Tom O'Sullivan Interview: Defending Kerry

For a dozen seasons, Tom O’Sullivan filled the back pages with defensive exploits. Last month, he made the front pages for doing his day job. Life has never been ordinary for one of Kerry’s enigmatic heroes

WITH the investigation ongoing, there’s only so much Garda Tom O’Sullivan can say about what happened on the morning of August 13 last.

It began like a normal patrol day in the Listowel area when he responded to a call from the public about a possible break-in. Arriving at the scene, he noticed a masked man peeking around the side of a house. He followed him to the back of the building where the man and a number of his accomplices fled over the garden wall. O’Sullivan gave chase over another couple of walls before the drama concluded on the John B Keane Road where he managed to grab a hold of one of them as he attempted to get into a getaway car.

As O’Sullivan attempted to arrest the suspect, other men wielding hurleys jumped out of the car and one of them assaulted him. He managed to wrangle a hurley away from them as well as clothing before the gang sped off. O’Sullivan suffered no serious injuries. Being hailed a hero in the local press didn’t sit easy with him but he was satisfied the incident had raised awareness of daytime robbery. “It being in the papers opened people’s eyes to these things happening by day and more so by day than by night,” O’Sullivan says. “Plus I doubt they’ll be coming back to Listowel again!”

If you didn’t know O’Sullivan already, that tells you about the 36-year-old’s sense of humour. In his 12 years playing senior for Kerry, he only had three managers but it was his relationship with Jack O’Connor that will be remembered most. He played Bart Simpson to O’Connor’s Principal Skinner who famously claimed in his book that if O’Sullivan needed 200 points in his Leaving Cert he would get 201.

O’Sullivan returned a little fire in an interview when he claimed O’Connor treated players too much like pupils but he always got a kick out of busting his manager’s chops. On the train home after winning the 2006 All-Ireland final, O’Connor’s phone chimed with a text from O’Sullivan sitting down the carriage: “From the man who held Conor Mortimer scoreless and saved your job!” O’Connor had dropped him for the Munster final three months earlier. O’Connor’s patience wore thin again in O’Sullivan’s last season in 2011 when he presented him with an ultimatum via the media in February to be back training in the next two weeks — or else.

But O’Sullivan wasn’t like other players. It wasn’t that he was too laid-back or casual; he just knows his motivations and his limitations. “I saw Tomás Sé and Aidan O’Mahony coming back in January one of the years and I just felt it was too early to come back. They were coming back with massive hunger obviously. I would have hunger too in January but I would prefer to hold onto it until September. I would have felt the year is so long they would run out of hunger here and there throughout the year. You want the hunger in September you had back in January. It’s a very long year to be concentrating and training at professional football, expecting to last nine months and to work in between that as well.

“When the season was over, I kept my head down so I could get the hunger back for the following year. Sometimes you can get burnt out especially in the job I’m in. I could be meeting 100 people a day and be asked the exact same question. It can get very monotonous so when I was playing football I was also trying to stay away from football.”

If Philip Jordan was Tyrone’s quintessential big day player, O’Sullivan was Kerry’s. Winning the Croke Park crowd was his freedom. Nothing enthused him as much as a championship game in the coliseum. “Dublin, Tyrone, Cork. Cork to a lesser extent because we got full used to playing them. It was becoming monotonous.”

Surely blasphemy coming from a Rathmore man? “It ran dead. The buzz wasn’t there for me playing Cork towards the end of my career. And that wasn’t because we were beating them because they had beaten us a few times as well, but the big day in Croke Park was always the one for me. Other than playing Dublin and Tyrone in Croke Park, it was hard to get the buzz for other games. The last five or six years you’d often see me taken off in a league game or the first championship game against Clare or Tipp. That was probably the reason why. It just wasn’t there for me.”

But O’Sullivan had the winning mentality. Around 2006 or 2007, he can’t recall exactly, he and Marc Ó Sé approached O’Connor about changing Kerry’s style. As the inside backs, they had become alarmed with how isolated they were becoming. “I felt we could have won another one or two All-Irelands if we had gone more defensive like Eamonn Fitzmaurice has Kerry now. Had we planned our team the way he plans his team now. If we had lined out the way he has the team lining out now. But Jack, I think he didn’t want to go against the supporters of Kerry. He thought they would be down on him if he went down the route of going more defensive, which as you can see now makes no difference because people just want to win.”

O’Sullivan and Ó Sé had their own interests at heart too. “We used to look at other oppositions and say, ‘That fella has it easy’. We’d see corner backs from other teams getting an All Star after getting to, say, an Ulster final and Kerry might get to an All-Ireland final and no corner back would get an All Star. We’d say to each other ‘I’d get an All Star too if we played that defensive’. It’s an easy game for players.

