After finally lifting the senior county, Éamonn Murphy sat down with Paudie O’Sullivan to talk about the highs and lows of his career and why life has never been better...
FOR Paudie O’Sullivan it was always about the simple joy of the game.
Before there was an expectation on his shoulders and trophies to be pursued, before the injuries and the ups and downs of life as a Cork hurler, there was hurling. Just hurling.
The feel of the camán in his hands and the purity of a clean strike of the sliotar. The sight of the ball soaring over the bar or, even better, whizzing into the net. The touches, the flicks and the tricks; finding new ways to control or release possession.
It was that way from the start. He came up through the school of hard knocks in his front garden in Cloyne. With hurling obsessed parents, four older brothers, a sister and an extended clan, there was no hiding place in Páirc Uí Shúilleabháin.
Coming from a small club and being so prodigious Paudie always played about four ages up. U16 at 12, U21 before he turned 15, a senior county final a couple of weeks shy of his 16th birthday. It wouldn’t be allowed now – players must be turning 18 the year they play senior – but he more than held his own.
“At the time it was just nick a goal or a point and stay out of the way! We’d a tough team then, a good team.
“There were more fellas to mind than me, you’d Colm (his brother), Philip Cahill, Maurice (Cahill), Conor Cusack and Victor Cusack. Diarmuid (O’Sullivan) was in the backs usually.
“In matches it was nothing worse than I’d get at training. You’d start on Deccie Motherway and I could end up in the corner on Eoin and he wasn’t going to be having his brother stick a couple of goals off him!
“The big difference now is that if you put a ball wide, where before you’d just jog into position, now you’d have two fellas hopping off and roaring at you.
“It’s really come in the last two years. That sledging. Is it from football? I don’t know.
“I never understood it from a back’s point of view because he could win the first nine balls and on the 10th the forward is gone and it’s in the back of the net. Then suddenly the back is looking over his shoulder to the line.”
There were plenty of defenders in that exact scenario this season. Imokilly were unlikely county champions this year with O’Sullivan spearheading their attack. His point, falling, pinged off the hurley, to win the quarter-final replay against Erin’s Own was the score of the season. O’Sullivan and Harnedy combined for 7-40 from play between them in seven games.
He couldn’t hop in Doc Brown’s DeLorean to dial it back to the mid-noughties – his cruciate injury and broken leg have no doubt robbed him of a yard of pace – but the instinctive brilliance remains.
It was there in Imokilly’s semi-final replay win over Sars when he pulled off a ‘no look’ touch, stopping as if to drag the sliotar inside his marker but instead pushing it a couple of yards towards the sideline to set up a chance for midfielder Mark O’Keeffe.
With a November birthday he’d lost three county finals by the time he turned 18. And when Cloyne’s days as challengers ended they were relegated from senior.
“It doesn’t make up for it but the medal will still look the same in 20 years. I can still write down county champion on my CV.
“It would have unbelievable to have won with Cloyne because we’re from such a small place but we achieved so much. We beat Newtown in two semi-finals, Munster champions in one of them and All-Ireland club champions in the other. We only lost to them once in three years but of course that was the final that everyone remembers. And Newtown was probably the best club team in the country for a few years.
It’s no exaggeration to say Paudie was one of best young hurlers in the country during his teens. He captained Midleton CBS, the last Cork school to win it, to the Harty Cup, and landed Munster minor titles.
He hurled at centre-back in CBS, after slotting in there for the Rice Cup in First Year at Eamonn O’Neill’s suggestion when they were stuck.
“I actually preferred playing centre-back. You decide where to move, how to get involved. You’re in control. In corner-forward especially you’re dependent on what’s coming your direction. You can be very restricted.”
He lifted the Harty in 2006 but they had enough talent to retain and couldn’t get past the group stages.
“Brian Lawton, Paudie O’Shea, Aggie Kearney from Midleton, Luke (O’Farrell), (Paul) Haughney… and we got knocked out by scoring difference.
“We were in the same group with Templemore, Noel McGrath’s team, and Waterford Colleges, in their first year. We were two points off qualifying and it was a sickener not to go on and defend it.”
At minor level in 2006 Cork were loaded with talent, including Patrick Horgan, Colm O’Neill, Rob White, Brian Corry and Adrian Mannix but left an All-Ireland semi-final behind them against Galway.
“We gave a stupid goal away to Joe Canning, but he got a free anytime we went near him. John O’Callaghan actually did a great job on Canning – I was surprised John didn’t get more of a look-in with the Cork seniors after – but those soft frees killed us. We still should have won. Awful.”
That year offered as many sporting lows as it did highs, but nothing compared to the nightmare of a lost season in 2007.
