Tómas Ó Sé Interview: He’s done us all some service

It may all end tomorrow in a Cork football final at Páirc Uí Rinn, an odd setting for a stellar Kerry career to finish. Tomás Ó Sé’s achievements are among the most storied in the GAA, but beyond that bristling ball of fire with No 5 on his back is an intriguing and engaging character — at least to those who truly know him.

Tómas Ó Sé Interview: He’s done us all some service

THIS interview has been resting, uncorked, on a voice recorder for a year. There are good reasons, though not special or significant ones, it’s only being published now. One thing stands out from it for me now when I listen back to it. There’s a lot of real, unvarnished, genuine Tómas Ó Sé in there. Genuine is the opposite of counterfeit. Those who get to really know Tomás Ó Sé come to realise he is different to his siblings and his uncle, though they all share a lot of the same idiosyncrasies and tics. He is ludicrously modest in some respects though innately clever, realising he now has the earning capacity to monetise some of his magnificent football achievements. At one stage he talks about an ex-player “gigging” or “getting a touch”.

He is not immune to that. Why should he be? He has pulled on the most famous geansaí in gaelic football a record 88 times in the championship. More than anyone. And now he gets paid to offer opinions and relate his experiences. Next weekend, he will publish his first book, ‘White Heat”, less an autobiography than a necklace of insight if such a genre can exist these days. Those thumbing through its contents for salacious detail of drink and carousing can spare themselves the bother.

But it will offer a wider screen experience of a passionate West Kerry man who is very definite and strident at times in his view of the world. Maybe when we turned on the recorder between us on my sitting room sofa that evening, he felt the contents might never be published. I’m glad if he did. So will you be. One thing he unquestionably shares with his brothers Darragh, Fergal and Marc and his uncle, Páidí, is wit and a storyteller’s instinct.

Tomorrow, he will line out for Nemo Rangers in a Cork county football final. He didn’t see that coming. Another reason he didn’t want publicity this weekend, of all weekends. Not that it will affect his preparation or influence his piseogery or make a jot of difference to his performance against Castlehaven.

This is Tomás now, heading for 38. The same Tomás we saw in what he describes as the second phase of a three-part football career. The bit when the bear inside him slept for a while. At peace with himself.

“When I went in first with Kerry, Páidí was in charge. I’d never consider myself dirty, but for the first few years, fellas were betting on me getting the first yellow card. Then there was eight or nine years when I rarely got cautioned at all. Then towards the last three or four years, I was getting sent off for stupid things.. But it was all League red cards. Not championship. That time of the season, you’re not as fit as you should be. And we were going shite too. I often chatted with Paul (Galvin) about this, I’d no control over losing the canopy. I’d talk to others who had calmed themselves, and I’d be quizzing them: How did you get to that place? That bit of him will always be there. I saw something almost identical from Ó Sé only two weeks ago in Nemo’s Cork semi-final against Carbery Rangers. Their forward, Seamus Hayes, ran aggressively and deliberately at Ó Sé, and rutted him. Ó Sé shook it off, but he wasn’t letting it go. I knew that. Shortly afterwards he got booked for leading with the elbow, and picked up a yellow card. If he’d delivered his intention, it would have been red.

“If things are good off the field, and in a happy place, you are a happier footballer,” he once told me. “But I was always able to block out stuff for championship.”

He can’t recall missing a Kerry championship game through injury. It was either suspension, or in the successful 2009 season – which many, including himself, regard as his finest in green and gold – he was dropped for disciplinary reasons for the Round of 16 qualifier against Antrim.

“The perceived wisdom was that Gooch and myself were together after the previous week’s game against Sligo. We were lucky that night in Tralee. I didn’t like the way fellas were talking in the dressing room afterwards, like ‘we are still there’. Lots of things were going wrong that weren’t being focused on, and I should have said it out. We were working really hard in training, but it wasn’t happening, and I was frustrated.

“There was a couple of buddies home from England for a wedding in Dingle and we went home and had a few beers with them, and a couple more the following day. We kept it local, but word got back to Jack (O’Connor). And there was more than me (in the Kerry set-up) having the few beers, by the way.

Do what ye think is right, lads. “So I met Jack, Fitzy (Eamonn Fitzmaurice) in a hotel before training. Jack did what he had to do, but inside the panel the players knew others were drinking too. So it didn’t make the point to us, but I suppose it made a point in the media, and that’s what I didn’t like. Jack and the boys could have handled that much better. ‘Lads, we have set rules here, the two boys are going to be dropped, we are putting out the story they clashed in training and got injured’. Yes they might smell a rat but we will say nothing. I felt we were hung out to dry.”

was disappointed myself for him that in his last All-Ireland final he lost to Dublin and the man he was marking picked up a man of the match bauble, but in the broader scale of things, it’s the intimate stuff that elevates him when he’s driving to and from school mornings and evenings in Fermoy. Or when he’s sitting at home with the kids.

