Seriously, is there any end to ageless wonder Tomás Ó Sé?

Tomás Ó Sé doesn’t turn 40 for another four months but had Nemo Rangers come up short in Portlaoise on Saturday he’d have spent parts of every day between now and June cursing himself for the injury-time turnover that allowed Slaughtneil bring an engrossing All-Ireland semi-final to extra-time, writes Tony Leen.
Seriously, is there any end to ageless wonder Tomás Ó Sé?

Not because it spoiled a near perfect performance over the course of 80-odd frantic minutes – which it didn’t – but because he suspected, like many others, that Christopher Bradley’s equalising free (a couple of plays later) in the 63rd minute would hand the Ulster champions that sliver of momentum heading into overtime.

However, one of the things one begins to understand watching the footballers of Nemo is that they don’t subscribe to norms of convention. This was their 16th All-Ireland club semi and they’ve won 12, a 75% strike rate. The notion of lost momentum is a myth in that dressing room. So they come out in extra-time and, as Barry O’Driscoll described it, went “full throttle” for a few minutes. Those extra revs produced seven unanswered points in nine minutes, blowing the lock off things and turning parity into a 1-19 to 1-12 lead.

Ó Sé’s story doesn’t write to fit either. Fourteen years after Gaeltacht left an All-Ireland club title after them in Croke Park, this ageless wonder has the opportunity now to complete the story on March 17. Not very long after the final whistle Saturday, he was skipping down the tunnel and into the Portlaoise night, baseball cap lowered, laughing away at us all. He was on the first tee at 7.30am yesterday.

“You expect anything else from him at this stage?” wondered Barry O’Driscoll, who pushed the Kerryman hard for most valuable player, not least because he spent Friday in bed and Saturday morning on a toilet bowl.

Luke Connolly travelled aside Ó Sé on the team bus to Saturday’s semi-final and fed off the latter’s nervous energy. He knew this could have been the last time we’d savour the bottomless desire of a great in competitive boots.

“He brings us on. Tomás’s football IQ is second to none, I cannot emphasise that enough. He was bulling to get out there and play. It was all he was thinking about and for a fella of that age with that experience to be so wound up about a game at this stage of his career, it kicked us on.”

Connolly was the catalyst for the extra-time score-burst, nailing a 50m free which said so much about his self-belief. He finished the game with 2-5.

“I knew I was off the pace at the start, I couldn’t get into the game. I needed to do something. It just clicked, and it’s something I have managed to do this season - figure it out, get on ball. I knew kicking that free at the start of extra time that I needed that free to kick on.”

Connolly wasn’t the only Nemo player struggling in a first-half Slaughtneil should have ended more than three points to the good (0-7 to 0-4). “When things were bad in the first half, Tomás was the man, kicking a score, winning ball and frees for us,” said manager Larry Kavanagh afterwards. Throw into that barrow the likes of Stephen Cronin and Aidan O’Reilly too.

The Derry side enjoyed long bouts of possession, aided by 11 Nemo turnovers, but they never created the goal chance that would have had Nemo scrambling. The opening goal, when it came in the 42nd minute, owed a little to fortune but as much to Connolly’s ingenuity. It also climaxed a burst of 1-5 in ten minutes from Nemo after Slaughtneil’s Bradley had claimed the opening score of the second period.

Kavanagh, though, was processing the semi chronologically, and still parsing that uncomfortable first half: “You do a load of work and analysis and the main thing you say is ‘don’t give the ball back to them’. And then we gave it back 11 times in the first half. That was killing us. Fellas were saying, ‘our full back line was in bother’, but if you keep giving the ball back to Slaughtneil, everybody is going to be in trouble.”

Maybe Connolly’s goal could sunder the Derry resistance? Hah. Within six minutes Slaughtneil were in front again, a high testing delivery (a Nemo weakness that’s hardly gone unnoticed in Corofin) ending up with Cormac O’Doherty goaling. 1-10 to 1-9. From that to sub Jack O’Donovan’s 60th-minute point, only a mystic or a bluffer would have called it, and fewer still would have foreseen the Nemo surge for home in the first period of extra time.

“At full time, our lads weren’t down and all I had was pride in what they had done in the second half,” said Kavanagh. “But we just felt they were coming, full of energy. They’ll make liars of you. I said at full-time, ‘lads, 1-15 will win this game. They had that four minutes into extra time.”

“If people had seen what we’ve done in the last two months in terms of fitness training,” revealed Connolly. “We haven’t seen a ball in six weeks. It’s been running. Post-to-post, wire-to-wire. We knew we had the ball skills, we’ve grown up playing football, but fitness was always going to be the biggest thing. And going into extra time, the lads seemed pumped, they just kicked on a gear. We have done the work and the hard slog. We played an A v B game last week and the pace of the game was ridiculous.”

Nemo’s shimmering best came only in sporadic bursts but come the spring, only those who reach into themselves prevail in this club championship. Nemo have form in February. The defence creaked but never really caved, Michael Dorgan came in impressively to bolster midfield, and Barry O’Driscoll was an outstanding outlet throughout and kicked all his frees, the next more vital than the last. Paul Kerrigan and Chrissy McKaigue spoiled each other, though the Derry pivot’s control of the game’s tempo was manifest at stages. The value of it all in terms of preparing Nemo for the final is considerable.

“You absolutely couldn’t put the value on it,” agreed Barry O’Driscoll. “It’s the first time we have played a team like that, so it took us a while to get to grips with them. When we got to extra time we went full throttle for a bit. This team has that. We can stall but then we take off again.”

Perhaps trainer Robbie O’Dwyer’s punishing training since the Munster club final was the decisive difference in the end. In extra time, Slaughtneil looked spent. Two weeks after an All-Ireland club hurling semi (that involved nine dual players), that’s hardly surprising.

“We don’t focus on the dual players but there’s certainly a question of how much energy they had left in extra time,” said Slaughtneil selector John Joe Kearney. “The way we kept coming back to force a draw at the end of normal time you might have believed the momentum was with us, but the energy wasn’t there in the legs though. Chrissy (McKaigue) has been suffering from flu the last week, Keelan Feeney the same. But you’ve got to hand it to Nemo in terms of getting the job done.”

Kearney was in close proximity to the Nemo No 5 in the second half too. “Unbelievable, isn’t he? But you know being 40 isn’t always a handicap. He’s probably spent nearly half them years with the Kerry team. He knows what’s what. He does very well by keeping things simple.”

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