenihan were in front of us. When Killian called, saying he was up in the county board pavilion and going for a cup of tea, I said, ‘You work away, I’m here with the legends!”

It’s something he has to get used to. Both the vantage point and the status. Watching on alongside other legends.

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