“Some fellas are very chilled before big games. Others are wired. Seanie Walsh was telling me one time that PO (Páidí Ó Sé, as if you didn’t know) had a special pair of black slip-ons in his gear bag. He’d come into the Croke Park dressing room, throw his gear bag in the corner, put on these slip-ons and leap around balls naked, ramming off walls, hopping off things, talking to himself.

“I’d get edgy talking about tactics, and talking about the game. I used always think in the warm-up I wasn’t right at all, I’d be saying to Darragh ‘Something’s wrong here, I feel knackered’. But whatever trick the mind plays on me, all that snaps out of your head the minute the ball is thrown in, because you just tune in. You’re not thinking of anything else, like.

“Sometimes before games you’d say ‘I must remember that during the first-half, but really nothing any side of you is putting you off. They were invisible blinkers. Towards the end, I was enjoying the whole feeling of coming into Croke Park on big game days. I always slept the night before a game but I hated the last hour before we went out in the dressing room. I’d sit down, go to toilet, sit down again, flick through the programme — not reading it, just flicking — walk onto the field, check out the sod, sit into the stand. I wouldn’t be watching the match, just what gloves they’re wearing, what boots they’re wearing. Watching fellas, are they slipping? Even though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference to me, I always had to have six-stud boots.

“Then you’d come back in and it was that time, warm-ups, backs inside in one room, forwards in another. I’d go into the shower area, lie down and throw my legs up against the wall for 10 minutes. Arse up against the wall, let the blood flow. When the second 15 went in for their warm-up, you knew things were getting close. Then we’d go in for our warm-up, jerseys, last talk and you’re out.

“Some fellas would have this attitude ‘don’t look into the crowd, it’s a sign of not being tuned in’. I was always looking into the crowd to see where my gang was. I’d be a firm believer you don’t have to be wired constantly. You tune in three or four minutes at a time, twice a day, in the build-up to to a game. That’d be enough. Páidí was different I suppose.

I’d say he was wired altogether, he was reckless with piseogs. I had one, that was to follow a guy out of the dressing room that I admired hugely.” In that regard, he was spoiled for choice over a 15 year inter-county career. He’d just slip into the line behind Moynihan, Darragh, Mike Mac, Galvin, Gooch, Declan, Eamonn.

“Dressing rooms are good places. There’s a difference between cliques and fellas who sit down in certain places. Myself, Murph (Diarmuid Murphy) and Darragh were down in one corner, more often than not, and Darragh had an unbelievable habit of virtually blowing a hole in the wall with farts, like.

“Terrible stuff. I used to ask him how would you have that much wind? I’d go to the toilet maybe four times that morning, so every bit of food I’d have is gone out of my system. And then myself, himself and Murph would be in the corner, and a serious chat going on. The first year Darragh did it, I remember Ger O’Keeffe came over and said (imitates Ger’s brogue) ‘Jesus Christ, Darragh, are you alright, will I call a doctor?’ “Mike Mac and Tom O’Sullivan might have a cigarette just before they got on the team bus. Some fellas were into shouting, and I’d be thinking ‘calm down, would ye wait for it?’. The thing people don’t realise — and clubs who get fellas in to talk to them must see this – is that you are not going to change anything the night before a game.

“All this is done in the week before, and it’s then you have to get your head right for one of the biggest games you will ever play. Everybody was different. I was getting myself right, and expecting everyone else to be getting themselves right. If you’ve 15 fellas working towards one plan, you’re ok.” There’s a memorable scene in Gus van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams is talking through his marriage with the movie’s principle character played by Matt Damon. And how his now deceased wife would fart so much in bed, but he never had the heart to tell her. “That’s the really good stuff, those little details only the two of you know about.” Tomás has loads of that from 15 years and all those summer and all those dressing rooms on all those nights. And many of them are in the book, I hope.

“The weekend of games, we might be in hotel rooms and start talking about stuff that was really warped. Twisted, like. We are talking about dwarfs one time, and I was wondering ‘how come you never really see old dwarfs. I’ve never seen one in my life’.

“The next thing, you’d be looking at the television, and you’d be laughing at people in bad situations. I dunno, there’s a dark side to it. It’s not that we are nasty, but we enjoy black humour I suppose. It might be Darragh could lose 500 euros, and I’d break my arse laughing at it. And he’d get that. He’d do the same to me. A lot of fellas have this idea of going to All-Ireland weekends and being zoned in on this game. When we weren’t in meetings or training, and we had our down time, we’d be messing. We knew when to tune in. No-one could every say we had our eyes off the ball.

“We knew when to mess. Getting the keys to fellas’ rooms, and rearranging them, messing with mattresses, putting the base of their beds into showers. They’d come back to their rooms and we’d be down the end of the corridors breaking our arses laughing.

