The same evening that both Kerry’s involvement in the 2018 championship and Eamonn Fitmaurice’s tenure as manager ended, the last two players to leave the home dressing room in the bowels of Fitzgerald Stadium were Kieran Donaghy and Darran O’Sullivan, writes Kieran Shannon.
Donaghy, who had started the game but was subbed at half-time, had been the last to shower, having stayed out on the field, signing autographs, in the knowledge he’d never again do the same with a green and gold jersey on his back, while O’Sullivan was also soaking in every last moment inside the four walls that for 15 years had been his home from home.
About an hour-and-a-half earlier, O’Sullivan had nearly torn the paint off those same four walls, jolting his team-mates from their slump whatever about their slumber, with an impassioned half-time address that a Jackie Tyrrell or Johnny Sexton would have approved. They were Kerry, playing a championship match in their own house in front of their own people. What they had served up in the opening 35 minutes against Kildare was unworthy of the jersey and that home support. Although he never said it in so many words, his teammates clearly picked up the subtext: I’m not going out like this!
Stirred by the emotion of one of the panel’s proudest and longest-serving players, Kerry responded in kind by blitzing Kildare 2-17 to 1-4 in that second half, the final 15 minutes of which O’Sullivan was on the field.
Although that cameo didn’t feature a trademark O’Sullivan wonder goal, in ways his final evening in a Kerry shirt was representative of much of O’Sullivan’s time involved with the county: A contribution often understated and unseen by the masses, and restricted too because of injury, yet hugely appreciated and respected by those within the inner sanctum.
For Donaghy, there was something poetic and fitting that O’Sullivan should wait on to shuffle out of that dressing room door alongside him back in August. The same season that Donaghy first enjoyed full senior panel status coincided with O’Sullivan’s first year on the panel, straight out of minor.
“Started with him, finished with him, loved him as a teammate through all the ups and downs,” he’d post on Instagram yesterday upon O’Sullivan’s retirement, and he was even more effusive when this column put a call through to him yesterday.
“Darran was as brave as a lion,” said Donaghy. “He never shirked a ball, especially in the big moments, in the big games. He’d just fire himself in.”
For Donaghy, O’Sullivan was a bit like the basketball legend Larry Bird that way: His commitment to dive and contest for every ball led to him picking up injuries that invariably curtailed and inevitably shortened his career, but like Bird, O’Sullivan wasn’t prepared to compromise his honesty for the sake of longevity.
It was still a considerably long career: 14 years at the highest level. He just didn’t get to start as often as he’d have liked.
Although Jack O’Connor trusted and rated him enough to spring him off the bench as a 19-year-old in the 2005 All-Ireland final against Tyrone over the likes of Declan Quill, the team’s leading scorer in that year’s league, for his championship debut, he’d start in only four of Kerry’s next 24 championship games, a period spanning four Munster championship campaigns.
That Kerry team of the late noughties was simply stacked with half-forward talent: Probably the game’s best ball-winners in Paul Galvin and Liam Hassett; its best ball-player in Declan O’Sullivan; its best goalscoring half-forward in Eoin Brosnan; and in Sean O’Sullivan probably the game’s best deliverer of a diagonal ball to the game’s most dangerous player, Donaghy; and later, its greatest workhorse in Donnchadh Walsh. Only the Dublin panel of the past two years has ever approximated such depth for that line of the field – and still probably falls short on talent.
Tellingly, though, O’Sullivan came on in all of those 20 aforementioned championship games that he didn’t start; not once did he remain rooted to the bench.
As Donaghy puts it, he was a Kevin McManamon before Kevin McManamon, a super sub, a game-changer.
In a way, it was unfair on him, just as it can be unfair on McManamon; because he was so good at turning and finishing and winning a game for his team, it hurt his chances of starting one.
Because some other forwards hadn’t his capacity to change a game, they’d start ahead of him. Had he started more, he’d probably have had more magic moments for the highlight reel, maybe even an extra All Star or two, but maybe without an impact sub of his calibre, Kerry would have had an All-Ireland or two less.
Some of his cameos in those early years were monumental.
That first ball Donaghy caught in his first day at full-forward against Longford? It was O’Sullivan, in a rare start, with that particular scud missile-hockey assist, providing a patent for his namesake Sean and the likes of Galvin to follow.
The following day out when he was back to his customary role as a sub, he saw to it that it was as a super sub; with eight minutes to go in that seismic 2006 All Ireland quarter-final, Armagh had whittled Kerry’s lead back to two points and were a man up when O’Sullivan intercepted Enda McNulty’s pass and raced through to fire past Paul Hearty. That goal didn’t just seal that game, but in effect, that All-Ireland, as that face-off with Joe Kernan’s squad was that year’s de facto final.
Two years later, it was his late, darting run along the wing and square pass for Gooch that decided the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Cork.
He’d finally break into the team on a regular basis in the summer of 2009, his fifth on the panel; for all the reasons attributed to how Kerry turned and salvaged that season, O’Sullivan’s elevation to the starting 15 for the qualifier against Antrim and subsequent three points against Dublin is an oft-neglected one. Also largely forgotten is that in the all-too-forgettable semi-final win over Meath, his 1-1 was the difference between the teams.
That 2009 season would climax with him lifting Sam Maguire as the starting captain but the high point of his career was the 2011 season. In Kerry’s opening four games of the summer, he scored either a goal or three points in every game. Along with Stephen Cluxton and Alan Brogan, he was up for footballer of the year, and if the former hadn’t kicked that winning point, that gong would have been O’Sullivan’s instead of Brogan’s.
That autumn when Mayo reported back for their pre-season fitness test, their S&C and medical team referenced O’Sullivan when illustrating the importance of proper running technique and speed repeatability to fresh-faced newcomers like Lee Keegan and Brendan Harrison. If you plan to live with a Darran O’Sullivan who tormented their countymen in the All-Ireland semi-final that August, then you better do this and this. At the time, there was no greater welcome-to-the-NBA-inter-county-jungle reality check than O’Sullivan’s pace and trickery leaving you for dead.
Injury would prevent him getting back to quite such heights again. In 2016 he’d go close, firing a top-corner rocket against Clare that challenged his Lee Sharpe-like-trailing-back-heel 2011 effort against Limerick as the best goal scored in an All-Ireland quarter-final, and finding the net again against Dublin in the semi-final when Kerry memorably ambushed the Cluxton kick-out. It’s one of the great what-ifs of football of the last five years – what if a rampant O’Sullivan and Donaghy had lasted a further 10 minutes each that day instead of having to hobble off with injury – all the more so as O’Sullivan would never start in league or championship for Kerry again.
But he wasn’t done winning. Last year he led his club Glenbeigh-Glencar to an All-Ireland junior title. Nine years earlier he guided his division, Mid Kerry, to the senor county title. Along with Diarmuid Connolly and Aidan O’Shea, he helped DIT to their first Sigerson.
Even leaving aside 2009 when he lifted both the national league and Sam Maguire on the steps of the Hogan Stand, that’s quite a lengthy and varied medal haul. As Donaghy said yesterday, he was a pure winner, possessing a steel to go with all the speed and style.
Of course, we’d like to have seen more, just as he’d love to have played more.
But to know what Darran O’Sullivan was all about, we saw and he gave us more than enough.
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