TOM O’SULLIVAN can’t find the interview default setting. It’s pushing on for an hour since we stared down at the dictaphone’s red light and only one comment has been off the record. And for the record, that wasn’t anything.
He should be taking parrots and moons. Anything but. Where do you want to start? Pay for play? (yes), Jack O’Connor? (paranoid), retirement (almost), playing full back (you try it).
“I could write a great book,” he laughs.
We believe him.
We believe him when he stresses, with emphasis, that he c..o..u..l..d n..o..t w..a..i..t for the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. This, despite a poor Munster final on tomorrow’s opponent, Michael Cussen, and a shocker of a quarter-final against Monaghan. Confidence, cockiness, self-belief?
His father, Tom Senior, needed four short, stiff ones before he walked up Jones Road for the Dublin game. O’Sullivan was looking for a noon throw-in.
“I was supposedly under pressure going into the Dublin game and I could not wait. Could not wait. That’s a good sign. I’m glad I didn’t retire.”
You didn’t know? Last winter, as he approached his 28th birthday, O’Sullivan had bellyloads. He knew Mike McCarthy was going. Mac told him 10 minutes from the end of the All-Ireland final against Mayo. On the edge of the small square at the Davin End. Conor Mortimer smiled and wondered could they have gone an hour earlier.
“I knew he was telling the truth. When Mike Mac has his mind made up, that’s it. I said to him ‘I’ll be with you’. I’d had enough.”
Not just of Jack O’Connor, Johnny Culloty and Ger O’Keeffe, but of routine. He needed a change.
“The hunger wasn’t there. Just getting sick of it. But I’m happy I stayed playing this year, even though I haven’t had a great season. What else would I be doing? There isn’t much else to do around Kerry. Go touring the Gap of Dunloe?”
He’s making sense. “When you are involved in football, you are missing out on things. But you could probably do them all inside a week. What about the other 51 weeks?”
So stay playing as long as you can. “Not as long as you can. Stay as long as you want. You give it up when you know you won’t miss it. I know when I retire, I won’t come along in two years and said ‘Jesus, I shouldn’t have retired.’”
He wonders has Jack O’Connor any such regrets. “Nothing against Jack, but it’s good to change (management) after three years. Doesn’t matter how good they are, how nice they are, how well you get on with them, how many All-Irelands you’ve won with them, you need a change after three years.
“The vibe needs to be different, the atmosphere. Same chats before the game, same meetings, it’s hard for everyone, including the management, to keep evolving.”
O’Sullivan has no real problem with O’Connor’s revealing insight into the Kerry dressing room, even if it paints the Rathmore man as a divil-may-care lazy haydog, who likes to occasionally dodge training. “A lot of players, included myself, could have come out of the book worse. I think Jack was afraid one of us could go writing a book in the future, and could have said a few things about him. In case we’d strike back, like.”
And the depiction of O’Sullivan, the frosty text messages? “Ask Pat O’Shea. Throughout the year you are always going to miss a couple of training sessions with shift work. Two or three in the season, maybe. Jack is kind of paranoid too, he feels he has to beat the world before he gets recognition. That’s all wrong. Jack is well respected throughout Kerry, and didn’t have to win any All-Irelands to get that respect.
“If we kicked the ball wrong in training, he’d nearly stop things and quiz you about it. But it worked...and it’s working in a different, but nice way this year too.”
O’Sullivan finds Pat O’Shea “very fair” and approachable. “You’ll get a reasonable hearing,” he says. Then again, if the Rathmore man didn’t take on the seemingly perennial problem that is the No 3 jersey with Kerry, then who would the selectors have turned to? Would the Darragh Ó Sé experiment have become a reality? Marc Ó Sé?
“A lot of people have been tried out there, haven’t they? It’s hard to adapt to a new position, because you’re expected to switch on. It took Mike McCarthy about a year to get used to the position. I don’t know whether I’ll be there next season, but there aren’t too many fellas putting their hand up. It’s definitely a position no-one seems to want.” But everyone likes to carp about.
“Fellas always like to be giving out about it (the full-back position), especially in Kerry. Seamus Moynihan was there, the lads were giving out, Mike Mac the same when he started. The press were always picking the whole time. They say Barry O’Shea was the last natural full-back, but ye (the media) were giving out about him too. See, it’s a very hard position. You make one mistake and you’ve had a bad game. Mike Mac was probably the one who made the jersey his own. But he’s gone now.”
