He now holds the record for most championship appearances in the famous green and gold. He is idolised in Kerry and respected nationally.
He started as a raw 19-year-old in 1994 and always had that rare aerial authority which endeared him to the Kerry faithful. There is a great picture from the Munster final of 1995 on the back cover of Tom Humphries’ book, Green Fields. Darragh Ó Sé has just been introduced to the fray, and is in a now-familiar pose soaring above the rest to pick the ball from over their heads.
Maurice Fitzgerald, Seamus Moynihan, Liam O’Flaherty and Cork’s Danny Culloty are all attempting in vain to get to Ó Sé’s lofty altitude. Who said white men can’t jump?
He delivered another huge performance last Sunday at Croke Park as he outplayed, battered and bullied Nicholas Murphy into submission. Murphy is a very good player and had a great year until the final. His career, however, will always be asterisked with the charge that he failed to master Ó Sé on the big days — and especially in Croke Park.
Ó Sé would have been delighted with the press Murphy received in the lead-up to the game. Ó Sé’s fitness and desire were also being questioned in some sections of the media. He must have allowed himself a wry smile last week, knowing what lay ahead.
What has driven Ó Sé for 14 seasons and to five All-Ireland medals? He is an Ó Sé from Ventry so his obsession with football and Kerry is hereditary. It is in the DNA. There was never time for any other sports as they grew up. The small gort beside their house in Árd a Bhothair overlooking the Atlantic became their Croke Park. Darragh and Marc would take on Tomás and Fergal. Darragh jokes that Tomás always had a ferocious temper. One can assume sparks regularly flew. These jousts were to prepare three of the brothers for the cauldron that is the real Croke Park on big championship days.
When Paidí got the bullet as Kerry manager in 2003, rumours shot around Kerry that his three nephews would walk away with him. While they were hurt and distracted this would never happen. To any Ó Sé, it’s always about the green and gold.
This passion will only take a player so far however, and 2002 was an important watershed. The disappointment from that day (losing the All-Ireland final to Armagh) provided the drive that would take Darragh to a further three Celtic Crosses. As with many of that Kerry team, that defeat hurt deeply. We coughed up an All-Ireland we knew we had won. We lit up that summer with some scintillating attacking football but medals are not given out in July and August. Darragh, the captain that year, Tomás and Marc took a personal burden through that summer also. For it to finish like that it was soul-destroying.
Darragh Ó Sé does not do regrets, but there’s something that still eats at him. He still feels that we could have halted the move that led to the Armagh goal, illegally and cynically. Paul McGrane could have been checked before he got the vital touch to put it into Oisín McConville’s path. In later years, that goal would not have been scored when we fully developed our ruthless streak. He reckons if McGrane had been fouled, Kerry would have prevailed. That regret was fuel for the fire for the second part of his career.
Because of a serious ankle injury in 2003 and a broken bone in his foot in 2004 we did not witness fully this drive until the end of 2005 when he beat Seán Cavanagh in the All Ireland final. We really saw it in 2006 as he propelled Kerry to the final. If you doubt me, look at the DVD of the Armagh quarter-final. He played like a man possessed in one of his best-ever games. He gave an exhibition of midfield play against his old nemesis. The ghost was exorcised. As Sugar Ray Robinson battered Jake La Motta in their St Valentines Day Massacre fight in 1951, La Motta refused to go down saying “you never got me down, Ray.” So it was with Darragh and Armagh. Darragh refused to go down, he refused to go away and unlike The Raging Bull, Darragh got his rematch and won.
Darragh possesses a mentality that means he will do whatever is necessary to get the job done. He has the required hard edge to his game that has meant he has sailed close to the wind on many occasions. He can be very aggressive but has seldom crossed the line. If an opponent plays football he will play football and usually get the better of his opposite number. If an adversary wants to get down and dirty, he relishes that type also. He adapts and drives on with an astoundingly consistent levels of high performance. One of his favourite lines from a forgotten war film is “I will beat you into the ground.” He can do this by showing off his silken skills or if necessary by physically dominating an opponent.
He can be charming and he is fantastic company but like all great players, he would take your life to win the next ball.
He is also ambitious and confident. He knows what he is good at and he knows his limits. Often in the middle of a game he will adapt if a rival is getting the upper hand and nearly always influences proceedings in the final quarter. His leadership and mental strength are the key ingredients in his unique make-up.
All the current Kerry panel would have been fans of Darragh Ó Sé the footballer before he became Darragh Ó Sé the team-mate. They would have learned from the sidelines before soldiering with him. When he speaks, they soak it up. At half-time in the All-Ireland quarter final against Monaghan, the Kerry dressing room was in disarray. There was panic in the air. It was Darragh who stood up and took hold of the situation. Leaders lead.
High-fielding, play-making, superb athleticism, score-getting, tackling back and picking points from over the crossbar have all been part of his weaponry. But what defines the man is his pride. He is a proud Gaeltacht man, of his siblings, of his name and most of all of the jersey. He accepts that upholding the tradition of the great Kerry midfielder — from Jacko to Mick O’Connell — is something he must do until the last minute of his last game.
How will Kerry replace him? They can’t, simple as that.
The Kingdom will have to swallow hard and move on. Kerry will adapt and they will get used to life without Darragh Ó Sé. Eventually. That is the Kerry way.
* This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in this newspaper after Kerry’s 2007 All-Ireland success. Eamonn Fitzmaurice won three All-Irelands alongside Ó Sé’s and is a current Kerry selector.