'I said: 'What's that for?' And I got blanked... That's why I got so pissed off'

Darran O’Sullivan remains in disbelief at the black card which ended his season.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THIS TIME LAST YEAR Darran O’Sullivan was in France with his fiancée, having booked holidays so as to avoid the All-Ireland final in which Kerry would play no part.

He watched it anyway, of course.

This year he watched it at home on his own; his wife-to-be opted to pop upstairs away from him rather than endure 70-plus minutes of whingeing, sighs and gesticulation.

“It is – it’s tough to watch,” O’Sullivan says, almost a month since his inter-county season was brought to a premature conclusion, at least by his reckoning.

“I can never understand how other inter-county players are saying, ‘Oh, All-Ireland final weekend’, delighted, because unless we’re playing in it, I hate it. It’s as simple as that.

“It’s all ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’”

“‘Ifs’ and ‘buts’” he says again, this time with a smile, when asked what was running through his mind as he watched Dublin seal their three-in-a-row in another thunderous battle with The Kingdom’s conquerors.

“You just can’t help but rewind and think of the semi-final. We just didn’t perform – simple as that. As players, we didn’t play well enough, and we got beaten, and you’re just constantly thinking about that: ‘If I was there, now’… Or, ‘If we’d done this the last day’… It’s just one of them things.

“Even then if you knew what was going wrong, you’d be able to fix it, more or less there and then. The worst thing for me is that we trained exceptionally well, we were very well prepared, d’you know? There was no stone unturned.

We just didn’t play! It’s just one of those things in sport: it doesn’t matter what you do, or how hard you try, it’s just not going to go right for you. It didn’t go right for us – nearly everyone. I think very few fellas came away going, ‘We did okay, there.’

“The worst thing was so many of us just didn’t perform on the day. These things happen, like.”

The Sky mentor is volunteering his autopsy in the GAA National Games Development Centre, having driven up from Glenbeigh to announce Sky Sports’ new grassroots partnership with the GAA. For O’Sullivan it strikes more about facing the music than facing the six recording devices pointed in his direction; his words, while frequently accompanied by a slight shake of the head or a brief staring contest with the carpet, are delivered with the tone of a reassuring parent.

His mental wounds still require some soothing, but he’s cognisant that so too do those of his inter-county manager, Éamonn Fitzmaurice, whose sweeper-reliant game plan was ripped to shreds both by Mayo on 26 August, and the media in the days which followed. The 31-year-old forward, however, maintains Kerry’s semi-final defeat was no tactical faux pas.

“No, it wasn’t. If we had played to our capabilities, we would have been spot on. That was just the way it was, as individuals we didn’t play the way we can play.

And as a management team there’s not much you can do, you know? You can have this tactic in place, or you can reshuffle, but if fellas aren’t at the races – which we weren’t, that’s the long and short of it, we weren’t at the races – there’s not much they can do, or anyone else

And so O’Sullivan and his team-mates enter the most dreaded of winters for a Kerry footballer: one during which Sam Maguire resides outside of The Kingdom.

His new business venture will occupy the mind, but will also dictate that he spends the off-season dealing with hundreds of Kerry managers.

“It’s after being very tough the last couple of weeks,” he says. “I opened a bar-restaurant there at the start of the summer, so I can’t avoid it! But it is very tough, but even more so on the management I think. As a player, you’re kind of going back to your club or whatever, you can try and distract yourself, whereas they’re not [management]. They’re constantly replaying this stuff over and over.

“And in fairness, there’s a lot of experts around the place. They all think they know best, and they’re not shy in giving their opinion either. It’s tough, and d’you know, it doesn’t get any easier, like, until you can get back out there and concentrate on playing football again.

“Yerra, look, I’m around a long time, I’m well used to shrugging it off, but it is tough because you won’t stop thinking about it, you’ll be looking at interviews with Dublin players and different bits and pieces. At the moment, they’re the level we have to get up to.

