IT is easy to pick out Tom O’Sullivan at a sunny Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney.
Wearing the colours of your All-Ireland final opponents a week before the decider may appear to be tempting fate. But this is a man who doesn’t do piseógs.
“I got it on E-Bay,” he says of his retro red and white adidas track-suit top. “It was too good a deal to pass up.”
But O’Sullivan has spent much of his career bucking convention. Residents of intercounty full back lines aren’t supposed to be easy going, devil-may-care kind of characters. We expect them to be serious sorts, given the tightrope they walk every time they take to the field of play.
Yet sometimes that laid back approach has come back to bite him. Three years ago Jack O’Connor dropped him for a Munster final with the manager questioning the defender’s attitude.
A furious O’Connor texted: “Tom, you will regret not returning my call. I want no casual footballers in my squad. If you don’t think it worth your while to return my call you can f**k off. J.”
Some others would have folded up tent and headed for the wilderness but instead O’Sullivan shrugged it off, bounced back into the fold and played a starring role in Kerry’s collection of Sam Maguire against Mayo.
On the train home, O’Sullivan rattled off a reply three months in the making: “Remember that text, Jack. From the man who held Conor Mortimer scoreless and saved your job.”
Three years on and again O’Sullivan and O’Connor find themselves back in the All-Ireland final cockpit together.
The latter is in his second coming as Kerry boss, the former in something of a second life as an intercounty defender. His 31st birthday is approaching quickly yet his form this season is one which has him in All Star territory.
“The forwards certainly have not got slower,” he laughs when asked to explain his performances. “I would say that the boys out the field now are putting a lot more pressure on the ball coming in and they are making our lives a lot easier inside. Bad ball coming in is a back’s ball every time.
“We are winning breaks out around the middle of the field which means we are not under as much pressure.
“In that sense we are probably fresher but with the Cork boys it will be a different story.”
A different story? Hardly. Sunday will be the 19th meeting between Cork and Kerry since 2000. They have met in one All-Ireland final, five semi-finals (one replay), six Munster finals (one replay) and six semi-finals (two replays) with the results going as follows: Kerry 10; Cork 4; Draws 4.
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“Well I hope the result will be the same as the last time,” is O’Sullivan in match prediction mode.
“Cork have thundered through the championship and have not played any bad game. The last time we played them in the All-Ireland final they were definitely unlucky because we got two or three lucky goals and if they had not gone in it could certainly have been a different story. Luck has not been with them. I don’t think that they have been making any slips this year. They are on a mission, they are hungry, they are big, physical men as well. They beat Tyrone, a team that we could not beat last year. They seem to kick in good ball as well and they have three young fellows in Paul Kerrigan, Paddy Kelly and Colm O’Neill who are very fast. I am sure one of them will get Young Player of the Year and they will have All Stars in their back pocket even if they don’t perform on Sunday.
“They are three new guys and it will take three of our fellows to mark them and we will have to be playing above our best if we are to do it.”
One wonders will Kerry even travel. But O’Sullivan seems genuinely at a loss to explain away Kerry’s mid season dip. The omens were good with the NFL Division One final win over Derry. But the loss of Kieran Donaghy, the haphazard approach to the Munster semi-finals with Cork followed by the heart stopping route that was the qualifiers had Kingdom fans watching from behind their sofas at the horror show unfolding. Then came the Dublin performance and Kerry were suddenly the most feared team in the land again.
“We have only one good championship game played this year though I don’t think that Dublin brought their boots to Croke Park that day and they are better than that. It is hard to know what is wrong. We found the qualifier games tough. But the likes of Longford, Sligo and Antrim lads were better than they were rated by the media.
“It is hard to be good in every game and hopefully we have the bad games out of the way now. A lot of guys seem to think that we hit our peak against Dublin and that we are on our way down again. I hope not. There’s no problem with hunger with me and sometimes the older you get the more you want to win because you know you might only have one or two years left.”
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