O’Sullivan has vital role to play against Mayo in semi-final

Eamonn Fitzmaurice will keep the three-time All Star as an option in All-Ireland clash

Declan O’Sullivan: Kerry have put legs before experience and are keeping the long-serving forward in reserve for tomorrow’s All-Ireland SFC semi-fnal against Mayo at Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Declan O’Sullivan: Kerry have put legs before experience and are keeping the long-serving forward in reserve for tomorrow’s All-Ireland SFC semi-fnal against Mayo at Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Sun, Aug 24, 2014, 06:00

In the couple of summers since Eamonn Fitzmaurice pulled up the drawbridge around Fitzgerald Stadium, Kerry football has become even more of a wall of whispers than it ever was.

As soon as the side to face Mayo was announced on Thursday night, the beaters were sent into the thickest grass to drive out the plumpest game.

The lamest rumours were killed off before they reached any altitude.

The notion of a dummy team was briefly raised before being quashed as most unKerry-like.

There was word that Declan O’Sullivan had suffered a bad hamstring tear either in or since the Galway game but that too has been dismissed.

The most concrete information is it is what it looks like – Fitzmaurice and his selectors have decided to keep O’Sullivan back for the last 20 minutes of the game and finish the afternoon with their best team on the pitch.

For anyone in doubt as to the level of punt they’re taking, it’s worth sketching out just how unwilling Kerry have been to try out this manoeuvre in the 11 years O’Sullivan has been in the green and gold. By not starting tomorrow, he brings an end to a 38-match streak going all the way back to the 2008 Munster final.

Injury

Declan O’Sullivan doesn’t sit out games. That Munster final in 2008 was missed through injury – he was back the next day against Monaghan and hasn’t missed a start since.

In 2006, Jack O’Connor famously took him out of the team for a while mid-summer to shield him from abuse from the stands but used him off the bench each time.

In 2004, as a 20-year-old, he lost his place for a couple of games to Liam Hassett but was back in for the All Ireland series.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Since he first came up straight out of minor in 2003, Kerry have played 70 championship games; O’Sullivan has started 64 of them. Colm Cooper started 66 in time, Marc Ó Sé 65, Tomás Ó Sé 63.

He has always been there, wallpapering one of the greatest periods in Kerry history and sticking on right through the refurbishment.

Until now. Fitzmaurice has taken a look at his bout with Father Time and decided O’Sullivan is behind on all judges’ cards.

Though still only 30, his knees these days carry strapping not seen in Croke Park since Colm O’Rourke was dodging the reaper’s scythe all those years ago.

But they say the last thing a boxer loses is his punch. If so, Kerry want to keep it back for the closing rounds tomorrow.

“They think that they can get more out of him coming off the bench,” says former Kerry captain Dara Ó Cinnéide.

“Where can he help us most? Given his experience, he’s able to sit in the stands and read the game and decide what’s needed when he goes in.

“It’s a good move, I think, provided the game is tight when he’s coming on. He can’t be coming on as a bit of a fire brigade effort.”

That’s the risk Fitzmaurice looks willing to take. Legs over experience.

O’Sullivan has played 30 games for Kerry in Croke Park. The six named forwards for tomorrow have played 23 between them. Take out Donnchadh Walsh and the number drops to 10, including two first-timers last day out and another one tomorrow.

That’s a lot of fresh faces thrown in against a defence that ranks second only to Dublin’s for outings in the stadium over the past four seasons.

So why chance it? For all that he has had to be patched together, O’Sullivan still ran James O’Donoghue mighty close for man of the match in the Munster final just seven weeks ago.

He played every minute against Clare and Cork this summer, albeit he did depart with 20 minutes to go against Galway the last day. For Ó Cinnéide, it’s a simple matter of his USP just not being just as U as it once was.

“As an orthodox full forward and a man who is going to win his own ball, I don’t see that being him anymore,” says Ó Cinnéide. “That is the big change in him because that was what we would always have considered his number one asset.

“Back in the day, if Darragh Ó Sé had a free out around midfield, Declan was who he looked for. If Tomás (Ó Sé) was taking a sideline ball, Declan was the first person he’d be looking for.

