Declan O' Sullivan - Kerry’s standard-setter hands over the baton

That one of Kerry’s greats, Declan O’Sullivan, won’t be around to set the standard in the dressing room for the All-Ireland champions in 2015 is a sobering prospect for Eamonn Fitzmaurice, writes Tony Leen.

The Amendoeira Golf resort in the Algarve might have its valet service, monikered carpets and chilled face-towels for its upmarket clients, but a quiet, rugged corner of the lavish 550-acre spread is the sweaty cornerstone upon which Kerry build their Championship aspirations in the springtime.

Often the sun beats down on their crack-of-dawn pitch sessions, with its specially-imported GAA goalposts providing navigation for bleary eyes. Occasionally too, the heavens open and management improvises with Cian O’Neill or Ger Keane taking a session of circuits in a fit-for-purpose marquee erected alongside the two all-weather football pitches.

I chanced upon one such session last spring, but my viewing was short-lived. Declan O’Sullivan eyed me across a room of contorted bodies with a look that offered no hostage to ambiguity. Be gone. And when you be gone, stay gone, as Marsellus Wallace would say.

It was in keeping with the gossip from the Kingdom over the springtime and early summer. Declan was back and Declan was cranky. “He was like a man possessed in Portugal this year,” reflected a team-mate yesterday.

Meaning business. Setting standards.

When all the well-meant praise subsides in the wake of his retirement from inter-county football yesterday at the age of 30, that will be his legacy’s top line — setting standards. For in that upper atmosphere where elite players reside, the standard of their skill execution comes second to the standard they set for themselves and everyone around them on the training fields and preparation chambers.

It’s a moot point whether Declan O’Sullivan or Seamus Moynihan possessed the level of innate natural skill as Colm Cooper or Maurice Fitzgerald, but no-one who understands Gaelic football considers either of the former inferior. Who’d you prefer on your team — Gooch or Declan? The answer is different every time. Where Gooch is Dennis Bergkamp, Declan is the Steven Gerrard or Bryan Robson, Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane.

“Powerful. Explosive. Decisive. Lethal. And quiet,” is former coach Pat Flanagan’s succinct summation of a special footballer from South Kerry. “I would say he was the decisive influence in Kerry getting to six successive All-Ireland finals from 2004-09.” Flanagan should know. He was fitness coach to most of those squads. “He was special, the type of player you would build a team around.”

There were physiological reasons for that as much as anything else. O’Sullivan is the prototype modern footballer — 6ft tall with tree trunks for legs that provided a formidable centre of gravity. He could go in low and accelerate away with speed and power. Always at the core of his team efforts, whether from full-forward or centre-back. Driving his colleagues into skirmishes, himself first out of the bunker.

“Occasionally when I would lecture at conferences,” explains Flanagan, “I would show clips of Declan as examples of speed and power. He got a point in the 2004 All-Ireland final against Mayo that is well known among strength and conditioning coaches — practically on his knees around midfield, he took three of four savage hits but kept going to curl a point with his left foot from the left-hand side. He possessed extraordinary balance.”

Paul Galvin was his kindred spirit in the Kerry dressing room, but Declan was part of no clique. O’Sullivan saw Kerry training as a crucible of sweat, a place of work, not idle chatter.

“Declan was bold,” Galvin told me recently. “When it was really needed, he’d get bold. When things were looking bad, he’d get cross. And when it was gone south, he’d get even more cross. And there was no end to him then. He’d get this look in his eyes... it was pure pride and temper. That’s boldness. He’d often turn it around, but even when he couldn’t turn it around, he’d keep being cross and bold, and let fellas know around him. Then he’d storm off the field talking to himself. I just loved that about him.”

