The art of cracking on without cracking up
Darragh Ó Sé interview: Tom Humphriescatches up with the elusive midfielder, who when he wasn't trying to break Jack O'Connor's carraigs, avoid fielding sessions with Ger O'Keeffe or bewilder sports psychologists, won four All-Ireland medals. And he's not finished.
He used to be Dara, but his mother sent in a note to a paper about how her son spelt the name. A little song and dance, he says. That's what mothers do, he says. So now he is Darragh. Or when scraping the sky in Killarney on a summer Sunday, Darragh boy. As in "g'wan, Darragh boy".
He tells a story. You want to understand about Páidí and Ventry and football and how it's all tangled up. So he tells a story about the night his dad went to the church. Micheál Ó Sé, brother of Páidí and father of Fergal, Darragh, Marc and Tomás, is laid out in the church. Mourners are filing past the coffin blessing themselves and coming to shake hands in condolence.
One poor neighbour is suffering from a bad hernia and the protrusion under the belt of his trousers lurks at eye level for the bereaved.
"That," says Páidí to the nephews, "is some piece of artillery to have at a funeral!" Heads bow and shoulders rock.
"We were cracking up. You go to a sad funeral it's the end of the world, but things crack on. No hitch in a hearse. You can't bring anything with you. You have to make the most of life. Can't look back. Páidí has a great attitude like that. He has a great way of looking at things. The black magic I call it. He can laugh at the queerest things. We have a bit of that."
So the Ó Sé men buried their dad and brother and went about their work for Kerry that weekend in 2002.
"We kicked on from there. Football carried us away. After the season ended we got time to think about it, but we didn't mix the two. We just got on with it. That was the way it was going to happen. We spoke at home. It was going to be that way. It was good for us. It worked for us to be in among our friends. We didn't want to change routine."
People told them earnestly afterwards they didn't go to the game in Cork because they were upset about football being played at all. The Ó Sés weren't for stopping all the clocks, however.
"That's the one time you'd want everyone to go to a game. That's a cop out. Life goes on. These things happen. Everyone has their own private life, everyone has had tragedy. It was out in the open for us. People go through it."
That's life in Ventry. Football is separated out and yet it is inseparable. Going on playing football was no different from just going on. Darragh Ó Sé reckons that if you want to be a footballer the place he grew up in offers laboratory conditions.
Going to speak to Darragh Ó Sé! Climbing the north face of enigma with just runners and a tracksuit on. If the silence doesn't kill you the fog of rumour and legend will lead you off course.
The first of many good-humoured calls from base camp.
"What'll it be about?" the man says.
"You." There's no point in lying to the man. The interview won't be about Iraq.
"Ah. I never speak about me."
"Oh. Iraq?" Another call.
"So, my man, what is it you want to talk about?"
"Eh. You?" He knows well what we're at.
"Ah, perhaps we'll do a little peesheeen on who we think will win the championship. Okay?"
Many calls later. Setting off from base camp. Call to Jack O'Connor. Darragh Ó Sé? Interview? SOS? Advice? More Kerry good humour. "You'll be some man if you get anything out of that fella," says Jack, "ask him if he's going to break Pat O'Shea's carraigs the way he nearly broke mine!" Hmmm. Thanks.
Fast-forward to a livingroom in a handsome house at the end of a row of handsome houses just outside Tralee. Books on the shelf. DVDs by the large screen. Kerry's last functioning icon lifts his baseball cap and runs his hand through his hair. The question of Jack O'Connor's carraigs is thrown in the air. And fielded.
Darragh Ó Sé laughs loudly.
"I came close all right to breaking Jack's! Close! Pat? We'll see! We'll have a go!" The Kerry manager's job should come with a wrought iron codpiece as a perk.
One night recently, Pat O'Shea gathered the Kerry players together to serve warning of an imminent meeting, one of those earnest, heart-to-heart chats to which teams occasionally submit themselves in the hope of catharsis. The tyros nodded intently. The old lags caught each others' eyes and smiled.
During the Jack O'Connor years there had been a running gag in the Kerry camp as to who gave the manager most sleepless nights, the lads from Rathmore or the fellas from West Kerry. Darragh Ó Sé could contain the mirth no longer.
"We'd be better off holding the meeting over in the Star Bar in Rathmore, because that's where all the trouble starts!"
Same old Darragh. An eternal Kerry presence. He was there in Ogie's time. He soldiered with the uncle, the great Páidí. He rose again with Jack O'Connor. Now Pat O'Shea comes to teach the old dog new tricks.
