Gaelic football: Farewell to a legend of the game

Sixteen championship seasons, six All-Ireland medals, four National League titles and three All-Star selections. No wonder the Irish sporting public is in mourning. Gaelic football has lost one of its greats.

Darragh Ó Sé (pronounced O’Shea) made the announcement this week on the national Irish language radio station, Raidió na Gaeltachta, during an interview with his friend and former teammate, Dara Ó Cinnéide. It was time to give up inter-county football. The 34-year-old had represented County Kerry for the last time.

Ó Sé built a career around dogged determination and hard work. But he was no mere midfield donkey. He also played with grace and skill. While his kicking was regarded as outstanding, Ó Sé’s trademark, particularly in his early career, was his high fielding. His leap towards a high ball was described as “salmon-like”.  Perhaps the closest the AFL can come to producing a rival in recent times to Ó Sé’s combination of skill, strength, nous and character is Michael Voss. The former Brisbane Lions skipper won only three premierships, though.

Darragh Ó Sé’s decision to retire from inter-county football touched colleague, fan and observer alike. Supporters flooded internet forums to express their thanks, sadness and good wishes.

“I’m devastated,” one poster wrote on the Hogan Stand forum. “Going to see Kerry play just won’t be the same without him there. One of the greatest players of all time. A FECKING LEGEND.”

“Summers won’t be the same,” blogged another fan on County Kerry’s website. “I knew this was coming but I still feel like I’ve been hit with a sledge hammer.”

Journalists and former players were keen to rank Ó Sé alongside two other greats of County Kerry midfields past – Jack O’Shea and Mick O’Connell. The former County Armagh midfielder, Paul McGrane, tackled Ó Sé over many years and described him as “the heartbeat of Kerry for so long”. Ireland’s International Rules coach, Sean Boylan, said Ó Sé was an extraordinary presence on the field.

“When the history is written of the game there is no doubt he will be included as one of the greats,” Boylan said.

An Irish Times journalist, Tom Humphries, wrote that Ó Sé achieved much despite his smaller-than-average size and the attritional nature of the modern game.

“He achieved it while appearing to whistle a happy tune as he worked,” Humphries reflected. “There was always time to smell the roses and have the fun… [He] took the lumps, gave the lumps and walks away with an All-Ireland medal still warm in his pocket.”

His last inter-county coach, Jack O’Connor, reckoned Ó Sé was a “once-in-a-generation player”.

“Mentally he was very strong, nothing fazed him and I think that’s an attribute that younger fellows who want to step into his boots now must copy,” he said.

Finding someone to fill those enormous shoes will be one of O’Connor’s primary tasks in 2010. Ó Sé is the fourth member of last year’s All-Ireland winning team – after the goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy, Tadhg Kennelly and Tommy Walsh – to leave the county panel for this season. The influential centre-half back, Mick McCarthy, is another whose future is in doubt. County Kerry, while severely under strength, has lost the opening two games of its National League campaign, which acts as a prelude to the All-Ireland championship. The team’s evolution will be keenly watched through the northern summer.

Ó Sé is a real estate agent based in Tralee, in south-west Ireland, and in interviews he comes across as a thoughtful man with a wry sense of humour. I saw him play live just the once, when the underdogs from County Antrim almost managed to overrun County Kerry in the early stages of last year’s All-Ireland championship, and he was industrious without being threatening. The following match, against Dublin in the quarter-finals at Croke Park, Ó Sé turned in a brilliant performance that crushed the Dubs’ hopes and helped set the Kingdom on the path to a fifth All-Ireland title for the decade.

And while he was regarded as an “old-school warrior” who collected trophies for fun, he was clearly a footballer with an eye for skill and beauty. When asked about his fondest memories from his 16-year career, he spoke about one of the rare seasons in the last decade when Kerry didn’t win the All-Ireland championship.

“The best year I think was 2002 when we reached the All-Ireland but lost out by a point to Armagh, if I remember correctly,” Ó Sé told Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE. “We played a type of football that year, what you might call a ‘Kerry way’ of playing – fast ball, very sweet to watch. I’ll always remember the style of football we played that year – despite not winning the final.”

Comments

  1. pauldaffey says:

    Peter,

    That last point is very revealing. O Se won six All-Ireland medals but the season he remembers most fondly is the one where Kerry played the most flowing football. I can’t imagine that happening here, which we are so focused on results.

    In the old days (a decade ago), Kerrymen who had left the Kingdom to live in Dublin or London or wherever would return to Kerry in their summer holidays and drive around to all the pubs that were owned by former Kerry football greats.

    I notice that O Se has a proper job in Tralee. Do you think he’ll buy a pub?

    Love the story, by the way.

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