“It would have been a lot tougher for the likes of the Kerry backs especially for the likes of Marc Ó Sé and myself in one-on-ones and we could be marking two of the best players in the country and nobody from midfield back around us. Other teams could have four backs around one forward. You can go hell for leather in those situations because you know if you slip going for the ball you’ve fellas behind you covering you. Marc and myself, we were on very shaky ground. If we made a slip we could cost the team the game.”

O’Sullivan doesn’t need a refresher course on his hand-pass that was intercepted and turned into a Dublin point in that frantic 2011 finale, his last appearance in a Kerry jersey. Of course, he didn’t bow out as he would have liked. In fact, the game is the only time during the conversation that he is slightly uneasy but making an All-Ireland final, his 10th including the 2000 replay, was a small consolation.

“It’s unbelievable that a lot of Kerry players have that choice to finish on a high. They kind of think ‘Oh, I’ll wait until next year because we might win the All-Ireland’. Whereas if you’re from a lot of other counties you’ve no choice but to retire when you do. We could have beaten Dublin that year but didn’t. I wouldn’t say it was a low. It was a decent enough year. We should have won but that’s how it goes. I would hate to have stayed on another year and not give it 100% and not winning. Kerry didn’t win it for another few years after I left. I certainly wouldn’t have lasted that long. People would have been calling for my head if I had left it too late. It was better to leave before that happened.

“I felt I definitely could have another one or two All-Ireland medals. We left two behind us. The Armagh final in 2002 and the Dublin one in 2011. You could throw in another one probably. I probably am satisfied enough because there are not that many players out there with five All-Irelands but I still could have won six or seven. But I’m not greedy...”

That humour again. And of course he wouldn’t say no to being part of Fitzmaurice’s heavily-manned defensive unit. Sitting with Seamus Moynihan for the All-Ireland semi-final game against Tyrone last month, he made the point to his old team-mate. “In our day against Armagh (in 2006), (Stevie) McDonnell had kicked 1-2 off Marc Sé and they put me on him. Jack came behind the goals and he saw there was no player around myself or McDonnell. Nowadays that wouldn’t happen.

“It seems to be a lot easier game for the backs but you have to be fitter. It’s definitely a harder game for the forwards because on top of scoring they have to tackle and make space. There’s a lot more bodies in their way and they also have to contend with goalkeepers kicking short to his backs. The game has become faster, it’s become more constant. It seems to be an easy game to mark your man but you’ve more work on top of that, whereas in our day, you’d be content enough to mark your man and that would be your job done. Marking a man one-on-one and getting a roasting, I think it’s gone.

“It’s a shame because you have the top players who neutrals go to watch and they can’t perform. You might see a bit here and there but there aren’t as many class performances from individuals as before. There are less neutrals going to games now than in the past. It’s probably less entertaining football. I was sitting at home watching the Dublin-Mayo game and after the first 15 minutes I was thinking ‘this is a bad game of football’. It had been built up to be such a massive, exciting game so it took a while for me to come around and realise it wasn’t anything like that. The second day was a good day but imagine being a Dublin supporter and waiting from January for that game!”

O’Sullivan looks at Fitzmaurice’s Kerry and sees a chameleon, prepared to change colour for their environment but also making the best of what they have. “If Kerry were to play Mayo in the final, he would definitely start a different team, probably three or four players. That’s the difference now. When I was playing, if you played a good Munster final you were guaranteed a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final no matter how bad you were playing in training. Nowadays, if you have a great All-Ireland semi-final, go poor in training after that and depending on the team you’re meeting in the final, there’s a good chance you won’t start. That puts massive pressure on players who aren’t getting paid.”

O’Sullivan returned to play for Rathmore this season after a couple of years out. Work had got in the way but he had also become frustrated with the staggered nature of the club calendar. “My manager was onto me year after year about coming back. This year he just got me at the right time. It was actually the day a family member of his was being buried and he got me on a good day! I couldn’t say No either being the time it was for him but I was happy to come back.

“I was enjoying my football when I came back but I was still going to the gym myself. It’s very hard for me to give up things and slouch around. I was still gyming and training away so I fell back into it fairly easily. I was enjoying it but the problem with club football is you’re waiting eight or nine weeks for a championship game and in between you could be preparing for a game three or four times, which kind of annoyed me. I got bored.

“I could be up at 6am working a 10-hour shift, maybe driving a car all day then you’re expected to get into your own car and drive to Rathmore for two hours of training and drive back again and do the same thing in work again. If there were games I would probably had stayed playing away because I had something to look forward to.”

On Sunday morning, he will drive to the capital having been on duty for the penultimate day of a weather-affected Listowel Racing festival. Fatigue will be replaced by the excitement on the day he craved the most as a player. The pace of Dublin’s attack worries him but it is countered by his high valuation of Kerry’s adaptability.

“Stay safe out there,” he offers to a local leaving The Grape and Grain on the town’s Church Street. His delivery is such that you never know if he means it. After his recent experience, maybe he does.

The enigma continues.

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