Every Kerry manager needs to be mindful of Darragh Ó Sé's place in the Kerry imagination. He is not a huge dressingroom presence in the way that Séamus Moynihan was ("I don't think they'd listen to me!"), but on the pitch, when it needs digging out, he is incomparable. The sight of him trading robust wallops and fielding a ball on a summer's day stirs Kerry hearts.
"G'wan Darragh boy!"
He is old school in many ways. He finds it hard to buy into new stuff, new routines, new ways of winning. He believes in the transformative power of the green and gold jersey. Anything more connected to the appliance of science he is dubious about.
This spring, with Moynihan and Mike Mac gone to join the comrades who have shuffled out to the rest home, Ó Sé has shown no signs of wilting or weathering. He plays with that trademark passionate and zestful style, and lately has added a talent for shooting big scores.
Strange thing is that, until last season, we thought that the raging fire in his gut had been extinguished.
He feared so himself.
When he was small the family lived in Listowel. When Uncle Páidí got expelled from the Sem in Killarney he came to Listowel and lived with them.
"Can ya imagine minding him!" says Darragh. "He was some role model to have about the place!"
When he was five they moved home to Ard an Bhothair and school in Cill Mhic an Dómhnaigh.
At home still they speak Irish to their neighbours and friends. Darragh speaks to Páidí most days, but when they meet it would usually be in the company of other people. It would be bad manners, but the Irish breaks out now and again. Playing football they speak Irish.
They are a tight bunch. When Páidí was in charge there was this joke was going around Kerry that a lad had to be from the Gaeltacht to break into the Kerry panel. They we were coming down the stairs in the Burlington one morning of a big match, Darragh, Tomás and Marc, with Aodán MacGearáilt and Dara Ó Cinnéide riding shotgun.
Páidí in the lobby lets out a shout.
"Ah Jesus boys, will ye spread out a small bit at least? I'm under enough pressure."
Micheál Ó Sé played some football growing up, got to Kerry junior level, but when his day was done, it was done. He developed other interests. Páidí was always there though and his passion spread through the family.
"He had ways of doing things. Great focus. Very driven and self-motivated. You'd hear about the training he did on his own - well, we saw that first hand.
"He was very selfish about his preparation. Grandmother Beatrice had the whole house streamlined around him. Dad had a few cattle, and one day he had the vet out going testing the cattle. Páidí had a routine where he'd train in the morning and sleep in the afternoon, and then get ready for training. Ahead of his time. She came out and she asked the boys could they come back later on. Páidí was sleeping. Dad trying to get the cows in. That's how it was."
Darragh played under Páidí for West Kerry and the Kerry Under-21s before Páidí became senior manager. They talk virtually every day still.
"He's one of those people you meet, you look forward to their company. They put you in better form. I enjoy his mindset, his competitiveness. He's the ultimate competitor. If you are injured Páidí has no interest in you. Ass off the bench then you're buddies again. Anything in the way of being right for a game he'd railroad that. Side issues not conducive to an All-Ireland were shunted. To the point of being rude!"
Páidí knew also not to go to the well too often. His loves were Kerry, Kerry and Kerry, in that order. His nephews gave more to the club.
Back in 2002, by the end of that season, Darragh had endured a bellyful of it all. He was captain that summer, and at half-time in the All-Ireland final, with Kerry four points clear, he looked like being the Footballer of the Year as well.
The brothers had lost their father, Micheál, days before the Munster final replay, but as Kerry went off on the back roads playing better and better football we filled in the happy-ever-after part of a September ending.
They were beaten and he took it, but by the time the championship rolled around again he was hobbled by injury, the worst he's had. He could get through games on the treacherous ankle, but couldn't train hard, not in the summer. He hadn't trained at all, for instance, when he went in against Roscommon in the 2003 All-Ireland quarter-final. He won man of the match on auto pilot, but he knew he was waning. The timing was going. Tyrone devoured Kerry in the semi-final.
He needed to stop for two months but the carousel kept turning. Gaeltacht were in a county final. He had to play. They went on a bit of a canter through the competition then and he couldn't say no to playing while it lasted.
He was captain for Gaeltacht too that year, and the next March they lost the final to Caltra in Croker. "I was like a Jonah with a magpie as captain," he laughs.
By the time he was back in the intercounty dressingroom Jack O'Connor had arrived. They circled each other.
