THERE’S an effervescence about Alan O’Sullivan that provides a ready context for his role in preparing Kerry for a sixth All-Ireland final in-a-row.
“Sometimes you are more entertainment officer than physical trainer,” he explains. “You need the guys thinking well, feeling well. How do they reconcile getting out of bed one Sunday and being man of the match and doing the same thing the following Saturday and being taken off? It’s a state of mind, and we help.”
And on your own bad days? “I got one piece of advice when I came in here, from Kieran Donaghy: ‘Alan, you’re training Kerry’. When you drive into training, that’s singing in your head: ‘I’m training Kerry’.
“That’s not being star-struck but we all start as fans, and have the memories that ignite the passion that is Kerry football. Being on the Canal End in 1997 when Maurice Fitzgerald kicked that insurance point from the sideline against Mayo. There’s a positive energy that comes from that.”
He’s needed it, and then some. In the “July period”, as Kerry’s summer slump has been euphemistically re-christened, everyone’s reservoir of positive energy was running low. But helping run the family deli on The Mall in Tralee is like sticking your arm into a local power grid. All human life leans over the counter in Der O’Sullivan’s, and no-one’s slow to peddle the fruitiest gossip. The players are blaming O’Sullivan, is he up to it at all, where’s Pat Flanagan when you need him? You could only laugh it off — if you weren’t suffocating on self-doubt.
“The backs were to the wall,” he agrees. “It was rough, and I suppose because there’s a lot of public access to me in the shop in Tralee, people could walk in off the street and throw it. it was horrible, a tough three weeks. At that stage, you’ve got to have people around you who believe in you, and I’d look at Jack and Ger (O’Keeffe) and Eamonn (Fitzmaurice) and the 30-odd players — there’s a lot in them as people.
“It takes time to get to know a Declan O’Sullivan or a Paul Galvin, but they were saying all the time ‘Alan, it’s only June’. Their body clocks are primed. I saw that on the train after the Antrim game. We had the quarter-final draw piped through on loudspeaker and when Dublin came through, they were cheering. It was the first sense I got that these guys were now excited. They were going back to the Big House to play the old enemy.”
It has been a daunting curve of learning for O’Sullivan (who’s only 33), the brother of ex-Munster rugby player John, who’s now earning his corn in France with Agen.
Jack O’Connor might have been sold on what he saw at close quarters with Kerins O’Rahillys last season, but a Kerry dressing room of strong personalities and egos is an unforgiving environment. Man management went hand in hand with creative drills and O’Sullivan’s strong personality encouraged him to work his way around the dressing room.
“The older guys were a bit cautious, I suppose. Just because you did it with Strand Road doesn’t mean you can do it for Feale Rangers guys or South Kerry or the Dingle lads. You’re coming from a small, close-knit club environment in Tralee where you know everybody, they know you, they can see the effort you’re putting in. You earn your stripes, there’s no doubt.”
That bit wasn’t in the brochure but for everything else, O’Connor mapped out a say-yes scenario for his choice of trainer. He had Pat Flanagan lined up for conditioning, and wanted O’Sullivan for fitness.
“When he asked, I said ‘are you kidding me?’ because you are dealing with the best of the best. I was coming from a club situation where there will always be the sense that you are one or two players short of what you ideally want in a squad. Jack talked about the Kerry set up and said ‘Alan, everything you want is in this team. You are able to do this’.”
From a sepia-paged age when the coach was the manager, to the era of the trainer-masseur through to today’s central role in planning and management, O’Sullivan sees how the world has rotated through 180 degrees. However not everything that’s dated is ditched.
“I’m a great admirer of Mick O’Dwyer, and you’d look at his way of training and ask what’s the right way and the wrong way to train the modern player. Look at Wicklow this season; they are my team of the Championship, given where they came from and where they finished. Was there anything wrong with his training regime?”
What sports science has changed is the size and speed of the individual. “Excluding the skills of it, pace is the big difference between your average and elite player. It’s amazing to watch the pace these guys operate at. It’s frightening. These are big, athletic guys.
“Paul Galvin is one that stands out. For a relatively small guy, he’s explosive, he packs a massive punch, and not just in football terms. Even the rowing sessions, the boxing sessions, he’s ultra competitive. Obviously Tadhg Kennelly too, but he’s in a different bracket because he’s come from a professional environment.
“But in terms of someone who’s able to maintain it over a long time, Seamus Scanlon would be hard to beat. If you bring him into the gym and examine his stats, he’s one of the strongest on the team. He’s a really strong young fella. He’s surprised me, Tom O’Sullivan too. The guy has serious pace, and he seems to consistently be able to move up the gears.”
Anyone who’s watched Kerry train regularly understands the meticulous precision that brings these temperamental thoroughbreds to a pitch. Sessions are often days in the oven, with input from the quintet of O’Sullivan, Flanagan, O’Connor, O’Keeffe and Fitzmaurice.
“When we sat down at the start, Jack said if time was a problem for me (with the business), he was ready with the solution. Typical Jack. One step ahead. ‘Pat Flanagan is at one side of the fence, I need you to do the field stuff’. Pat was doing power, weights and conditioning programmes. I was doing the other stuff, and that made it more attractive because I didn’t have to set out weights programmes for them because at the end of the day, that was Pat’s area of expertise.”
However, developing relations with the squad meant a share of those 7am bonding gym sessions in Tralee’s Mount Brandon Hotel. “They’re still going, Colm Cooper was in last week, for instance. The early start offers no excuse. There’s no way someone can say something’s come up at home. Besides, after work, players are tired or have family commitments.”
The demolition of Dublin was a corner turned, but O’Sullivan recognised that it wasn’t an inevitable by-product of their graft. “Sometimes it doesn’t come together. I put in as hard a season with the Kerry Under 21s, and it just didn’t click that time.
“If you take from where Diarmuid Murphy stands to where Colm Cooper is, that’s 140 yards of players, time, effort and individuals. It’s a massive effort to get it all together and, to their credit, that’s what Cork have done this season. There’s clearly massive honesty in the squad, they’ve been the ones raising the bar for everyone this season.”
It’s a concept the Kerry trainer refers frequently to. Reaching that bar, and raising it. He wants that every time, but with a side travelling today to a sixth All-Ireland final weekend, it’s peaks and valleys, troughs and thrills. They have seen it all,” O’Sullivan shrugs. “There’s a positive and a negative in that, because you want to try and reach the bar all the time, but we haven’t done that this year, not often enough anyway.”
THAT’S the driven Strand Road man in O’Sullivan. But he knows when to zip it. “You’re urging them to drive on in the semi against Meath. There’s still eight minutes left and one player is saying ‘Alan, look at the scoreboard, we’re eight up’. You have to respect where they’ve been.”
When tomorrow’s done, he’ll dive straight back into assisting Ogie Moran’s Strand Road because he’s O’Rahillys to the marrow.
“There’s a serious generation of players there now that we have to capitalise on. There’s more to come too – young lads like Danny O’Sullivan, Ross O’Callaghan. When Ogie rings, I’ll be there.”
Not that he’d say no to a few weeks in his brother’s stead in Agen.
“I was onto him this week, the weather’s balmy there all the time. His fiancée, from Galway, is a fluent French speaker, so it’s all good. Agen is a good club, very ambitious and it’s a springboard for him because the French Pro 1 coaches get a look at him.”
So he’d swap in a heartbeat? “Doubtful. You just need to experience how Kerry football touches so many lives in Kerry. Right up to old women. And you’re in the midst of it; 32 guys dealing with the truth of it. There’s a great honesty and buzz about this.”
And positive energy.
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