“Most people are genuine. They’re all Kerry fans, they all want Kerry to do well. But not everybody is willing to put in the time and the effort, even though it’s easy to say: ‘You should have done this, you should have done that,’ or ‘This fella shouldn’t have played, this fella should have played.’

It’s very easy – that’s hindsight. And everyone has their own opinion which they’re entitled to, but if people just took a step back and said: ‘Really, does this player need me telling him what we should or shouldn’t have done? Or, ‘Does the manager really need me telling him?’ Everyone has an opinion, which you’re entitled to, but not everyone needs to hear it.

That being said, the four-time All-Ireland winner readily admits that he shied away from the worst of it.

“To be fair, I went hiding for the first few games after the Mayo game”, he laughs, “but you get used it. Most people, in fairness, they come in, they’re genuine people – genuine football fans. They just want to talk about football, and I don’t mind that.

“‘Tis only tough when it’s directly after a game, and it’s all, ‘Ye should have done this, ye should have done that.’ But more often than not it’s just genuine people and they’re happy to see you and chat. That’s one of the good things about playing inter-county football, that people want to talk with you.

“I suppose it’d be a lot worse if nobody wanted to talk to me!”

Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

Marc Ó Sé recently suggested that Kerry fan culture needs to change, and that supporters – however fervent – should temper expectations while Fitzmaurice’s current crop remains in transition.

O’Sullivan’s former team-mate insisted that the GAA fans in their county should no longer take even a semi-final berth for granted, and refrain from over-the-top criticism should Kerry fail to overthrow Dublin in the next couple of years.

After a contemplative pause, O’Sullivan says that he politely disagrees with his old friend.

“No, like, you want them to be demanding, to be fair. You want them to demand and expect All-Irelands, because if they don’t, they don’t believe in you. The fact that they demand and expect it means that they kind of back you, that they think you’re good enough to win it, which is a good thing.

“Maybe the whole [thing of] coming up to you after and saying, ‘You should have…[done this]‘ That’s just basic cop-on, really, like. Fellas are low enough as it is, they don’t need someone telling them what they should have done.

“But I don’t think anyone in Kerry, or no footballer, minds the demands being high, the expectation being high. We have high expectation, we demand a lot of ourselves anyway.

Sometimes it can be tough; you’re disappointed as it is, you expect to win All-Irelands, you demand the best of yourself; when you don’t play well, you know you don’t play well, but you don’t need somebody you don’t know coming up, telling you exactly what you should have done, what you shouldn’t have done. And to be fair, more often than not, they’ve hardly kicked a ball themselves.

“But I don’t mind the demands and expectations. Sometimes there just needs to be a bit of cop when it comes to coming up to fellas straight after a game, when things are sensitive enough.”

Winters can be perilous for the elderly, of course. O’Sullivan, a sprightly 31, scarcely needs to worry about the awful draft creeping from beneath the door or life-threatening outside temperatures, but he does consider himself en elder statesman in footballing terms.

Somewhat poetically, the shortening of the evenings brings with it a realisation that his own light is fading, his chance to once more climb the steps of the Hogan Stand narrowing by the year.

“You just don’t know if you’re going to be able to go back next year”, he admits, “or if you’re wanted to go back next year…”

“You just don’t know. Like, every year that goes by that you don’t win an All-Ireland is an opportunity missed.

“There’s only very few of them around.”

Conversely, then, like a shark’s teeth, a conveyor belt of potential successors are sharpening their tools a couple of age grades below.

O’Sullivan’s thoughts on David Clifford (which you can read here) are echoed when he assesses the plethora of talent coming through the ranks in his home county: let’s cool the jets.

“There’s unbelievable talent there. Four in a row. I think, supposedly, the next group coming through are as good as well.

“It is very encouraging, but I think the people have to be realistic too; there’s a big difference between being a very good 18-year-old, or an exceptional 18-year-old, and playing against senior players.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a progression. I think normally if you get two or three players from a minor team, you’re doing fairly well. So obviously it’s exciting times, but it’s not (clicks fingers), ‘They won minor All-Irelands so they’re ready for it.’ It’ll take time for them to get used to it as well.

