Mickey Ned O’Sullivan: Still making a difference

Picture: Eamonn Keogh

Mickey Ned O’Sullivan was the first footballer to score a goal in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and all going well was meant to be coaching the Kerry minors on the last day the old ground hosted a Munster football final as well.

But when a student and player of yours has lost their life on the field and you've seen and gained as much as O'Sullivan has through the years, you accept and move on from such things.

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He’d make a great GAA trivia quiz all of his own.

Name the player who scored the first football goal in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Who has a Munster championship medal at minor, U21 and senior as both a player and a manager?

Along with his great friend John O’Keeffe, which man has been involved as either a player, coach or selector in a Munster final over six consecutive decades?

And, of course, which All Ireland-winning captain was unable to go up and collect the Sam Maguire?

Mickey Ned O’Sullivan will always be known for that moment. While only a trainspotter might recall the identity of the first goalscorer down in the Pairc and the six consecutive decades, almost everyone knows about ’75, that run, that tackle, that concussion. Yet to reduce him to that moment would be unfair on you as much as him.

You’d miss out on so much else.

Spend a few hours in his company in his house splendidly overlooking Kenmare River and you come to appreciate the varied and fascinating footballing life of a great football man as well as how much more to his life there is than football.

He’s 62 now but there still isn’t a day that he doesn’t either swim, run or cycle. The day before this year’s All-Ireland football final he’ll do all three in a triathlon up in Down, a veteran now of endurance races. By October he and wife Marian will also have completed the Wild Atlantic Way.

Every weekend this summer they cycle some peninsula along the west coast. They’re now as far up as Clare. Today, if the weather is fine, they’ll go around by the Burren in their own time. “We’re not cyclists but we enjoy it,” he says.

Landscape paintings are peppered all over the house. Skellig Michael down by Jack O’Connor country is a particular subject of affection and fascination. There are photographs too that tell a tale. There’s one of Marian and their two sons, Eamonn and Bryan, posing with Amy Winehouse, whom they met at a party. There’s one with Brendan Balfe, the RTÉ Radio presenter with the majestic voice and zero interest in football, who has been a close friend of O’Sullivans for over 30 years. And there’s another small framed picture on the mantelpiece of O’Sullivan alongside Martin O’Neill in the manager’s office at Celtic.

In 1970 they marked each other in an All-Ireland minor semi-final. O’Sullivan was centre back for Kerry, O’Neill centre forward for Derry. O’Neill never forgot that and 32 years later when O’Neill learned O’Sullivan was over in Glasgow to take in a game against Dunfermline, O’Neill showed him around the dressing room and into his office on game day.

In the corner of the kitchen there is a canvassed picture of the Kerry team of 1975. That’s the only football picture outside of the study room. Why it and only it? “It shouldn’t dominate. It was a formative part of my life but it shouldn’t dominate my life or environment. It has its place.”

He hasn’t let Kerry football define him so, which is just as well considering some events last autumn, but in his own way he has helped define Kerry football. He will not give himself credit where it’s not due – ask him about his time as a Kerry selector to the three-in-a-row team of the mid-80s and he says, “It was grand but yerrah, you had no involvement really”, it was very much the Micko show– but a decade earlier he had a subtle but sure influence in how the game and its greatest team evolved.

O’Sullivan at the time was a PE student in Strawberry Hill in London where he had David Bedford, the 10km world record holder, for a classmate and figures like Don Revie and Bertie Mee giving the odd lecture and coaching course when they weren’t managing Leeds and Arsenal. It was a bit of a cultural change from back home where training basically amounted to doing a few laps and sprints and a casual game of backs and forwards.

“I remember doing an FA coaching course and it was all ‘the principles of defence’ and ‘principles of attack’. I’d never heard of these things or ‘depth of attack’ or ‘support play’ before. But in 1973 I was playing for the U21s and Johnny Walsh was in charge of the team and he said to me ‘Will you take the training session?’ I said ‘Grand.’ On that team you would have had the likes of (John) Egan, Mikey (Sheehy), (Ger) Power, Páidí (Ó Sé), – all natural footballers.

And we started playing this ‘support play’.

“The way we explained it was ‘Space, shout, support.’ So you had to create space, if you gave the pass you made the overlap and called for it. Like in soccer. And right away they just took to it. You didn’t have to tell them anymore after those first couple of sessions. They were just unbeatable. We won that (U21) All-Ireland. By the time O’Dwyer had them they already had it.”

By September 1975 they had Sam Maguire too. It softened them. O’Sullivan has a hazy recall of when Páirc Uí Chaoimh opened the following year. The first thing that struck him was that the dressing rooms that are so maligned now were positively luxurious compared to when he had previously played down by the Marina; for the 1973 Munster final in the old Athletics Grounds Kerry had to tog off in the stables of the nearby Showgrounds.

As for ’76, he can’t remember his goal, the first of five in the replay. His most vivid memory is the sense that it was all a stay of execution.

