Four-time All-Ireland Senior Football Championship winner, Darran O’Sullivan, reflects on his Gaelic football career with Kerry GAA and what it all meant to him.
Soccer was my game growing up. I was born and raised in Ealing in London.
From about eight years of age I had played with the QPR School of Excellence. Before the FIFA World Cup in 1998 we got to compete in France against teams like Lyon and Nice… You get aspirations. “Another few years I could be playing in the Premier League.”
The soccer system can be quite cutthroat, as a young player you can sacrifice a lot to succeed in the game. You’re thinking, “I love football and I could get a ball of cash for doing this.” Then one day it can be taken away from you. If you don’t make the grade you’re just gone and that’s it. But I had moved on from the game before anything like that happened to me.
When I was 12 my parents decided to move home to Kerry.
When I moved to Glenbeigh first, I was a bit of a geezer, like I’d walked off the set of Eastenders.
It wasn’t too bad for me though. I knew a lot of the lads from coming over for summers. They were pure country. After a couple of weeks, I was pure country too. It’s easy to fit in when you’re surrounded by good people and especially when you’re playing team sports.
I kept up the soccer with Killorglin up to about 15 or 16 but my new love was Gaelic football.
Things were happening for me. I was selected for the minor county team. Great for my football. Not great for my leaving cert. But I had told myself that I would make the most of playing with Kerry and other things, like school, took a back seat. There was always next year to repeat the leaving cert.
Then during my repeat year, I got called up to the Kerry senior panel.
There I was, 18 years of age in the Kerry dressing room surrounded by the Ó Sés, Gooch, Galvin, Hassett, Moynihan, Ó’Cinnéide, Mike Frank, too many legends to name them all.
I was quiet enough at the start, I just tried to soak up the experience. Happy to be there. If they said “jump” I’d say, “how high?”. I was joining the All-Ireland champions and before long we were getting ready for another All-Ireland final. As a child, that’s what you dream of doing. Moving home to Kerry, that’s all I wanted to do and there I was – admittedly a lot sooner than I’d ever thought was possible.
Going out on the field with all these brilliant players. I just wanted to help. Not leave anyone down. I wanted to get that pat on the back from Declan O’Sullivan or the other lads that I’d looked up to as a minor. I could see how hard they all worked, and I wanted to hold up my end of it.
When I think of the fellas I played with, I think of how “thick” they were. Not “thick” in the way it’s understood elsewhere, they were “fine thick Kerrymen”. In Kerry it means that someone has a mental toughness. A stubbornness.
I made my debut in the 2005, All-Ireland final. We lost to Tyrone. Straight after, the lads in the dressing room were already talking about next year. “What are we going to do to fix it?” … There was no, “I need a few weeks off.” Even before the team holiday we were back out training. “How are we going to come back stronger next year and win it?” All about winning – that was Kerry.
Some people might forget that Kerry were in six finals in a row from 2004 to 2009. We won four of them. It was because of that “thick” mentality. Keep coming back from more. Us against them.
”Our toughest games were in training.
Pádraig Reidy and me came through minors together. He knew my game as well as I knew his. It was a case of “not you again!”
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Then you had Marc Ó Sé – the fear with Marc was that he’d go up the other end and out score you.
Mahony would go through you. They were my toughest opponents. You were coming home from training in bits, tongue hanging out. That’s the way it was.
Those lads helped me become a better player. They were the ones that I won with and lost with. We went through the same highs and lows. You form a bond. More than anything else, I built great friendships.
You can call any of them up now and meet up at a match.
Now that I’m retired from inter-county, I hate being a fan in the crowd – hearing all the talk around you. A lot of the stuff you hear is nonsense. People get carried away. It’s a bit of a sideshow at times in the stands. That said, the Kerry supporters are amazing and a full house in Killarney in the sunshine is hard to beat. It just makes me want to be back on the field.
It was time to walk away though. I just couldn’t commit all that time and preparation.
I don’t think you’re going to see any more of people playing for 14, 15 years anymore, not with the commitment you need to give.
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These days, my wife Laura and I have an eight-month-old at home; we have our family business to run, Rosspoint; I work with McSport, the sports and fitness equipment supplier; I play with the club. I’m looking at that going, “how the hell did I fit in three field sessions, two gym sessions, physio, team meetings, matches?”
”We’re at the point in GAA where we can’t go any further. Its professional in every way bar the wallet.
Players can’t give anymore, unless they delay or neglect their work career until they’re 30.
Lifting the Sam Maguire in 2009 was the pinnacle. It helped me to grow up. I was still young, 22 years of age. I started to feel like I belonged. Up to then I had been a bit sheepish around the place. My role was as an impact sub. That all changed in ’09.
When Jack O’Connor spoke to me about the captaincy, he said, “Don’t worry about doing anything different, just play your game and enjoy it.” That was great advice to give a young player. It took the pressure off straight away. There were so many leaders in the that panel, it was always a collective effort.
