Cian O’Sullivan celebrates Dublin’s All Ireland win with Burger King and the joys of the banal
Heroes on Sunday, feted by the city on Monday, back to work on Thursday
Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan In the thick of the action against Seamus O’Shea and Aidan O’Shea of Mayo in the All-Ireland final in Croke Park. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
The final whistle is a pebble in a pond. From 5.05 last Sunday onwards, everything was a ripple spreading wider and wider.
Cian O’Sullivan’s first instinct was to grab the nearest Dublin jersey in a hug but all of that only lasted an eyeblink. The evening belonged to function and family, the Monday to Merrion Square and a city folding in on itself. Nice and all that but odd too. Hard not to feel like guests at other people’s parties.
Tuesday was theirs, for them alone. The ripples had calmed by then and the world went back about itself without them. They holed up in the Merry Ploughboy in Rathfarnham and let what they’d done wash around them. They talked nonsense and laughed their eyes wet, thrummed their fingers to the live trad broiling away in the background. When they look back, it will be the Tuesday after that chimes with the 2013 champions.
“Everyone has an idea of what it’s about,” says O’Sullivan. “But it’s only those guys that you’ve spent the last 12 months with who really know what you’ve gone through. They’re the only ones who get the sacrifices you’ve made and the impact it’s had on your family life, your social life, your working life.
“It’s heartbreaking for those other teams who don’t get to have the day that we did on Tuesday. You’re not going to win an All-Ireland every year but even though you know that, you still question whether it’s worth it when you don’t get across the line. That’s why you have to enjoy it.”
The game itself went by in a cymbal crash, as finals tend to. The physicality was brutal, the speed relentless. The little seam of blue that runs through O’Sullivan’s top lip is the legacy of a collision with Aidan O’Shea during the first half. “Totally accidental,” he says. “I stupidly tried to hit him a shoulder and caught his elbow. Last time I do that.”
A few stitches makes him one of the luckier ones. His Kilmacud Crokes team-mate Paul Mannion will miss most of the club championship with the hamstring tear that ended his day early in the first half. Eoghan O’Gara and Rory O’Carroll saw out the game while clearly unfit for purpose.
Yet while it was obvious to most in the stadium that Dublin were playing with 13 men long before the end, the frenzy on the pitch meant not everybody got the memo.
“I had no idea it was that bad,” he says. “Denis Bastick came over to me at one stage and said, ‘Don’t kick the ball in to O’Gara – he has a torn hamstring.’ And I was going, ‘Oh, so that’s why he didn’t go for the last one.’ Because there was a ball that went in his direction just before and he was about 10 metres off his man and I was thinking, ‘Jesus O’Gara, will you go for the ball!’ But that explained that one.
Bang on the head
“And then I saw Paul Flynn back in the full-back line at one stage but I didn’t know why. It was because Rory had got the bang on the head but I had no idea he was that bad. You don’t have time to work these things out. You just go and play what’s in front of you. You try to pass messages around but it’s all so frantic.”
By the end he was back shoring up the defence, not for the first time this year. A fixture in midfield ever since Denis Bastick’s red card in the O’Byrne Cup final back in January, O’Sullivan’s summer had been ticking along quite agreeably around the middle until half-time came in the semi-final against Kerry. At which point, quite out of the blue, they told him he was to pick up Colm Cooper in the second half.
“I was actually really enjoying the first half against Kerry even though we were losing. I was getting on a bit of ball and got forward for a couple of attacks as well. Then to be told to go back and basically stick to this chap as best you can – I was thinking, ‘Oh no!’ He’s probably the best footballer in the country and he was playing out of his skin.
“I watched that game afterwards and even though I was there suffering some of the things he did, I could still enjoy it. The pass for the first goal, it was myself and Ger [Brennan] that were in front of him. And I remember thinking at the time, ‘We’e got him here. He won’t be able to go anywhere.’ In hindsight, one of us should have made an attempt to block his pass but both of us thought that there was no way he could get it through the two of us. That was just phenomenal.”
That Cooper had nothing like the same influence on the second half was partly due to how the game evolved but O’Sullivan can take a measure of satisfaction out of it as well. Especially since the build-up to that game made for the most fraught week of his year.
A trainee tax accountant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he’d spent the summer on study leave to prepare for his final exams. The first of which started on the Tuesday morning after the semi-final.
“It was actually a welcome distraction for most of the summer, right up until the week before the exams because that was the week of the Kerry game. Trying to juggle the two was tough. Just mentally, trying to get focused on the game when you have the exams hanging over you is very tricky. I think I did okay.
“I got through the game okay. I do remember thinking though at one point in the second half when Kerry were a few points up, I caught myself thinking on the pitch that if we lost this game I was going to have my exams first thing Tuesday morning. I was going, ‘What the hell am I going to do with myself?’ You’ll fairly go for the next ball, I’ll tell you that much.”
How he was handled the week of those exams says plenty for Jim Gavin’s coaching philosophy. Despite having played in the second semi-final, despite already having a week less than Mayo to get ready, O’Sullivan was excused for the week. Not so much excused, in fact, as banished.
“It’s not just a buzzword with Jim,” he says. “He is genuinely player-centred. He always preaches looking after the person first and the player second. They had no problem with me missing training that week. Now it was only recovery for the first couple of days and a pitch session on the Thursday and a few meetings as well.
“But I was told to take the week off and come back when the exams were over. No questions asked. And you need that because otherwise if nobody says it to you, you’re obviously going to put yourself under pressure to be there. I wouldn’t have taken that week off myself. I’d have found a bit of time here and there to go to one of the sessions.
Two weeks from final
“You’re two weeks out from an All-Ireland final and you don’t want to be missing anything. So for me, definitely, I would have needed to be told that I wasn’t to be coming to training. And that’s the way it was. It wasn’t, ‘Well, see how you go and if you can make it you can make it.’ It was, ‘Away you go and you’re not to come back until the exams are over’.”
In the end, it washed out with them lining the steps of the Hogan Stand. A week later, it’s all snapshots. Bernard Brogan told him that in 2011 his greatest regret was that as soon as he left the pitch he was nabbed for a drugs test and missed out on the celebrations so this time he was staying on the grass as long as possible. O’Sullivan did the same.
He went back to work on Thursday morning but they let him go home at lunchtime so when he finished up with The Irish Times, he was half at a loss as to what to do with himself. For the first time in 12 months, he had nowhere to be, no schedule to meet, no dietary requirement to meet, no nothing. There’d already had a couple of trips to Burger King since Sunday and he couldn’t promise there wouldn’t be a few more.
“My phone broke in the celebrations,” he said. “I must get it fixed.”
The joys of the banal. After a summer that was anything but.