The Kingdom’s kingmaker: Patrick O'Sullivan Interview

Kerry bid for their second back-to-back All-Ireland in less than a decade tomorrow at Croke Park, but you’d have got long odds on that in 2012 after they’d lost a quarter-final to Donegal. No-one was putting their hand up to replace Jack O’Connor, something Kerry GAA chairman Patrick O’Sullivan recognised better than most. So what’s changed? And how much longer can the Kingdom stay top of the tree

BY this afternoon at one o’clock, when they board a train in Killarney and the doors close behind them, the madness will subside. Just a little.

But because he’s de-facto liaison between officialdom and team management for the Kerry football team, Patrick O’Sullivan will turn player protector for the next 24 hours before handing them over to Éamonn Fitzmaurice to be unleashed onto Croke Park.

I may be the first person the Kerry GAA chairman has met this week who hasn’t asked him for an All-Ireland final ticket. That headache was essentially boxed off yesterday in Killarney when the corporate sector and loyal backers paid é1,000 a team for a golf event over two days to “top up the pot” for Kingdom coffers. Each team got two final tickets for their support and the option to purchase another pair. Between the event in Killarney and a concurrent one in Dublin, the guts of é140,000 was grossed.

These are the times for making hay and O’Sullivan (48) recognises that ‘No’ is not in the lexicon of conversation between Fitzmaurice and himself. What Fitzy needs, Fitzy gets.

“I put a person in place, and he’s in charge of that team. I won’t interfere. If there’s a question to ask, I’ll ask it, but we have a very good working relationship, based on trust. We are good friends outside of that. Éamonn not just a players’ person, he’s a people person.

“There’s a certain time of the year you might have to, but at this time of the year, there is no such thing as ‘No’. The money we generate on the strength of being in an All-Ireland final will cover whatever comes up. But there is a time in the season when we sit down with the different management teams, and they get a specific budget to operate within. We may not not-for-profit but we operate as a business.” Kerry won’t get any change out of e1m for progressing five teams to All-Ireland finals this year - the weekend’s seniors and minors join the juniors, senior hurlers and Minor B hurlers in big-day appearances in 2015. For the football finals this weekend, O’Sullivan says Kerry will make “a sizeable chunk” of the cost for Croke Park from the golf classic.

“If the event was in Dublin, it would have been a lot more

xpensive (for a golf classic team) because it is the nation’s financial hub. There’s no financial hub down here, but there’s fierce loyalty to Kerry GAA. Even in a non-All-Ireland year, we’d have 60 or 70 teams for the golf event, a hard core who mightn’t want to get involved in ticket schemes, but will put their hand in their pocket anyway for Kerry.

Being in the minor final (against Tipperary) increases Kerry’s final allocation to 14,000 tickets for the final, an extra 2,000 tickets. The biggest problem now, maintains the chairman, is the quality of those tickets.

“90% of those who should get sorted get tickets, but the poor quality of tickets for finalists are becoming more and more of a problem.

“The majority of the tickets are in the Davin Stand and the upper decks. There are various scheme in Croke Park, other counties are entitled to their allocation, so there’s only so many tickets in the (Hogan and Cusack) lower levels.

“Trying to explain that to people is a problem, because many suspect we have a ball of tickets we are keeping back for corporate clients. Believe me, we are not.”

Progress to September’s big day is not just a round-the-clock job for Kerry’s no-fuss secretary Peter Twiss, the Board executive and the office staff. It’s also a costly endeavour. The extra training sessions alone between semi and final cost upwards of €15,000, but income easily outweighs outlay.

“The only time we really make money is based around an All-Ireland final. Once you win a semi-final, the costs escalate sharply, but so does the potential to increase income sharply. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Beating Tyrone (in the All-Ireland semi) gives us a big cash flow boost.

“It’s a gain of a different kind then for the minors to be in the final. There’s only so many clubs featuring in the senior squad, but you multiply the clubs who have representatives playing with the minors by all their families and colleagues...they all feel a very central part of the All-Ireland experience. They all have family abroad.

“There’s a massive sense of feelgood around the county this year, with the senior and minors in the final, and the juniors having already won the All-Ireland. The more successful you are on the pitch, the more successful you can become off the pitch too.

On the back of winning last year’s All-Ireland, fundraising effort in New York and London exceeded all expectations — they raised the guts of $1m for the Centre of Excellence project in Currans, near Farranfore, wheeling out a number of Kingdom legends and past players. Under the stewardship of John O’Dwyer and Mike McCarthy, the fun-raising group saw in cold currency terms that Kerry football is more than a culture or an organisation. It’s a brand in marketing terms, and a very strong brand at that.”