“I didn’t even know what a cruciate was,” admits O’Sullivan. “I’d never heard of anyone doing it. Shefflin did his after in the All-Ireland against Limerick and you’d Colm O’Neill of course, but when Tadhg O’Sullivan, who did the operation, told me about the cruciate I was wondering when I’d be back playing in 2007.
“I was doing my Leaving, still in school, and being so young I didn’t realise fully what it takes to get back from an injury like that. I thought I’d come back and carry on as if nothing happened. Your sharpness is gone and you’re down from scoring four or five points a game to a couple. It went from 2007 to 2010 before I knew it really.”
There’s no benefit from blaming anyone, but looking back he knows he should never have been involved in that league game on a damp February afternoon at Walsh Park. He’d only turned 18 three months earlier and was in his Leaving Cert. When Shane Kingston and Mark Coleman were fast-tracked into the Cork set-up in 2016 it was only for championship cameos.
“I know Gerald was looking to throw in a few new faces in his first year but really I should have been told go away and you’ll be involved in the summer, even if it was just to train with them and not play.
“Even that day in Waterford I thought I’d be just getting to know the lads and how it worked. Diarmuid (O’Sullivan) got cut and came off as a blood sub.
“I won a ball which was grand and then Diarmuid was back on. I thought ‘I’ll tell the lads that in school on Monday’, but I was told to keep warm to go back in properly. Two minutes later you’re going off the field on a stretcher at boggy Walsh Park.”
His comeback was anything but smooth, even if he ended up getting his first championship start in 2008 in a loss to Tipp when he formed a two-man full-forward line with Pa Cronin in a selection that was pretty much out of left field. He missed a penalty at Páirc Uí Chaoimh that day and dropped down the pecking order during a run through the qualifiers.
“I didn’t see the field again until the last five minutes against Kilkenny, when we were about 45 points down.”
If that was demoralising then the strike the following winter was unnerving. The players stood firm to oust Gerald McCarthy’s management team, which was stressful in itself for a rookie, but complicated by his father Jerry’s status as Cork chairman and his brother Diarmuid being a Rebel talisman.
“I didn’t want to be involved in it because of my family situation. If I’d my time back again I’d have sat it out and said: ‘I support my team-mates, I support my father but I need to be neutral’.
“I was new to the panel so I had to just sit there. The biggest problem was I was only back from the cruciate and I needed the hard months of winter training and we weren’t back until March.
“It meant I nearly had two years written off because in 2008 and 2009 I basically had five or six games. I wasn’t allowed play league or challenge games with the club so it wasn’t possible for me to find my form again.
“It set back Cork hurling for five years until Jimmy came. Now Denis Walsh did a good job too. I always got on well with Denis.
“We got a league final and should have won a Munster (in 2010). We kept drawing Tipp in the first round. I’d 1-2 got against Galway after five minutes (in 2011) and then we got hammered and we were out of championship before the Munster final was even played.”
With his confidence restored, the appointment of Jimmy Barry-Murphy couldn’t have been timed better. Seanie McGrath was there as a selector, offering good vibes but also an All-Star forward’s perspective. “A dream to play under as a forward.”
If you’re wondering what made JBM such an inspirational manager – the kind who “if he told you to run out to the corner flag you’d just do it and not think twice” – Paudie describes it as a mix of charisma and self-belief.
“It’s not that Jimmy wouldn’t give out to you, but you’d never want to pack your bags after it. He’d a way with words, to pick you up.
“He might spot you’d given a great pass to set up a goal chance or whatever. It’s hard to describe but he just had it. Some managers don’t have that knack and you spend too much of the time worrying.”
There was progress in 2012 and 2013 promised even more. O’Sullivan was moving well and had impressed as a playmaker at times from centre-forward during the league. Cork eventually made it to the All-Ireland but he hadn’t even got as far as the Munster opener in the Gaelic Grounds.
It was a season made for Paudie and all: unpredictable and high-scoring with moments of freestyle magic. Yet a freakish leg break lining out for Imokilly destroyed his summer and nearly cost him his hurling career.
If you’re squeamish, stop reading now. The initial injury was traumatic but the recovery was hellish.
“By July I felt I was making progress. Deccie (O’Sullivan, the Cork physio and now trainer) was thrilled. I was running up the steps at Páirc Uí Chaoimh and all.
“I’d one catch the whole time and I wanted to push through it thinking, ‘I’m feeling so strong, I could get a chance to come on in an All-Ireland yet’. I kept feeling that twinge and when I went back it turned out the fibula, the smaller bone at the back, hadn’t healed at all with a six-inch gap in the bone.
“The killer is that’s the easier one to heal. It should have knitted together in its own time in six weeks. It was no one’s fault but it meant it more surgery in November (2013) in Santry. All the muscle I’d built up in the leg was gone then again.