O’Sullivan hasn’t even been booked this year, but that’s not to say he’s had a stroll. Good quality ball into Michael Cussen left him floundering in Killarney, and Vincent Corey was big and bothersome in the quarter-final.
“I haven’t had a great year, haven’t been comfortable, though I probably improved a bit against Dublin. A lot of it is getting used to the position, it is different. Most teams are playing a different style of football this year, a lot of high ball, probably as a result of Donaghy — they see it worked out for Kerry last year. Put the ball into the danger area. Why have the ball out around midfield for half the game when you can have it in the red zone? All it takes is one chance...”
Balls went under his legs and through his hands against Monaghan. Hence his father’s, and the county’s anxiety ahead of the Dublin game. “No the confidence wasn’t dented. I had a couple of good nights in training after the Monaghan game. But before it...well you can be playing A v B forever, but you don’t know how good that has been until you go out and try it the day of a match. Obviously we weren’t hitting hard enough in training before the Monaghan match...
“There was a lot of space around us against Monaghan, but at least in the Dublin game there was a lot of pressure ball from midfield. Our lads put a lot of pressure on their players.”
O’Sullivan is still one of the fastest players in Pat O’Shea’s squad. He’ll still pip Eoin Brosnan, Darren O’Sullivan and Sean O’Sullivan over 60 metres. But he’s not getting much chance to scorch the Croke park turf.
“A lot of the ball I’m contesting is high ball; you’re standing, looking up, waiting for the damn thing to come down. Before I’d be marking fast corner forwards, Meehan, Mortimer, or Paddy Bradley. Full forwards don’t tend to go out the field that much any more.”
Will he be paired with Cussen again? “I’d say so. Whether he’ll stay there (on the edge of the square) or not, I don’t know. We’ll probably each pick up a man, like the Dublin game. We usually are assigned to do a man-to-man job. The one or two games where we didn’t, I don’t think it worked out for the best. Better off sticking man to man.”
He’s 29 in November, and possibly at his physical peak. He’s learned lessons, and doesn’t let his quick temper betray him any more. He also remembers when he was starting out in 1999 when he looks at Padraig Reidy beside him in the full-back line.
“Padraig answered the critics in the right way against Dublin, I wouldn’t be conscious of minding him at all. We try and give as much encouragement as possible. There’s no point in roaring if he makes a mistake. When I started if I made a mistake, the last thing I wanted was someone to give out to you. Everyone’s young when they start...”
Whenever O’Sullivan does call a halt, one thing he knows — he’ll be doing a lot more Garda overtime. By his conservative estimate, he’s lost 100 hours a week OT this summer. Good and all as the guards are in Ballybunion, they’re not going to hand him money for going training.
“How often have you seen a player interviewed, and he says ‘No I don’t want no pay for play’. So does he want to be out of pocket? Come on, they’re lying. Players want money for playing — if you give players money for anything, they’ll take it.
“Who’s going to compensate me for hundred hours of lost overtime? The county board? Most players will go as far as compensation, but I would say more than that. Some sort of tax relief system perhaps...there has to be something there.”
O’Sullivan advocates incentivising the All-Ireland. “Twenty grand per player for the All-Ireland winners — that’s players, panel, management. Ten grand for the losing finalists. What do we actually get from the GAA’s million? A holiday that most fellas have trouble getting off work for.
“There has to be, in fact there is, ways around it, but the GAA don’t want to look at it; they want to keep it under the carpet as long as they can. The GPA grants thing will rise above the water again, and eventually the whole thing will break, but I presume I’ll be long gone by then.”
He understands pride-in-the-jersey mentality. It’s drilled into every youngster in Kerry and elsewhere from the age of understanding. You grow up thinking that way. “But no-one tells you about the mortgage the house, car, a family, trying to work, to train, go to work after training,” says O’Sullivan. “Madness.”
After the interview, I watch him train. His brother Dan is a masseur with the Kerry team but Tom keeps pretty much to himself, not engaging in the banter. He was dropped last summer 12 months for the Munster final and didn’t like it. He got a toasting in Killarney this year, and didn’t like it. He’s from Rathmore, remember. Border country. He’s got a point to prove. Maybe a text or two to send.
“If Kerry lose any game it’s like the end the world. It isn’t just because it’s Cork. But that pressure’s been there since I started playing with Kerry. You just get used to it. I don’t take any notice of that.”
We believe him.