Tomás Ó Sé interview: Kerry legend opens up on punditry, the state of GAA and his London connection

Tomás Ó Sé interview: Kerry legend opens up on punditry, the state of GAA and his London connection

HE remembers being racked with nerves.

Tomás Ó Sé had gone through every possible play. ‘What would happen when?’ and ‘How would he react if?’

His preparation was thorough. He’d built his career on it. But if he performed badly the journey back from Dublin to his home in Cork would be lengthened by miles of self-interrogation.

He’d a habit of dwelling on poor performances. It would be just him in the car with frustration for company.

And he knew from experience there was no way to really know how he’d react in the big moments; when the big questions came.

The Sunday Game is very hard because it’s live TV,” he says. “It was very nerve-racking at the start because you’re on the spot.

“You can be talking things over in your head all day, so cool and then it comes out different. It is a performance. And if you perform properly you don’t have to be told like.

“You’d be pissed off in the car coming down after thinking you could have said this or I should have said that. You just have to get on with it.”

Ó Sé is sat in the upstairs lobby of the Grange Hotel in St Paul’s, central London. Relaxed, dressed in a blazer and with his hands cupped, he has been reinvented as a pundit.

Wandering about with the phone at his ear minutes ago, he now falls easily into conversation about London, neighbouring Fleet Street and family connections.

His late father was born here. His mother nursed here and he’s had top-ups in the form of fixtures down in Ruislip.

“My dad loved it. He loved London and had a lot of friends here,” he says. “On my grandmother’s side, she had three or four sisters that were living over here and two brothers. There was always an awful lot of our family here.

“I’ve a close affinity to London alright.”


Yet when asked is the anonymity the city offers appealing, his answer is something of a surprise. Because this is someone who’s style was to slip away for a pint on his own just hours after playing in an All-Ireland final.

Win or lose.

“It wouldn’t be that no,” he says. “Because I wouldn’t have been flocked [mobbed] at home. Not like other lads. It’s just so different here [and that’s the appeal].”

If the night before threw up a familiar beat, Tomás Ó Sé recognises the Kerry exiles who turned out to support the promotion of his autobiography – The White Heat – in Ruislip.

“You’d appreciate it in fairness,” he says. “Sure I heard there was an unbelievable crowd for Kissane’s funeral [the late Publican and London Kerry Association President Christy Kissane] a few weeks back? That Kilburn was brought to a standstill!

“I know his pub of course The Kingdom. He was a tough man, a great man. He lived a life I’d say. Probably had a few lives. A bit like Páidí [Ó Sé] that way.”

His uncle Páidí, the late great Kerry captain features heavily in his autobiography. But the transition from sporting field to live studio is just one interesting sub-plot.

Because during his career Tomás Ó Sé shut out the media.

“It wasn’t important to me. I didn’t see anything in it for me [in giving and interview]”.

However, since he retired from inter-county football he’s forged a reputation as a thoughtful columnist and an astute commentator.

The 17-years of experience accumulated at the highest level has acquitted him with deep insight. So is he encouraged by the arc the game is one now?

“I don’t know,” he says leaning forward. “I mean, how much more professional can it get and at the same time stay amateur?

“Look, I don’t think the game will ever go professional but teams will constantly look for an edge, will constantly push players to breaking point.

“I don’t think players will get the same enjoyment out of it as they used to. I know Joe Brolly says that a lot. I’m not saying they don’t enjoy it now but they were training two to three times a week when I started out. Now it’s a six day week.

“I was 35 when I retired. I don’t think you’ll see too many fellas going until 35 not if there is families involved.”

Tomás with the North London U14 Feile Squad in Ruislip Tomás with the North London U14 Feile Squad in Ruislip

The subject of enjoyment off the pitch occasionally stalked the career of the Ventry man. And despite their excellence, the Kerry team of his generation sometimes stood maverick-like against the culture of abstinence that can permeate teams.

“Yeah, well, we knew when we were playing that we trained harder than anyone and we let our hair down better than anyone as well,” he says.

“We used to work hard three weeks before the game and then we’d enjoy ourselves for a few days afterwards.

“Nowadays, I see inter-county players and they don’t touch a drop or go out and socialise from the minute they start the championship to the minute it’s over. I think it’s gone crazy the other side. Too much. There has to be a balance.

“You need to get away from the intensity of it and I think if you look at the Premier League players and the rugby lads – especially the rugby lads – after every game they have a knees up. They are still professional but you don’t have to be drinking as such. You can do whatever you want to do but some guys in Gaelic – it’s off the wall.”

Yet ironically he describes his investment in Kerry as fanatical and uses the word selfish. Is there room for word fun in the same conversation?

“I did enjoy it,” he says after a pause. “I guess more towards the end. At the start you were trying to solidify your position. As the years went on I grew to be more relaxed. I learned to enjoy the build-up to big games.

“I was able to park it to one side. To be able to concentrate, know when to focus, use that big game experience.”

Tomás with London Youth Chairman Tony Griffin and Gerry Rochford (London Kerry Person of the Year 2015) Tomás with London Youth Chairman Tony Griffin and Gerry Rochford (London Kerry Person of the Year 2015)

His deference to Kerry methodology was forged in part by his uncle Páidíi, fuelled by his brothers, Darragh and Marc and reaffirmed time and again by success.

Yet he reminds you that he lost five All-Ireland finals. Did he ever look beyond Kerry’s horizon for inspiration?

“I suppose Mickey Harte,” he says after taking a moment to think. “What he did above there especially like. There was no huge tradition before he came in.

“He worked with great players and kept it together to win three All-Irelands in a county that hadn’t been winning All-Irelands. I think that was possibly the best I’ve seen.

“Because the Dublins of this world and the Mayos, they had tradition whereas Tyrone didn’t.”

He says he was stung by Kerry’s defeat in the All-Ireland this year; that he didn’t see it coming. Not from his seat in the press box.

‘Did you let bias lead your opinion?

“I don’t think I did like.”

‘But it must be difficult to remove yourself from that Kerry team and look at it coldly?’

“It is, but I think I was even in my view all the way through. I’m not going to go about it like Spillane or Brolly where it was ridiculous to cut the legs of fellas and it’s stupid like – you can cut a fella in one sentence.

“‘He didn’t play well today and he’s going to be disappointed’ - that’s it. They are there as amateurs and I was there as a player, you take criticism and if a fella...”

‘But to not say it would be to patronise the viewers right?’

“You can say he didn’t play well; say that he won’t be happy with the game. You don’t have to get personal or nasty like.”

For Ó Sé these answers are obvious. They’re at the root of his ethos. More taxing is the question about life beyond football?

After 17-years, did he define himself as Tomas Ó Sé the footballer ahead of anything else? And if so what happens when football stops?

Is there a feeling of having to redefine? Of not quite feeling yourself?
“I suppose you are consumed by the whole thing for years and years and you are a selfish person while you are so it is difficult coming out of it then...

“It’s hard to get used to life without it as well like because you are there for 17-years and it takes up everything, so, I suppose Orla would answer that,” he smiles and nods in the direction of his partner sat nearby in a lobby beginning to buzz with energy.

It’s the kind of question he’d be left thinking about on the drive home from Dublin.