"Stuff I had done before I was struggling with. I came back with Jack in 2004 playing a few games. I wasn't enjoying it, I was playing poorly.
"Things had changed too. I wasn't going back in the car looking forward to next training. Football dominates the life. When you train at that level you are going home in the car and you constantly analyse yourself. I was analysing myself and it was never getting past, 'ah Jesus, I'm not playing well. Why am I doing this?' I wasn't playing well, not able to do things I wanted to do. Jack was saying 'Come on, keep going'."
He reckons he's been sent off twice playing for Kerry. Both times for hits on John Galvin of Limerick. 2004 and 2007. Back in 2004 he'd had a couple of quiet warnings that he was being watched by the masonry of referees, but, well, he didn't believe. Why would he? The previous winter Gaeltacht had played Senans of Clare in the Munster club final. Tight game, and as Gaeltacht pulled away Ó Sé hit his counterpart a big fair shoulder and put him out over the sideline, ball and all.
"In football that's a humiliation. You not only get put out over the sideline but you have to hand the ball back and give away possession. He took a swipe at me and grazed me. I fell but got back up."
John Geaney, the referee, was in quickly, patting his pockets for a card. The game was virtually over. Darragh Ó Sé said, "Leave him be ref, it wasn't anything. The game's over." And Geaney duly left the red in his pocket. "That'll stand to you," he said.
So Darragh Ó Sé couldn't help noticing a few months later when Jack O'Connor warned him to keep is nose clean that John Geaney was down for refereeing the league semi-final with Limerick. The game had an ugly undercurrent from the start, and on 30 minutes Ó Sé caught Galvin with a high shoulder.
Red! Geaney dealt it straight. Bah!
"I should have known myself. I didn't even get value for it that day getting sent off against him. I got value the last day though!"
"Would you say you're a dirty player, Darragh?" you ask him.
"Sure, you know I'm not," he says laughing. "Seriously. I'm hard, but I take the lumps. I get battered."
Things were different now in the Kerry camp. O'Connor was meticulous and cerebral. Páidí was more intuitive and passionate. The dressingroom was a quieter place to be.
"I found it hard to buy into Jack alright. There were things that I didn't think Jack was doing right. There were things that I didn't think Páidí was doing right either, but we had him at under-21 and we'd had Ogie as a manager. I was used to them, and when you're at a younger stage it was okay.
"There was silly stuff. I thought some of the training stuff was silly, but that was me more than anyone else. Everyone else thought it was grand, so obviously I was more the problem. Some fellas had problems but they wouldn't say!
"That said, what we were doing stood us well, but things were bugging me. I thought the way the Páidí thing was handled was bad. I wasn't silly, I knew they had to do something about it, but I was a bit pissed off. It was badly handled.
"Páidí didn't do himself any favours either.
"Then, as regards training. It was new. We weren't doing the heavy running that I felt was necessary. My fitness needed to be somewhere else. I was going on what it took me to get fit.
"To be fair to Pat Flanagan, his record stands up on its own. He said three years ago that we would peak in 2006. To be fair, we did. It was me being wrong again!
"Older players find it hard to get involved in new set-ups."
He was down. Kerry needed him up. The motivational phone calls began coming. Pat Flanagan. Ger O'Keeffe. Little gee ups. He hates that stuff.
He has his guys for that. Ó Cinnéide. Maurice Fitz. Páidí. Jack O'Shea. Darragh rang Jack O'Connor, exasperated.
"Hi. Listen Jack. Drop me now or do something. But call off the dogs!"
Páidí could erase a bad day with a click of his finger. Black magic. Darragh remembers driving into training one night. There was a lady coming in the gate and - slap, he knocked her down. Broke her leg. Gave her a fright. Gave himself one too. The ambulance and the doctor came.
Finally, with nothing more he could do, he went out training. His head was all over the place.
"I wasn't playing well in this game of backs and forwards. This was 2002. Páidí stops it and he says there's fellas here and they have their heads up their arses and they're thinking about small things and side issues. They want to get inside and join the rest of us. They're on the outside looking in.
"I lost the plot. I said, to f*** with this fella now, and I steamed into the rest of it. Turned it around. Finished well. And glared over to him as if to say - now you f***er.
"He didn't notice. We get onto the dressingroom and he's making a huge joke of it. Go and pick some flowers for this poor one you knocked down Darragh!"
Bad days. They are landmarks as huge as the four All-Ireland medals he has. He'd be hard pressed to choose the worst. The club final of 2004 hurt badly. Gaeltacht were poor. Caltra were exceptional. Darragh Ó Sé played poorly.