“Because he was great at winning that ball – he fronted his man and never let his man get a fist around him or a hand in. But that day is gone. He’s not as fast off the mark anymore and a tight defender can get out in front of him.

“So Kerry have had to work out the best way of getting him on the ball, getting him involved. He will make the right decision when he’s there and when he’s in possession; he’s still as hard to knock off the ball as ever. It’s just getting him there.

“Kerry’s task is to use him at the right time and in the right position so he can hurt the opposition. This is obviously the best way they’ve come up with to do it.”

At one stage in the first half against Galway, O’Sullivan funnelled back to pick a ball around his own 20-metre line and set his team away moving up the pitch. But instead of joining in, he stood where he was, the closest Kerry jersey to Hill 16 even though he had the number 14 on his back.

From there, he directed matters, pulled players who weren’t involved in the attack back into position to cover a breakaway. It was like watching Mick McCarthy marshal the Ireland defence in the old Lansdowne and only when he was satisfied everything was just so did he trot back up the pitch to play in the forwards.

Leader

Selfless and the sign of a leader, to be sure. Not what his manager would have had down as his primary job all the same.

“It depends on the period of the game,” says Fitzmaurice. “Sometimes we might need him deeper. There were periods of the Munster final where he played quite deep and it worked quite well for us but there are other times then when we need him to be a bit more advanced and pushed on.

“So it’s getting the balance right. He carries a lot of weight in the group and lads have a lot of respect for him so when he is doing the right thing you’re going to leave him at it. You’re not going to be getting in his way.”

That said, a bit more organisation in defence wouldn’t have gone astray against Galway, given the parting-of-the-seas goal they conceded in the first half to Tom Flynn.

“When you look back at that game,” says Ó Cinnéide, “the question a lot of Kerry people would be asking is, ‘Why was it Declan O’Sullivan and Aidan O’Mahony who were giving chase for that goal? Why wasn’t it one of the younger lads? Where were the young legs of someone like Mikey Geaney, who was picked for that specific role?’

“The conclusion I came to was that people didn’t realise what a loss Stephen O’Brien was going to be. That’s what he had done in the Munster final – every time Aidan Walsh released himself, Stephen O’Brien was the first man to put a hand on him.

“He and Donnchadh Walsh have a great sense of responsibility and so has Declan. But Declan shouldn’t have been the man killing himself and having to run half the pitch chasing a 22-year-old.”

O’Sullivan won’t be 31 until Christmas week but those legs must have circumnavigated the globe and back by now. Every year when his Kerry duty has ended, he’s had to plough through the club championship with South Kerry before getting down to the real business of the South Kerry championship with Dromid Pearses. It hasn’t been unusual to find him playing a South Kerry final on Christmas Eve.

“The mileage has been savage,” says O Cinnéide. “He was the one fella you’d always be saying you hoped he’d get a break somewhere along the way. He turned 21 the night we got our medals for winning the 2004 All-Ireland.

“It was his 21st birthday, it was Christmas week and yet he was late up to the dinner because that evening he had been winning the South Kerry championship with Dromid. And I remember us all going, ‘Jesus, this lad is still going.’ He was one of those players who was never, ever lightly raced.”

Through it all, O’Sullivan developed a belligerence that has stood to him. The mainstay of Dromid’s senior team since he was 16, he’s always carried a target pinned to his back. Ó Cinnéide remembers covering a match against Waterville for Raidió na Gaeltachta when O’Sullivan was still only about 20 and the punishment dished out to him that day was cruel.

“Declan went back to get a kick-out from his own goalie and there was pure poison coming from the sidelines. There were fellas shouting, ‘Kill him! Get him! Hit him!’ He could hear every word but he didn’t care one bit.

Dog’s abuse

“He kept coming back to get the ball, kept ploughing right up through the middle of the pitch and very often getting his free. And still there’d be dog’s abuse coming from the sidelines, and still he’d pick himself up off the ground and he’d kick the free.

“He’s been doing that for years and years and the attitude and crankiness he built up became a pure defence mechanism. A necessary part of his artillery, coming from that background. He’s a tough nut. Declan never turned his back on a scrap, never once.”

There might not be many scraps left. Best then to make sure if he’s going to land a blow, it lands at an opportune time.

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