“We’d fill up fellas gear bags – we would do it to Eoin Brosnan — with all the freebie booze from the room bars, so that he’d carry it onto the bus. There was this one hotel where if you click out the drink from the fridge in the room, and it remains out for longer than five minutes, you pay for it. So we took everything out and hid it under the bed. Just to see his reaction because we knew he wouldn’t get done for it cos it was all still there in the room. These little things. Stupid stuff. The chats on the bus would be dark humour stuff.

“It was a wavelength thing. Galvin used to get it, Darragh did, Fitzy got it, myself, Tommy Griffin got it. That type of humour. Seamo was good at it too.”

There was a thread running through Jack O’Connor’s autobiography that he was wary of the Ó Sés, and not just because he was replacing their uncle as Kerry manager. It’s understandable. The family from Ard a’Bhothair in Ventry is so omnipotent in Kerry football terms that until Marc Ó Sé was left out of this year’s All-Ireland final side, the Kingdom hadn’t lined out in an All-Ireland final without a member of the family since 1972. 43 years.

Páidí once told me a tale which he recounted in all sincerity though it was hilarious in the telling. The morning of the 2000 final against Galway he came downstairs in the team hotel and found his three nephews in a huddle, chatting with another Gaeltacht man, Dara Ó Cinnéide. “Jesus, would ye not spread out a bit at least?” “When we were younger” Tomas says, “you’d travel by car to every game, bar Dublin, so we’d invariably be in the car together from back west. Same from training home. Like any team, you gravitate towards certain guys you knew. I wouldn’t really have known Fitzy with the minors, not even much better with the Kerry Under 21s. It was only when I went to live with him in Limerick that I really got to know him.

“Darragh, myself and Marc — Jack saw us a kind of threat in some way. He thought we were a bit powerful, but we never would have stirred shit inside with Kerry. But I’d see the way he could think it. There was youngsters would come in to the set-up and there would be room at our table, but they’d head away to another table. Were they half afraid? I dunno.

“When I started with Kerry, PO was manager and I’d travel with himself, Jack Ferriter, Darragh and Cinnéide in one car. And we would have severe crack coming in the way in the car. Like severe crack. For the first while I’d be quiet in his company because if PO latched onto something, and ridiculed you, it could stay with you for a few years.

“There was an old song from The Mavericks, I can still hum it in my head, and we were coming through Lispole and I said ‘turn that up there, it’s a good song’. PO turned it up. About two years later I was below in the bar (in Ventry) in the corner, and he came in and didn’t see me and that song was on and he was getting a fit of laughing. And I knew what he was thinking. At that stage, I could read him as well as he could read me.” Outside his own, Ó Sé and Paul Galvin connected. Both just on the good side of free range.

“He’d have the head lost — he actually would have lost the head inside in a room — and our eyes would meet and be laughing at each other, but then he’d turn back to everyone else, stone-faced. And that could end up in a deadly ruckus. He was a guy who prepared better than anybody I’ve seen. The guy people see isn’t the real Paul Galvin. Anyone who knows him knows him as a funny guy who’s very passionate about the culture and the history of Kerry football.

“We travelled together from Cork for training for a good few years. Sometimes he’d get cranky and I like that about him because he was so serious. He might have a clash in training those nights and afterwards he’d go to a really black place and there’d be no communication on the road back to Cork at all. And that was awkward if there was only the two of us. He was headstrong. He shied away from no one, he went for the big guys. This guy would throw his body, quite literally, in the way of an equivalent freight train. He didn’t hold back. And then, he’d scrape himself off the ground and do it all again.”

His playing career will end tomorrow if Nemo don’t win Cork. And in certain circumstances, he’d like to try management, though Tomás Ó Sé is not your front of house person. He has seen what his buddy Eamonn Fitzmaurice has achieved, and with the right people around him – that’s the key – he feels he has something to offer a squad of players. Feels? After 88 Championship games and five All-Irelands?

“The people who know me know I’d be quiet really. More like Fergal, whereas Darragh would be more outgoing. But if I went into a senior dressing room tomorrow, I’d have no problem with it. I would try to tap into my own experience. It’s not a question of how many medals have you. I remember talking to [his wife] Maire about Páidí. He was very shy. It was his football with Kerry that that gave him that extra spurt to have a bit of confidence about him. I get that now. People would say I am the closest to PO in terms of his traits. In some ways, yes, in other ways, no.

“Football brings out a different side to fellas. Mike McCarthy was the obvious example. Paidi was the first manager I saw tapping into that. He’d go to different fellas to speak before a game, to try try them out. You can judge a lot off the way a fella carries himself. Look at the way Fitzy has carried himself [in 2014], it’s unreal. What he achieved was as special as anything I’d seen from a Kerry manager. There’s no ego. That’s important. Being humble.” He should know.

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