That stung a bit.
"It was always going to be hard. It was very personal. Everyone was involved. It was local. That was disappointing. You get philosophical in football. You say, how did we lose that? Take out the positives. Work on the negatives. There probably wasn't going to be another chance with Gaeltacht though."
It was a defeat which came at the last of a demoralising series which for Ó Sé was punctuated by injury and personal grief. It hurt most, though, because with Kerry he always expects there will be more. In Kerry, famine is just a lull between courses. For the Gaeltacht club this was the end of the line.
Worst day though. Yeah, he knows. That bewildering humiliation to Meath in 2001 started the rot. Losing to Tyrone in 2003 was intensely traumatic in Kerry. But that final of 2002, when everything got snatched away in the last 30 minutes of the season stands out. Darragh Ó Sé felt his karma was turning.
"On the morning of the game I didn't feel right. I had a bug. Didn't feel myself. I rang home. I never said it. Páidí commented on it. I rang home and said to the mother that I didn't feel myself. At all. That night I just went to bed early. Didn't sleep that well. I've been on both sides of the fence.
"Yeah. I suppose I lost more that year," he says. "Dad going. The football. Then Mom came up for the final. She never goes to games.
"You put it in perspective though. At the end of the day you wouldn't tie up the two. We didn't. We played football, and the family was personal and private. Afterwards we said, 'Wasn't that a shit year. That was some f***ing kicking.
"And for my next trick!"
He was stuck. Rutted. Jack O'Connor was inventive and concerned, but the first two years they were stags butting in the glen.
"There was overkill. Ask me what Jack did differently? Well, Páidí would trade a lot on passion. I was passionate about playing and the green and gold and Kerry. I believe in it. If you get a run on a team and they see it's Kerry it just increases the dosage a bit. With Páidí, while it was very effective maybe only eight or nine of us would buy into that. I suppose Páidí left a few players in his wake. He had great ideas and was very thoughtful about it. Jack came on. The change helped players in that regard. Jack's dressingroom was very dead, very meticulous. No big gee up. Séamus (Moynihan) would say a few words. No big talk, but a lot of work going on, things building for weeks and weeks and weeks."
Within the machine Darragh Ó Sé's role had changed too. Páidí believed in kicking it out to Darragh. That was the way. Kick the ball to Darragh, and if that wasn't working - if it most definitely was not working that is - try Plan B. Jack O'Connor felt that Plans A, B and C could run concurrently.
"That was tough. Before it was different, everything came through me. I was thinking, was it that I was becoming more peripheral?
"You'd have your way of playing and your way of assessing yourself, and now Jack was saying less is more. I found that hard. If you're told to do less it's hard not to feel less important. It was like the Cold War for a while. We had a couple of meetings. Jack would have been an easy rise. It wasn't hard to get him going. I'd do it in team meetings just to annoy him. 'Why don't we just kick it to me Jack!' It was funny."
They tried everything. Stern face-to-face meetings in the Bianconi in Killorglin. Bonding exercises. One day, as a team they rowed up a lake in Killarney and then set off on a hike through the Black Valley. When the rowing was done Darragh Ó Sé and a brother had a car pick them up. Home! "I'm not against bonding, but, Jesus, have a night out! Sometimes I thought there was a hidden camera."
The team were working with and benefiting from Declan Coyle, whose motivational work with Down had caught Jack O'Connor's eye. Darragh Ó Sé, though, he will do anything for Kerry, but he won't do that!
"Ah no!" he says. "I thought that was a farce. I felt Jack had good ideas. If you're leading, well then lead. People like to be led. They like to see someone go the right direction. If they lead you over the ditch, you'll follow. Bang, let's crack on. You don't want to see the fella leading you bring in a sports psychologist. I know Declan is good and there's nothing personal in it."
Another story. Kerry are having a group session which includes Coyle, who, says Darragh, is "like a dog with a bone" when it comes to getting inside fellas' heads.
The session breaks. Players are heading down the road to get some sweets and drinks in the interval. Lifts are offered. Ó Sé sits into the car with Coyle. Awkward silence is broken by Coyle.
"How are you feeling, Darragh?" More silence.
"Well," says Darragh, "Go on there now Declan and get me down to the shop and I'll be feeling grand. How do I feel? Will you stop!"