“In ’76 I always felt the drive wasn’t there. We were still good but we’d over-socialised over the winter. We were lucky. Cork could have won either day but we ended up actually killing them off that year. Every year after that they’d come with almost an entirely new team. If they’d stuck with the nucleus of the ’76 team they could have been the ones to win multiple All-Irelands. At the time I didn’t think we would. I had no idea how good the team would become.”

He would miss 1977, he and Marian as newly-weds heading to America for the year, and while he’d resume his spot on the Kerry panel he’d never regain his place on a starting championship team, not with a half-forward line of Spillane, Moran and Power in situ. By 1980 he and Marian had a son and after that year’s All-Ireland he accepted that being on the bench you could neither play nor babysit.

he game would continue to intrigue him, especially coaching. In 1983 he would make a two- hour coaching video. He came across a copy of it only a few months ago and it is gold. Narrating is Jim Carney, directing is O’Sullivan while demonstrating the various skills are members of the greatest team ever in their prime. Pat Spillane explains and executes the virtues of the hook kick. Also wearing that vintage Munster blue strip is Mikey Sheehy showcasing the overhead kick, Tommy Doyle the drop-kick, John Egan the solo, Bomber Liston the old handpass; Páidí Ó Sé, along with Cork’s Dinny Allen, the chip lift.

Some of those skills are now obsolete, virtually redundant, but the footage itself is priceless.

O’Sullivan would follow that up by writing a book on sport psychology. He’d studied the discipline in Strawberry Hill and blended a lot of its research with interviews with the likes of Sean Kelly, John Treacy, Marcus O’Sullivan and Larry Tompkins. Unlike his Coaching Manual for Young Players that he produced for the GAA when he was 24-years-old, it never saw the light of day. At the time sport psychology was voodoo, taboo, and O’Sullivan calculated the book would deter rather than enhance his chances of managing Kerry.

He would land that post in the autumn of 1989 only to the following summer bring probably the weakest Kerry team ever down to the Páirc to face probably the greatest Cork team ever.

Kerry were mauled. But a year later Kerry would beat Cork in Killarney and win Munster. “We still hadn’t the talent to win an All-Ireland but we’d developed resolve.”

In ’92 they’d beat Cork again, only to be shocked by Clare. Afterwards he could see that subconsciously everyone had looked too far ahead to an All-Ireland semi-final but even before the Clare game he detected things were off. “A few players were late, saying they’d got stuck in traffic. I was annoyed going into that match.”

The result meant it would be his last. Although in those same three years he had also guided the U21s to an All-Ireland title and three Munster titles, O’Sullivan knew it was time for something new for both him and Kerry.

That experience is one of the reasons why he can be so philosophical about what happened with the Kerry minor job this past autumn. He’d coached at that grade the previous two seasons along with John O’Keeffe and was looking to coach this year too only for Jack O’Connor to get the job.

It rankled, not just with O’Sullivan. There was a general view there was an All-Ireland in the 2014 crop and having done a lot of the heavy lifting O’Sullivan should have been retained.

“I think we’d set up a very good structure. In 2011 the county board set up a review body regarding the underage structures in Kerry. Jack would have been on it, Bomber, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Pat O’Shea, Johnno, myself. There was an acceptance things had been too lax and random. It needed better structures, that at 15 you were already doing proper core work, that you were accustomed to a certain lifestyle by the time you came on stream to the minors.

“Our first year with the minors we reached the All-Ireland semi-final but they weren’t used to a disciplined set-up. Last year when we won Munster we had players who had come through that system. Twelve of that team were returning for 2014 while we’d always said it would take a third year for everything to be in place.”

But county chairman Patrick O’Sullivan wanted Jack in place for 2014 and before the crucial county board meeting informed Mickey Ned of his preference. Club delegates, in sympathy and support for the outgoing management, called for a vote, but with the executive informed that there was a county board bylaw insisting they had to vote in favour of the chairman’s proposal, Jack prevailed, 44-28. 20 clubs abstained.

“A lot of the people I spoke to involved in the decision-making process wanted us to stay on but the chairman didn’t. Interestingly, he never attended a training session in our time and we had 160 of them over the two years. That annoyed me. But I have no axe to grind with Jack. You just move on. ”

After all, he only lost a coaching post. No one lost their life. Last year one of his players and students in Coláiste Ghobnatán, Ballyvourney, did.

He wells up at the mention of Shane Murphy and recalling the date December 10, 2012. It was a Cork colleges game down in the back pitch in Coachford: Ballyvourney against Kinsale. Other than the players the only people there were O’Sullivan, the bus driver, some guy over Kinsale and Shane’s brother, who happened to be off college that day and volunteered to step in as an umpire. Ten minutes after half-time he was raising not a flag but a shout. His brother only metres away in the wing-forward spot had collapsed. “Straight away,” says O’Sullivan, “I knew Shane was gone.”

