He started 2012 in an easy, carefree fashion. After 2011 had brought the low of an All-Ireland final defeat with Kerry and the highs of county and Munster titles with Dr Crokes, Kieran O’Leary sat back and switched off.
He headed to South Africa with his girlfriend. Kieran Donaghy and his fiancée joined them on the trip. For 12 days football was off his radar.
They went on a safari, dived with sharks, stood atop Table Mountain and visited Robben Island.
“It was an unbelievable country to visit. I really liked Robben Island. The history stuff was very interesting. You need that break as the football is nearly 12 months round at this stage.”
If 2011 was frenzied, 2012 shows no signs of slowing down. Today he’s in Portlaoise with Dr Crokes facing Crossmaglen Rangers, their sparring partners from the 2007 All-Ireland club decider. And irrespective of the result, Kerry will soon come calling.
He won’t complain. Kieran O’Leary’s ascent to being an established inter-county senior has been gradual. He first linked up with the Kerry panel in 2006 but over the following five seasons only saw 31 minutes of championship action.
The apprenticeship took time. With defenders like Mike McCarthy and Tom O’Sullivan shadowing him in training, it was not easy to impress. With forwards like Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy ahead of him, it was not easy to get game time. In 2009 he was hindered by a hamstring injury when a call came from Jack O’Connor at the end of the National League.
“He was very fair. I was being dropped off the panel. It was gutting but I accepted it. After that I decided to go to New York for the summer, Smiler (Mike Moloney) from the club was going, and I’d see where I wanted to go with football. It was a great way to unwind. We’d some craic watching the Kerry matches. I remember the Sligo game, sitting alongside Smiler at 9am in a bar. When they got the penalty we knew if Kerry lost, Crokes were out the following week and we wouldn’t have been eligible because we’d transferred over. We celebrated that save well!”
He was back home for the 2009 county final day against South Kerry. Defeat hurt Dr Crokes but by the following January O’Leary was back in with Kerry. He started off in the modest surrounds of the McGrath Cup. To progress, he had to modify his game.
“When I came onto the Kerry panel first, everyone was saying to me you have to bulk up. But you look at Gooch — he is strong, but he never stops practicing with a football. Don’t get me wrong, the physical stuff is important but over the last few years I’ve gone back to the football basics more.”
He’s also improved the mental side of his game.
“When I was younger, I used to be very nervous. In 2004 we’d an underage club semi-final and I wouldn’t take a close-range free near the end. We lost by a point and it was on my mind for a long time why didn’t I take that kick. The year after I was playing for the Kerry minors against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final. In the last minute, we were down a point and I should have hand passed it over the bar but went for goal and the keeper saved it. It was the sickest feeling to lose that game. But I’ve come on in leaps and bounds. I’d be more relaxed now.”
Last summer provided evidence of that. O’Leary was used to spending Munster final day in Killarney on the hill behind the goal or sitting on the bench. Last July he was on the field from the start, his economical movement and passing a key feature of Kerry’s triumph over Cork. But the season ended on a sour note with defeat to Dublin. O’Leary’s All-Ireland final day ended after 24 minutes yet he has not dwelled on that substitution.
“In 10 years time what I’ll think of is the defeat, not being substituted. It was disappointing at the time but it doesn’t bother me now. The defeat was tough but I think it was harder for the management after. The players could at least get stuck back into it with their clubs.”
These days he works in Moriarty’s Photo Shop in Killarney and the 24 year-old is satisfied with his lot.
“I’ve a lot of friends away, they were home for Christmas and they’re saying they’re living the dream in Australia. But I’m definitely a home bird. I’ve other priorities. My girlfriend and family are here and the football is a big thing. I’m happy out.”
It is a golden period for Dr Crokes. They retained their Kerry senior title last October, a campaign where O’Leary dug them out of holes with big points in tight games against Austin Stacks and West Kerry.
Five years on from losing a decider to Crossmaglen, he has company on the Dr Crokes team this time around in his younger brother David ‘Buddy’ O’Leary, a Kerry U21 defender last year.
“He’s settled in perfectly. We’d mark each other in training and it’d be physical enough. The nickname started with Martin Beckett, a lovely fella from the Crokes who died some years back, who called him Buddy Holly. It’s stuck with him ever since. Everyone calls him that now, even my mother, it’s gas! I myself feel more experienced and I think that’s the same for all the team. Cross are the kingpins and we’ll be able to see now how far we’ve come.”