I don’t remember much about the game. I don’t remember the parade or meeting the President.
First thing I remember is Paul Galvin giving out to me during the game. He was taking a short free and I wasn’t ready. I copped on then and got the ball off him and kicked a score. I looked back at him as if to say, “f*ck you now.” He pointed back at me as if to say, “I knew you’d react like that.”
He knew that if he gave me a bit of a bollocking, I’d be so cross, that I’d go off and do something worthwhile. That comes from playing together week in week out.
We took control of the game after that. I was taken off near the end. We had a comfortable lead. The job was done.
I sat next to Tadhg Kennelly and Darragh Ó Sé. Tadhg leaned in and said, “how’s the Irish?”
Now, I didn’t do Irish in school, so it hit me, “Jesus! I will have to do a speech in Irish.” Tadhg said, “I’ll help you, say it to me.” So, we’re in injury time, game still on and I’m practicing the speech with Tadhg.
I wasn’t nervous about playing the game at all. Not nervous about being captain for an All-Ireland final. All of a sudden, I’m petrified. Absolutely bricking it. Public speaking isn’t my thing. Dara Ó’Cinnéide ruined it for all of us – who could beat the 2004 speech?
Next to me at the top of the steps was Marc Ó Sé – a native Irish speaker. He said, “if you’re stuck, I’ll give you a dig out.” I’m thinking, “no way I’m trusting that messer!”
I looked out at the sea of green and gold. I looked to the right and my father was there. It was surreal. You’re trying to take it all in, but I couldn’t really get into the moment with all the stress of the acceptance speech. The next day was different though.
We were getting on the train to go home and Declan O’Sullivan said, “leave off the drink on the way down, you’ll want to remember all of this.” Great advice. I’ll never forget the celebrations back in Kerry. The crowds in the streets. The school visits.
Some of the lads will say 2014 was better because we were written off by so many people but not for me. 2009 was very special.
I was a better person at the end of that experience. More confident. Two years later I was nominated for Player of the Year, on stage with Alan Brogan, one of the players outside of Kerry that I most admired. I was at my best that year. Jack O’Connor made me central to the game plan. That was a huge endorsement. It’s just a shame that it led to my biggest disappointment.
It’s a cliché but the margins are so small between winning and losing. I’m lucky to have known that winning feeling. But I also know what it’s like to lose. Sport can be cruel.
The 2011 All-Ireland final was a killer blow. We played ourselves into a winning position, it was familiar territory for us. More often than not we killed off the game at that point. But, with time ticking down Dublin caught us and won it with, more or less, the last kick of the game. It was devastating.
To this day I can’t explain how or why we let that one slip. You can ask yourself a million questions, but you’ll never get the answers, not the ones you want anyway.
I can’t watch it back. The last five minutes would be filled with one “what if?” moment after another.
I was in the dressing room after the game and I checked my phone. I saw the first text message, it said something like, “Hard luck, you were five minutes from another medal, man of the match and player of the year.” I couldn’t cope with that. I turned off the phone.
I get it. I know people mean well and they want to say something to soften the blow. But it’s like a death in the family. There’s nothing anyone can say that will take back the sense of loss – that heart break and deep disappointment. It won’t stop them trying though.
We needed to get away from all of that. Myself, Gooch, Kieran O’Leary, Eoin Brosnan and a buddy of mine from London, Eoin Cronin headed off on the Tuesday for a week in Marbella.
We drowned our sorrows. Pretended it never happened.
Then you’re back and you realise that you can’t pretend. It really did happen. It’s a bit of a blur.
”You’re back playing with the club but your head or your heart isn’t in it. You’re a shell of a person.
A lot of us worked in jobs where we dealt with the public, I was in the bank that time, and in Kerry everyone has an opinion on a match. Nobody walks in, sees a Kerry player and says to themselves, “I’ve an opinion on how they lost, but he probably doesn’t want to hear it.” As much as it might frustrate you, you just have to hear them out. It’s part of wearing the green and gold jersey.
Kerry will never change. No matter what happens, it will always be “We’ll win it this year.” That’s not a bad thing but it does bring a massive weight of expectation on players and its not getting any easier to win the Championship.
I’ve huge respect for that mentality. For over a decade I played with a bunch of “fine thick Kerrymen” who never knew when they were beat. You get knocked down, you have no choice but to get back up and go again. Be stubborn. Don’t take no for an answer.
I don’t believe people who say, “no regrets.” I have a few, especially from the last couple of years.
I should have had a “less is more” attitude to training and minding my body. I pushed beyond that but ultimately, I missed a lot of Championship games through injury by not minding the body.
When I retired there were a few days of messages and tributes coming in which was nice. Then that’s it. All over. You’re done. Time to move on.
The medals are at home. You don’t carry them around with you. But I do carry great memories and stories. Football is great while it lasts but it’s only when the boots are hung up and someone else has the jersey that you look back and you understand what it was all about…
It’s about the friendships you build.