Cork's wing wizard Tony O’Sullivan: 'I don’t think of the Double as 30 years ago'

Forget the Double’s 30th anniversary for a minute. For Tony O’Sullivan the real jolt came earlier in the year, before the world shut down for coronavirus.
Cork's wing wizard Tony O’Sullivan: 'I don’t think of the Double as 30 years ago'
Tony O'Sullivan doesn't rule out another county achieving the double: "After this year I’d never take anything for granted again." Photo: Denis Minihane.

Forget the Double’s 30th anniversary for a minute.

For Tony O’Sullivan the real jolt came earlier in the year, before the world shut down for coronavirus.

The man from Na Piarsaigh first came to wider prominence as a dazzling colleges player, the wizard driving the North Mon to a Harty and All-Ireland success.

As he says himself, that wasn’t today or yesterday.

“I don’t think of the Double as 30 years ago, to be honest. For some reason — maybe because it went by so fast — it just doesn’t seem that long ago.

“What hit me recently, though, was the reunion we had with the North Mon — we won the Harty in 1980, so that was 40 years ago.

“Now whatever about 30 years, 40 is something different again. We were all speaking about that at the reunion — I remember saying it to Tomas (Mulcahy) on the night, ‘Forty years, imagine,’ and he was saying the same.

“It was a big deal in the school that time, winning a Harty and All-Ireland, but Donal O’Grady and Murty Murphy were the coaches, and we had a good side.

“Jim Murray was the captain and he went to live in Boston after, but he came back for the reunion, in fairness. We had a great night.”

O’Sullivan was almost the platonic ideal of the will-o’-the-wisp wing-forward when he burst onto the scene.

Mesmerising footwork, a beautiful touch and always good for long-range points from play, he was one of the stand-out players when Cork steamrollered their way to the 1982 Munster title.

“I had an unbelievable Munster championship that year, but going up against Kilkenny . . . Paddy Prendergast beat me off the field, to be honest.

“I was a raw boy in my first All-Ireland, a huge occasion. We were well fancied to win that one — much like Galway and Tipperary in 1990 against us, when you think of it.

“In my case I found that later on in my career the experience made a difference, but you had to learn the hard way. That was the only way those lessons could be learned, and what you picked up you had to put to work for you in club games and county games.

“That was something else I learned, by the way — that if you see something in a player you have to give them opportunities. You have to give them chances to prove themselves, because if they’re any good they’ll learn.

“They become wiser as time goes on, and if the older lads on a team are calmer and wiser, the younger fellas see it and it settles them in turn. So it becomes a cycle in a team, and everyone benefits. It has to stand to you, if you’ve been there before — county final, All-Ireland final, whatever. After 1982 and the experience of losing the 1983 final as well, there was no way we were going to lose in 1984. Not the way we worked for it.”

Six years later they weren’t as well placed.

“The footballers were going well, fair play to them - going into 1990 they were the defending All-Ireland champions, but we were given no chance.

“Look at the semi-final of the league early that year: hammered by Wexford, left looking around the dressing-room at each other.

“To be fair to the Canon (O’Brien) and Gerald (McCarthy), they got together - and they got us together. A couple of older lads were brought back and a couple of younger lads were brought in, and we worked hard. Very hard.

“Our own pride came into it, too. No doubt about that. We’d been so bad in 1988 and 1989 that we would have felt, ‘look, we’ll have to show something.’ Our pride had taken a hit, absolutely.”

Cork may have been outsiders in 1990 but the quality was obvious. Many of the team had All-Ireland medals from 1984 and 1986, for instance: they might have been underdogs going up to the Munster final against a settled, experienced side, but that was hardly an intimidating factor for an experienced Cork side.

“We had a very balanced team, we worked hard, and we didn’t have real stars, but what we had were players who could get goals.

“Tomas, Kevin (Hennessy), John Fitz(gibbon), Mark (Foley), they could all get goals and those goals changed games, they were crucial.

“In terms of our team, it was pulled together to an extent. We weren’t as settled as Tipperary that time, certainly, but there was another way to look at that Munster final.

“A fine day, Cork going to Thurles, dry sod, the sun shining and a big crowd? Anything can happen in those circumstances anyway, and Cork-Tipperary is a law unto itself.

“And that Munster final was a better game than the All-Ireland final, certainly.”

Surprising Tipperary meant eventually confronting Galway in an All-Ireland final which has gotten a new lease of life in the lockdown: the 1990 All-Ireland final has been on reasonably heavy rotation among the TV channels.

Tony O'Sullivan of Cork in action against Galway's Martin Naughton during the 1990 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tony O'Sullivan of Cork in action against Galway's Martin Naughton during the 1990 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

“When you think about it, we only played in the second half of the All-Ireland, really,” says O’Sullivan.

“We were seven points down at half-time, but it was it was a very good situation in the dressing-room at that stage. The Canon (O’Brien), Gerald (McCarthy), the older lads got together and settled everything.”