AND all because of a phone call to Éamonn Fitzmaurice? It wasn’t always thus.

“The downside is when you lose, and meeting a few geniuses telling you what we did wrong. There are some who will always take it a yard too far, but you can only judge a loss by how you play. If you’ve left it all out there on the pitch, there’s not much more you can do.”

He was into his third year as chairman before Sam Maguire came home through Rathmore. There’s no GAA chairman in Kerry wants a legacy of no All-Ireland in his tenure but O’Sullivan knew the lukewarm environment he was jumping into.

“I remember in 2012 when Jerome Conway was still chairman, Paul Galvin coming up to me one night and saying quietly ‘would you keep Éamonn Fitzmaurice in mind for the Under 21 job’. A year later, we needed someone to pull the thing together with the seniors after Jack (O’Connor) stepped down. The team was breaking up and we knew it had to be someone who would immediately command the players’ respect.

“The fact that Eamonn was a teacher was a help because we knew there was a serious job of work to be done, a full-time job. He had done a complete scan of the county for the Under 21’s the year before, and they’d lost unluckily to Cork in Tralee when they were given no chance. He brought that belief within the set up on the pitch. And he was doing the business with Pobal Scoil Chorcha Dhuibhne.”

And if Fitzmaurice had said no? “I had someone ready to step up, (former manager) Pat O’Shea would have done it, I think. I asked him to help and he was considering it at the time.

“When Jack stepped down on a Saturday from the senior job, we had Eamonn over the line the following Wednesday. I spoke to Sean Walsh, Pat O’Shea, and took counsel from a couple of other good friends of mine and some past players.

“When we went to Eamonn on the Sunday, I knew he was going to make a couple of phone calls to some people for advice, and we tried to get them cornered off, or onside, as quickly as possible. The Irish Open was on in Killarney at the time, and on the Sunday, we felt we were coming down the 18th with him so to speak.”

On the surface, Fitzmaurice exuded a reassuring calm when League defeat followed League defeat in 2013, his first campaign. “Nobody could have known how it has since worked out, but you also reflect on the times we were walloped by Dublin in the early days of the 2013 League.

“Eamonn came to me and said ‘should we change our course?’ He had put all these building blocks in place at the time, and I said, ‘you stay on your course, you’ll get it right, and I’ll take the flak’.

“The hardest time was when the national tv station was mousing around here asking people to discuss the demise of Kerry football. We said at the time there was plenty of young talent in the county under the stewardship of Donal Daly, who has done massive work with the GDA’s.

“I thought it was a cheap shot at Kerry football. The one thing I would say is that at county board level, they’re always supportive of the direction we were going.

“At the end of that season we won a Munster title, got beaten in a classic — or so they tell us — by Dublin in the semi-final.

“Then in 2014, we had a ropey start to the League again and another media outlet closer to home took another pot shot at us. But in the first two campaigns, Eamonn played 36 players, and 39 the second year. Probably about 40-odd players across the seasons, which must hardly have ever happened with a Kerry manager before. He knew what was happening. Paul Murphy came out of that, and won man of the match in an All-Ireland final. We entered the McGrath Cup, we changed the Juniors into an Under-23 squad to expose young players to more inter-county action.

“Of course, it eats at you, our families have been involved in football and when things aren’t going well, people are happy to chip away at you and some of that gets back to your kin through the grapevine. People you would be surprised with - others not so much.

“That comes with the territory. Within my own family, and people I was depending on, they were strong for me. My father has been involved for years and knows the ups and downs.

“I had the occasional call too from Micko saying ‘stick with it, you’re going in the right direction’.”

With the Christy Ring Cup annexed by the hurlers, Kerry might finish Sunday with a hat-trick of football All-Irelands, the junior already in the bag.

The latter’s not to be scoffed at — Stephen Wallace is running the Junior squad as an academy for Under 23’s to shorten the gap between Under 21 and senior.

The future is being sown and at Currans, midway between all the key towns in the Kingdom, a six-pitch centre of excellence is the fertile land where O’Sullivan believes they will reap for decades to come. It’s not before time. There’s been many occasions where Kerry football has had to go outside the county to train on a borrowed facility.

“We will need to raise URa further half a million,” he says. We were thinking €5.7 in total but that has crept up to €6.2m.