There was no course or book provided in Strawberry Hill as what all to do next. You could only rely on your instincts. Try to resuscitate Shane. Break out the defibrillator which seemed to revive him for a few seconds but a few seconds only. Call the ambulance, call the principal to call Shane’s parents. All around you there’s these freezing, distressed kids, including Shane’s own brother. It’s the worst hour in your 60-plus years on the planet.

The ambulance arrives in just 15 minutes and then Shane’s parents come along, but then as the principal brings them into the hospital behind the ambulance, you have to bring their car back to the family home where you talk to Shane’s relatives and siblings. Then back in the school you bring his team-mates into a room. School is closing in a few minutes. You sense they can’t leave not knowing what way Shane is. They have to know and be together. So you step outside and make a call. Shane’s gone. You step back inside and break the news and as you do you break down yourself.

“It was.... just horrendous,” he says, gulping for breath, wiping away a tear. “You get involved in sport never expecting anything like this.”

They would stay in that room for over an hour. They cried together, encouraged by O’Sullivan to let go of their inhibitions and just express how they felt about the “quiet, unassuming, popular, honourable young lad” they had just lost. The next two days they would stay at Shane’s house with the family.

In grieving together they would grow up together. “Lads who had been messers before transformed into serious footballers, real young men. And they’ve never been beaten since. They’ve blown every team out of it. I suppose they felt that they were paying for something bigger than themselves.”

Just before the Munster final they would be informed the cup would be named after Shane. A few hours later they would lift that cup. In the All Ireland (C) semi-final they would beat a Ballinamore team featuring 11 members of the Leitrim minor county team. Then after they beat Ardee from Louth in the All-Ireland final in Portlaoise they would stop off at Shane’s graveyard with the cup.

To see those kids grow, that’s why O’Sullivan still coaches. And teaches. Ask him why he hasn’t taken early retirement like so many GAA brethren and teachers of his age and he says, “Because I still feel you can make a difference.”

Over 35 years ago O’Sullivan took a year out to study guidance counselling up in UCD and it’s a discipline and art he still practises now. In a way that’s real coaching. It’s what he wishes he could have done some more with the teams he coached like the Limerick side who he brought to two consecutive Munster finals in 2009 and 2010. In school you have time to make that connection.

He remembers years ago a principal asking him to take RE. O’Sullivan was initially reluctant but assured he’d have plenty of scope, took it on, went in and asked the students what they wanted to cover.

They came up with the meaning of life and the secret to happiness. So they identified eight leading philosophers, three students for each one, and found there were five common themes.

“The first was good health. The second was personal relationships: be in harmony with your family and friends, value them. Three, find an expression for yourself, a passion. Number four, make or get enough to get by. And number five was the spiritual. And what the students identified was to a large extent all that was within their own control.”

About 10 years ago O’Sullivan found himself in a bar. It was one of his former students who was gleefully able to recall the five secrets to life. Why does he teach? That’s why.

The philosophers’ wisdom and principles have certainly served him well. He’s still hugely active and fit. Relationships: he and Marian talk to the two kids daily even though they’re both working abroad in demanding jobs. Former players of his like Stephen Lavin in Limerick still keep in contact, calling him into when he was down in Parknasilla recently. Last year Stephen Lucey also called in for a meal and a round of golf. Teammates like Ogie Moran and John O’Keeffe remain great friends to this day; only the other week he and Marian attended Johnno’s daughter’s wedding. He’s especially close to the Dubs that took him out that time in ’75. On the eve of most All-Irelands he’ll meet up with their chief hitman, Sean Doherty, for a pint, and again around Christmas in some pub just off Grafton Street.

Passion, interest: coaching and football has certainly provided that. It’s brought him around the world. He’s coached Harlequins for a few days on ‘support play’ on Conor O’Shea’s request. He once spent a week in South Africa with the Springboks, coaching the likes of a 22-year-old Bryan Habana how to be more explosive catching a restart in the air.

“They didn’t want anyone from Australian Rules because they had a thing against Australia. So they rang Conor who recommended me. So to let them know where I was coming from I brought them a DVD of the 2005 All-Ireland final: Tyrone-Kerry. I showed them 10 minutes of it. ‘That’ll give you an idea.’ They said ‘No, we want to see it all.’ They couldn’t get over the intensity and the fact they were all amateurs playing in front of 80,000. Jake White and the coaching staff wanted to know ways and drills that could help raise their intensity.”

Did it help? It certainly didn’t hurt; a year later the Boks were world champs.

He certainly got a kick out of it, just as he still gets giving a hand out to the various teams in the club in Kenmare as well as with the school who have five pupils playing in tomorrow’s Munster final, three with Cork, two with Kerry.

The secrets to life, four and five: he’s enough to get by, while here in Kenmare and Kerry, where he overlooks the river and can see deer fleet in and out of his front garden, he’s in touch and at one with nature. He’s at peace with himself. Kerry jobs come and go, stands and stables and dressing rooms in Páirc Uí Chaoimh as well, but still he goes on, one of the great football men who’s so much more.


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