It is exciting, but you’ve to be realistic too. Just because we’ve won underage doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make you win senior, because there was a long time we were winning nothing underage but we were winning senior All-Irelands. So we just have to kind of mind these young players coming through, and try to develop them slowly, and make sure they’re ready when they do come in.

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Darran O'Sullivan argues with the assistant referee after being black carded Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Sullivan’s own championship ended minutes prior to that of his team-mates, a highly contentious black card from David Gough seeing him removed from the field before he could so much as make a dent in the Mayo rearguard.

When he finally showed face in his new bar, the reaction was unanimously one of utter bewilderment.

“I kept getting asked what it was for,” he says. “I couldn’t answer.”

“[There was a] bit of frustration on my part, because I was sick of that question when I didn’t know the answer, but I think when people saw it again after they were kind of going, d’you know, it was a joke of a call, like.

“The joys of Gaelic football: you don’t get an answer on the field.”

It made contending with defeat all the more difficult; his side had been beaten, sure, but O’Sullivan had been robbed of the opportunity to change the eventual outcome, unjustly as most perceived it. He inquired of Gough why he had been black-carded, but was cold-shouldered by the Meath referee.

He remains incredulous and indeed irate.

“Aw, definitely. I suppose we all saw the reaction. I don’t… I’d say it was the first time ever I reacted like that. And that was all from not getting an answer why I was getting black-carded. Obviously, I was frustrated.

After coming straight back after the club scene, the form wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I only started playing up to myself, really, the three, four, five weeks beforehand. I was only just starting to feel good again, start playing well. And I thought: ‘I can make an impact here.’ That was taken away from me with no explanation, and that’s why I got so pissed off.

“I said: ‘What’s that for?’ And I got blanked. The rest is history. I got a suspension then on top of it I think, for a game. So that’s the joys of it.”

He’s adamant, too, that a lack of communication both from and between officials is detrimentally impacting their ability to officiate, but pointed out that plenty of referees would have simply explained their decision on the field of play.

“Oh, some are definitely better than others. A good few of them there now, like, you’d go up to them and say, ‘Jayze, what’s that for?’ And they’d say it straight out: ‘You were pulling,’ or acting the maggot, or whatever you’re doing. At least if they tell you, you know you’re doing it. Grand.

But if you’re asking and you genuinely don’t know, and they don’t tell you, there’s nothing more frustrating – especially if you’re wronged, which I was. I’ll never rectify that. It was just to ask him the question and to be ignored blatantly, it drove me mental.

“That’s all it is, a bit of communication. There’s a referee, there’s two linesmen, there’s four umpires and then there’s an official on the sideline. That’s eight officials. To be getting decisions wrong… There has to be more communication amongst all of them. Like, I can’t understand how blatant decisions can be missed, when there’s that many officials around the place. It’s crazy.”

He hopes August won’t be his last appearance in the green and gold, and maintains that Éamonn Fitzmaurice should be the man who ultimately makes that decision – not a new face.

“I think he’s the best man for the job,” O’Sullivan says of the under-fire manager. “I think he’s the only man for the job, to be honest.”

All of which leaves us with just one question: where is the new bar-restaurant, and how’s the grub down there?

“Oh, Ross Point!” he says. “Down on Rossbeigh Beach, just outside Glenbeigh. It’s just off the Ring of Kerry, so call in! Unbelievable food, great atmosphere. Football talk coming out my ears!”

You’d believe him.

Sky Sports yesterday announced it is partnering with the GAA on three major grassroots initiatives which will see the broadcaster invest a total of €3m over five years. Today’s announcement was made alongside the launch of The GAA Super Games Centres at GAA National Games Development Centre, Abbotstown; the first of the three grassroots initiatives that Sky Sports will support.

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