“We’ve had significant support from Croke Park and the Munster Council and have raised €2.5 ourselves. The pitches and the dressing room will start things next year and hopefully the next chairman will have to look at a 4G or 5G pitch.

“We will have to put in place something that will also generate money to take care of the maintenance of the facility and to gather cash for capital expenditures down the line.

“You don’t need massive injections all the time, but you can slowly build up the pot. We go to San Francisco in October to organise May events there and in Boston, New York, Chicago and London.”

Also, outside the boundaries of their long standing relationship, few can appreciate the full merit of having a main sponsor like the blue-chip global success story that is Kerry Group.

Suffice to say, that GAA in the county has had just the one main sponsor since the concept was greenlighted by Croke Park

‘The Bag’, as the chairman is affectionately known, has always been an effective networker.

He toiled in the pub his father built up, and now runs it himself. The ‘Tatler Jack’ is one of Killarney’s signature watering holes, and Eddie O’Sullivan — Patrick’s father, universally known as Tatler — has done everything one can reasonably expect to do in Kerry GAA.

He’s been a selector to Mick O’Dwyer, Paidi Ó Sé and Mickey ‘Ned’ O’Sullivan. Patrick grew up in New York, so setting down fund-raising roots on the east coast was never going to faze him.

“(Former Board secretary) Eamon O’Sullivan and Sean Walsh advised me well. As chairman, I wanted to change the world straight away. When everything didn’t take off immediately, it felt like a kick in the arse.

“He counselled me to slow down, that these things take time. There are Kerry people all over the world, but it’s a slow process and once you get these fundraising projects off the ground, you’ve got to keep them moving, because if they lose momentum almost impossible to get them up and running again.

“Business folk like Maurice Regan in New York have been diamonds, Eoin Murphy, Dermie Foley and Sean Halpin too. Maurice got New York around a table for Kerry, the energy of this man is unreal.”

He’s one more year as chairman, and Kerry’s off the field ‘to-do’ list still has some formidable projects on it.

“One, we are redeveloping Austin Stack Park in Tralee, there is massive goodwill towards that project. It’s out office, our capital town.

“Secondly the bottom end of Fitzgerald Stadium has to be a priority and securing finance for the future development of the stadium

“. It’s our flagship stadium. You have to keep on developing Killarney, who knows what’ll happen down the line? If the World Cup comes in 2023, the town is made for a big occasion like that.

“We are in the same boat as Limerick and Salthill in Galway. There are only two stadia getting big games regularly, Croke Park and Thurles.

“Belfast and Cork have new projects, but we must still be shouting from the rooftops about our stadium. Nobody knows what kind of championship structures we will have in 10 or 20 years time and Killarney needs to be ready for that.”

This weekend though, it’s just about the team. It may be Fitzy’s team, but the chairman has been bouncing around the Kerry dressing room for nigh on 18 years, because it was easier for him to amble across the road to the Stadium for training than it might have been for Moyvane-based chairman of the time, Sean Walsh.

He’s been a facilitator for many, and like an older brother to some. Like Gooch. “Nearly all the Coopers worked in the bar at some stage.

“There’s strong family connections between us, and Colm was always at Dr Crokes training with (his older brothers) Mark, Vince, Mike and Danny. Mark and myself married two O’Riordan sisters from Cullen afterwards.

“When Gooch was breaking onto the Kerry team, Crokes hadn’t had a fella involved since Connie Murphy. You’d be protective of him.”

One of O’Sullivan’s key operatives is a man worth a read of his own.

Botty. Aka Niall O’Callaghan. The team’s er...?

“Facilitator. Joker. Assistant. All of those things and more,” says his close friend. “When the kids throw the rattler out of the pram, Botty makes sure the rattler goes back in the pram. When the players have a problem with boots, laces or tickets for something, Botty fixes it. He covers my back all the time. He’s a great man to have around. Invaluable.”

One day last week, Patrick missed an important meeting with T.J. O’Sullivan. His son. On his 10th birthday. “Everyone’s under pressure. I was meeting someone about the Kerry minor job. (His wife) Frances is left carrying a lot of stuff at the moment — like the wives, partners and families of the players.

“But we are all Kerry. And we are all here for Kerry, representing every corner and every parish. People like Vince Linnane, who is nearly 80 now and the caretaker of Austin Stack Park. He does all the gear. That man is a legend.

“I’m just steering my corner of the boat.”

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