*This article was originally published on July 10th, 2014, in the aftermath of Kerry’s annihilation of Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Declan O’Sullivan would go on to win his fifth All Ireland title that September.
In Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday Declan O’Sullivan gave an exhibition of the skills which have been evident throughout his time with the Kerry senior team. Alongside Paul Galvin and Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper, O’Sullivan has been a mainstay in the Kerry forward line for the past decade. Numerous talented forwards have come and gone, but these three have wholly shaped Kerry’s attacking play in this period.
In the absence of his two counterparts, O’Sullivan was impervious. He has played at full forward, centre forward and wing forward for Kerry, yet took up a deeper lying role against Cork. He managed to combine Galvin’s job of scrapping for breaks and taking on the ball from deep with the Gooch’s playmaker role of 2013.
His kick-passing possessed the finesse we associate with Cooper, with James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney providing him with two dynamic targets. His work rate was unrelenting, a feature of his game which has been a constant.
It has long been clear to followers of football that O’Sullivan possesses a talent matched by only a select few. In his distinguished career he has delivered in this manner for Kerry countless times. For whatever reason, the man from Dromid has been lauded comparatively rarely in the way Galvin and especially Cooper have.
He has no Player of the Year award. You won’t see his face on many adverts. What will be the legacy of this man who has almost done it all?
O’Sullivan hails from South Kerry, a place which has played as large a part as any in footballing tradition. The South-West tip of the Iveragh Peninsula has given the game three players who could be placed in any all-time top ten.
Mick O’Connell and Jack O’Shea were forces of nature upon the field and Maurice Fitzgerald’s particular skills are unmatched; his final minute point from the sideline in Thurles in 2001, often cited as the greatest score that has ever been seen.
Declan holds an esteemed position alongside these giants in South Kerry, yet elsewhere in Ireland few would claim that he deserves a place among the true greats, unlike his counterpart, the Gooch.
It seems ludicrous to argue that O’Sullivan has, in some way, not fulfilled his footballing potential. In the 11 years since his elevation to the Kerry team, he has won more than most footballers outside of Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin combined. The captain of Kerry before his 21st birthday; he led his county to successive All-Ireland successes, one of only eight men to lift Sam Maguire twice, and the first since Tony Hanahoe in 1977.
He has won seven Munster titles, four All-Irelands and three consecutive All-Stars in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009. This accumulate roll of honour however, also poses the question as to why O’Sullivan isn’t seen as a man apart. It is odd that a player who was a crucial part of, and leader in, one of the most successful teams of all time isn’t held in the absolute highest regard.
O’Sullivan was long destined for greatness in Kerry, with his battle with Michael Meehan in the 2002 Hogan Cup semi-final being written into footballing history. It took two games, with both going to extra-time, for a single point to separate Meehan’s St. Jarlath’s of Tuam from O’Sullivan’s Jack O’Connor managed, Coláiste na Sceilge, with Jarlath’s proving triumphant.
The games have been referred to as amongst the greatest ever with O’Connor lauding the fact that of 40 scores in the drawn game, 37 came from play. O’Sullivan managed seven points over the two games, with a hamstring injury curtailing him slightly in the replay. In what has been a similar theme throughout his inter-county career, it was O’Sullivan’s general play and not a feat of totemic scoring which set him on a different plain.
He has always shown an innate ability to manipulate space and create scores for others with ease, as evidenced by his sumptuous handpass to Donnacha Walsh on Sunday, which took three Cork players out of the game, leaving Walsh with a simple point.
It was in the aftermath of these games and successive Corn Uí Mhuirí successes that Páidí Ó Sé spoke of O’Sullivan as a “piece of gold” coming through the ranks in Kerry. O’Connor succeeded Páidí, tasting almost immediate success with his clubmate O’Sullivan playing a strong role. In 2006, with South Kerry the county champions, O’Sullivan captained the O’Connor led team to the Sam Maguire.
The 2006 victory was far from straightforward for O’Sulliivan, however, with his place increasingly coming under threat. He was booed by Kerry supporters when withdrawn in the Munster final and didn’t start again until the All-Ireland in September.
There were rumblings of discontent outside the Kerry camp regarding his recall, which O’Sullivan answered emphatically, scoring 1-2 as the Kerry attack dismantled Mayo with ease. He lifted Sam along with Colm Cooper who had assumed the captaincy in his absence throughout the year.
He would hit his richest vein of form in the next few years, winning two All-Irelands, the consecutive All-Stars. Despite numerous stand-out performances, he does not occupy the space in GAA folklore, which his contemporary Cooper does. Neither does he occupy the space in GAA folklore, which would be expected of a man with so many accolades to his name.
Declan O’Sullivan’s style does not place him at the obvious centre of a game. While skills and scores occupy our thoughts, he often played and created the space in which this magic happened. While Cooper shoots the lights out and Galvin inevitably finds himself at the centre of flashpoints, O’Sullivan goes about his work relatively quietly.
His ability to carry the ball into attack with purpose is perhaps matched only by Diarmuid Connolly in the modern era. This skill is vital in a winning Kerry team. When the team is being over-run, however, as in the 2005 final against Tyrone, O’Sullivan could find himself running up blind alleys.
There was a time when Declan O’Sullivan looked like the best emerging talent in the country alongside Colm Cooper. It has been Cooper who has had far and away the most influence upon Kerry in the past decade and it is telling that, in his absence, it is not O’Sullivan who is expected to fill the vast void he leaves behind.
On the Second Captains podcast, former Kerry midfielder Mícheál Quirke spoke of the need for James O’Donoghue to lead the attack in Cooper’s absence, and not the veteran O’Sullivan. It was plain to see that Quirke did not consider O’Sullivan as the man for Kerry to pin their hopes and dreams upon. O’Donoghue certainly filled the void in terms of scoring, simply expanding upon the role he played last year.
O’Sullivan has often contributed with important scores for Kerry, but has rarely led the way on the scoring charts. He has been accused of inconsistency in his performances, and it is possible that playing in the shadow of Cooper has seen him being under-rated.
His performance in this year’s Munster final may have hinted at a successful summer to come. As abysmal as Cork’s performance was, Kerry’s attack would have proved a handful for any team, with O’Sullivan opening the door for his younger teammates.
Written off at the beginning of the summer, Kerry are now two victories from an All-Ireland final. In Cooper’s absence, will O’Sullivan be able to lead his team all the way into September? If he does, will he even get the acclaim he deserves?
Eoin Halllissey, Pundit Arena.