But players used Coyle and benefited. No one knew exactly who was going. At least those who were going weren't telling Ó Sé. One night it slipped out that Séamus (Moynihan) and Dara (Ó Cinnéide) had seen Coyle about an issue. Ó Sé made hay with his two friends.
Still. His timing was going and his appetite was leaving with it. Ger O'Keeffe got on the case.
"Ger rings me and says we'll go for a chat. I was struggling with the form. Not playing well was an issue for me. I was doing average, but not well. Ger decided to sort it. We went up to a pitch near here. Now, on the best day he had as a player Ger couldn't kick the ball. He was a fine athlete and very quick, and now Ger says, 'We'll go up and I'll kick a few balls to you, Darragh and we'll get the timing right'. I said to myself, how do I get out of this! Couldn't!"
A big pitch at a busy road. It occurs to Ó Sé, this being Kerry, anyone who sees any action will pull in for a gawk. He suggests they go to the far end of the pitch.
"I was just hoping some hoor looking in wouldn't know what was going on or who it was. Ger was kicking the ball out. If I stood here he'd send it over there. Put this into my frustration over my own game and the worry that some fella would see me killing myself trying to get to these balls. I don't know what was the worst. I says, 'Ger, this isn't working at all'. Ger is indefatigable. 'I'll try a few drop kicks so', says Ger. Aw!
"Well, it improved my fitness. I caught one at last. That was my chance. 'I'll take a breather now, Ger. I can really feel the timing coming, thanks!' "
Fate put him right in the end. Late in the 2004 season he broke his metatarsal and couldn't touch a ball for months. Even when he came back the muscle had wasted. It took the bones of six months to be right, longer to be happy.
The break was what he needed.
"Late in 2005 I started coming again. I was just building up a head of steam from the All-Ireland final. I was rearing to go in 2006. I was hungry. I had a good season, I thought.
"I ended with a fourth All-Ireland medal, a close call on the Player of the Year vote, solid friendship with Jack O'Connor and a hunger for more.
"When it ended I realised the appetite is still there. I'm going to stay. We've had long years and the appetite will go in the end. I'm in the engine room and you don't last that long out there, but if you don't want to go and nobody's asking you to leave you might as well stay!"
Four All-Ireland medals. The wrong side of 30. A burgeoning auctioneering business in Tralee and a new wife, Amy (from Ventry). Why go on?
The old buddies are gone. He remembers the days when he and his best friend, Dara Ó Cinnéide, were breaking through at underage and had to make their way to games from west Kerry by hook or crook. He laughs at Liam Hassett pulling the piss from Páidí about talking to the media: "Tell them we'll win by six or seven, say it Páidí". The steel behind the velvet of Maurice Fitz. And so on.
"I miss them. It's like meeting a fella three times a week, four times, for 13 or 14 years. Holidays with them. Trips. Then they are gone. Hi, listen.
"You crack on, though. There'll be somebody else there. Séamus is gone now. I missed the Dublin game in the league. We had the best midfield performance of the year. You wouldn't want to get sentimental about yourself! They won't be retiring the jersey. It's there for the next fella."
He wonders was he hard to manage, if the Ó Sés of Ventry are such a tough prospect for a manager, really.
"We'd be sticky," he muses. "We would be, I suppose. I'd like to think we'd be honest, though. In effort and attitude. We wouldn't miss training. We are disciplined. Yeah, the odd night out. That's common. We enjoy it. As regards hard to manage, we'd be stubborn in our own way. We'd be very conscious of getting our own game right. We wouldn't like to be seen to leave the side down in any way."
Three brothers and a couple of friends. They make a large and confident group within a team of players.
"We wouldn't intend to be cliquish. We'd mix very well. But I can see how that would be. We travel to games together. We socialise together. We'd speak Irish on the field. I don't know! That's somebody else's call. We get on well."
Another summer looms. Another championship. A new manager reaching for the codpiece.
"It's hard to change. I was sceptical about Pat Flanagan and Pat was proved right. Now I have to start again. You have to trust somebody before you buy into it. Trust was built up before with Jack. We start off again now and there'll be dips and hollows. You see new things and you say, 'What the f*** is going on here? He's making eejits of us. If anyone sees us at this crack' . . . "
But summer is his time. The hunger is still there and in Kerry, as he says, medals are currency. Five beats four. The last round-up? He's not sure.
"I'll see how the year pans out. I'll know when it is time. I enjoy the training, meeting the lads. I'll pick my own time to go, and, sure, everyone will be glad to see the back of me!"