He finishes his Kerry career with five All-Irelands, two of them as captain, and three consecutive All Stars from 2007-09. It’s anomalous that he never was awarded a footballer of the year honour. Ironically, his best ever day in green and gold wasn’t especially memorable for the Kingdom — in the 2008 final defeat to Tyrone, I felt he was peerless at that stage — and he was only 24. Moments before the end, he slalomed through, seeking the winning goal, but Paschal McConnell’s reflex booted it outside the post. Kerry’s three in a row bid ended moments after. There were a few painful days like that for O’Sullivan at headquarters, and more than once Kerry’s fair-weather fans turned on him. That was wretchedly wrong.

But like every other reversal he confronted, and like true totems always do, Declan O’Sullivan prevailed. Not by jawing about it in the media, but by retiring to deepest South Kerry and filling the tank again.

Which is why he came back singularly manic about preparation for the 2014 season. His ailing knees, undermined by ravaged cartilages, his job with Liebherr, which requires an amount of air travel, and his new family, doubled since the birth of Robbie last month, determined his spring training camp in the Algarve last April would be his final one.

Which was why it was a beguiling prospect for any journalist to peer through the hallowed portals of an All-Ireland winning dressing room two months ago and watch him sitting alone with his first born, Ollie. All the more so when he beckoned me in.

“I came back saying this could possibly be my last year and I’m not going to walk away with regrets wondering ‘why didn’t I do that or why didn’t I say that?’ when it needed to be said,” he explained that evening, those notorious knee bandages discarded once and for all.

“That gave me a strange sort of freedom, the freedom to say ‘I’m not here to make friends’. This year, I didn’t care if I upset people in certain ways, if that’s what we needed.”

Though he said in his statement yesterday that he hopes to continue playing with Dromid, his knees must be pretty mangled if he can’t play with Kerry beyond 30.

“Ah it’s been difficult,” admitted O’Sullivan. “Difficult and frustrating. I met Eamonn last winter and said maybe it’s not in the legs anymore, but I would fulfil whatever role he needed me to. So, mentally, I was in a different place this season. I wanted to help if, nothing else, bringing a huge positivity to the squad.”

Jack O’Connor also made an enlightening point — by September’s end, Declan O’Sullivan’s season was often just getting started. South Kerry in the Championship, and Dromid in the divisional championship would keep him banged up and bandaged until Christmas.

“In 2004, on his 21st birthday, Dromid won a South Kerry championship final — for Dromid to win that was incredible,” said O’Connor.

“The hits he took that day were frightening. That football wasn’t for the faint-hearted. The only man I can compare to him in terms of leaving it all out there for the cause is Seamus Moynihan. It didn’t matter who they were playing, they just emptied the tank every single day.”

O’Sullivan’s role in 2014 was shaped on that Amendoeira pitch in Silves. That of a deep-lying centre-forward, so deep, in truth, he was essentially a libero. Where Fitzmaurice praises him for his impact on the younger members of the squad, the irony isn’t lost on Declan.

“This season, fellas came with a harder edge to them, they trained unbelievably. That’s the biggest thing for me, the most significant thing I’ve noticed since I started playing with Kerry — the way this group of young fellas trained, how they left everything out there every single night. If you are looking for things that made the difference, that’s what they brought. That will always give you a great chance.”

That such a warrior, rivalling Seamus Moynihan for true reverence in Kerry, won’t be around to set the standard in the dressing room for the new All-Ireland champions in 2015 is a sobering prospect. Fitzmaurice says the respect he leaves behind him is absolute. “He has the personality to go into management. He is the ultimate team player, has a great appreciation of the team dynamic and combined with an intelligent understanding of the game, is well suited to it. I can definitely see him managing Kerry teams in the future.”

When that day does come, no man thrown a starting jersey will be in any doubt what is required.

“In this dressing room,” O’Sullivan says, “a friend isn’t someone who pats you on the back. He’s the one who tears back past you when you’re struggling for legs and makes a tackle for you and the team. If you’re going to win All-Irelands, they are the minute details no-one outside the group notices. A fella gets a paw in, puts the guy who’s taking the kick off enough to avoid conceding a score or a killer pass.

“A friend is the colleague who bails you out.”

Declan O’Sullivan has a lot of friends in Kerry so.


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