Was that the perfect illustration of the value of experience?

“It was, but if you look at it the mix was ideal as well. Those older fellas were with a few lads who were playing in their first All-Ireland, so the older lads were able to influence them.

“Tomas (Mulcahy) would have gone around to a few lads to settle them, to give them the message. The reality was we hadn’t played in the first half and we felt we had plenty more in us.

“Galway were outstanding in the first half, but were they going to keep going that way in the second half?

“We felt we’d get an opportunity. You always do in matches, but the difference is that experience reminds you that you’ll get the opportunity.

“Tomas was the one the chance came to in the second half. He took it, buried a goal and we were on the road. We realised, ‘hey, we can do this’. The whole team opened up.”

That September Sunday wasn’t the end of the year’s highlights for O’Sullivan. The following month his club, Na Piarsaigh, collecting the Cork senior county championship as they edged out St Finbarr’s 2-7 to 1-8 in a replay. A first-ever senior title is a watershed in any club: little wonder he puts it “on a par” with winning the All-Ireland.

“What’s my big memory of that county final? Easy - John Meyler had a great chance in the closing stages of the replay to win it for the Barrs, and he was very unlucky not to score it.

“We were two points up at the time and if he’d stuck that we’d never have been heard of again, I’d say.

“Winning such a tough championship after a replay in the final made it even more special, but obviously it was hugely emotional anyway for everybody involved - from the area, the older members of the club.

“Getting Hurler of the Year was the icing on the cake on top of all of that, then. It was a fairly special year.”

O’Sullivan finished the inter county season with 0-16 from five games - interestingly, some of his forward colleagues weren’t far away. John Fitzgibbon ended with 7-9 (16 scores), Kevin Hennessy with 5-11 (16 scores), Ger Fitzgerald 2-11 (13 scores) and Mark Foley 3-12 (15 scores).

Would his smooth efficiency be a good fit with the modern game?

“I wasn’t the biggest player — I had a few bigger players around me - but I often wonder if I’d find the modern game that little bit easier because of the way they move the ball, getting it to the best-placed player as quick as they can.

“In my situation I’d fancy I could do all right — in my own time playing I came onto the ball that the likes of Ray Cummins and Tim Crowley won, which wouldn’t be so different from the way the game is played now.

“I hear a lot of fellas give out about the modern game at times, and there are matches when you see it’s being overdone at times, but the game has changed. It’s a different system now, that’s all.

“That system of play, the modern system, is there for everyone, and once you can work that system as a player you’ll be fine. We would have felt we worked as hard as we could in training. Modern players work unbelievably hard at inter county level, and that’s filtered down to club level as well, but we certainly put in the work ourselves in our time. They were tough sessions, and nobody was holding back in training.

“First week of January, back to the old Páirc and the laps of the field in the tunnels — nobody liked to do that, but it was work that had to be done, so we got down to it. It’s different now, but who’s to say it’ll be different again in fifteen years’ time? It looks a little more open now and that willingness to pass the ball around until someone is in a position to take a shot — I’d have liked to play in that kind of system.”

The recent explosion in nostalgia has helped, he adds: “A friend of mine, Kieran O’Keeffe from Blarney, made a good point about all those old games being replayed on TV.

“He was saying it made younger people look at the style of play that Cork were using then - that they might have had a different idea of what way we’d have played, but now you can see it there in front of you. And they seem to have enjoyed it — a few of the younger lads in the club were on to me saying they’d seen the games, for instance.

“All those games on TV have given younger people a different perspective on the old days.”

Not one of the participants, though.

“If it was on and I were walking through the room fair enough, I might sit down and watch it,” says O’Sullivan.

“But one Sunday I was getting texts and messages from fellas about the 1990 game, it was on television, but I didn’t know until they got in touch with me.

“Grand, I might give it ten minutes if a game was on, but no more than that, to be honest. And there are so many games on now on television it’s hard to keep track of them anyway.”

He’s still steeped in Gaelic games, even in work. As a financial broker with ERA McCarthy Downey Auctioneers he’s alongside Robin Murray (“Bishopstown,”) and Sean McCarthy (“The Barrs and Tipperary,”).

The talk sometimes rolls around to the double . . .

“I could see another county do it. Why not — nobody knows what’s happening in normal life at this stage! After this year I’d never take anything for granted again.

“I enjoyed our era, and those clashes with Tipp, in particular. We’d be very friendly with those lads still, the likes of Nickey English and Pat Fox and Donie O’Connell. Great fellas to meet up with if you saw them at an All-Ireland or a game in Thurles.

“I know everyone likes to think that they came through a great era, and they might all have a point.

“The seventies was great for that Cork team and they probably look back on that fondly, for instance, but I’m very happy to have gone through our era.”

We all are. He was one of the men who made it great.

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