“I was brought up to Deccie and when he gave me knee a little tap I nearly kicked the head off him with my other leg. He took pictures of it, sent them to Dr Con and Eanna (Falvey, the Cloyne native who is a doctor for the IRFU). I got a call at half 11 that Tuesday night and Deccie told me I’d to be in Dublin the next morning again for surgery to slice the knee open and take the pin out, it had got badly infected.
“I’d 10 days up there on a drip to clear out the whole system. I’d six more weeks at home then with a drip up through my arm so I could put an antibiotic directly into the bloodstream.
“That was four times a day, half an hour each time to pump through the bloodstream and clear it out. I ended up spending two nights in the Mercy because I allergic to an antibiotic.”
Even as a die-hard Liverpool fan there’s only so much FIFA he could play from the couch before questioning his sanity. The 2014 league was a write-off, championship could have been as well.
He spent six weeks with Deccie O’Sullivan building up muscle. He got incredible support from family, friends and work colleagues in Stryker. He managed 10 minutes of a club game with Cloyne and a half of a challenge match against Wexford in Nowlan Park.
JBM saw enough to send him in during the Munster quarter-final replay against the Déise to a rousing reception from the Rebel faithful in Thurles. There was a hint of the American sports movie about it, he instantly clipped over a point.
“In that Waterford game Nash hit a puck-out to me that I didn’t see until late. Brick Walsh, who has never dropped a ball in his life, was out in front but ran straight over it and it fell to me. I just turned and hit it as quickly as I could.”
He did the same against Clare and struck for the crucial goal in the provincial final at sun-kissed Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It was a trademark low finish, the Blackrock Terrace was a red explosion in front of his eyes.
“The Munster final was special. At that stage a few months earlier I’d been told I might never play again, so to be putting the ball into the net in front of the Cork fans was something I’ll never forget.”
After watching the All-Ireland final replay against Clare knowing he could have contributed, the 2014 win over Limerick should have been the start of something great. But it never happened.
Tipp taught Cork a lesson in the All-Ireland semi-final and O’Sullivan never got a run in the team in 2015.
“I was only getting bits and pieces. Fair enough against Kilkenny in the first match I did nothing, got a point, but I was taken off and dropped for the next match and I couldn’t complain.
“I was thrown in against Galway in a gale-force wind up in Salthill and I got a couple of goals and thought I’d be back starting. I was on the bench against Tipp, a day we threw away a 12-point lead, but I still got a goal. I thought ‘right I’ve another goal scored they’ll have to start me’.”
He was cast in the role of super-sub, appearing in comebacks against Wexford and Dublin before a league final loss to Waterford.
“I was always coming on and getting more scores but what I needed was full games. For whatever reason that never happened. Don’t get me wrong it’s fine to be coming on and changing games, but that only works for so long. You get fed up with it. Jimmy always had a word, telling me I was doing great, but you can see the team taking shape without you.
“You’re playing club championship and everyone looking for you to score 2-8 and you could be being marked by Shane O’Neill, who is playing along with Cork while you’re making up the numbers at training. You get a point or two but your confidence is down.”
By the end of 2015 he was ready to call a halt but decided he’d answer the call of the new management, led by Kieran Kingston, with his brother Diarmuid as a selector, and, critically, Deccie O’Sullivan elevated to trainer. He was flying when January rolled around but he found himself the fall guy again in the league opener against Galway, starting but coming off before being dropped.
He could see the championship script already and even though he popped up with a goal off the bench against Tipp, Paudie was gone before the league was over.
“It was hard because it had been my life. You’re in the bubble of inter-county hurling and everything is geared to it. From November on towards September, if you’re lucky enough to make the All-Ireland, you’re eating a biscuit thinking ‘what if we’ve hard running tomorrow night at training?’
“After seven or eight years with little to show for it, you have to live. The thought of running around Mallow in January with the ground rock hard and doing press-ups in the mud… I know that’s part of it, but you need to see a reward.
“When you’re out the freedom you have is fantastic. I’m not a big drinker but it’s great to get a text on a Saturday afternoon from one of the lads, Liverpool are on the telly and you can go have two or three pints watching that.
“I can get a weekend away with herself if we’ve nothing on with Cloyne.”
He accepted an offer from west Cork native Ger McCarthy to head to San Francisco in the summer of 2016 along with Pa Cronin and Stephen Moylan, a trio of former Cork hurlers enjoying life away from the pressure cooker. The same day Cork lost to Wexford, he was in a taxi heading to Venice Beach in LA.
“We toured the west coast of America and had the best summer ever – outside of winning a Munster title – six weeks of sunshine in California. It harder for Pa and Shane O’Neill say, because if they were involved they’d have been starting championship. I’d have just been going in when Cork were five points down with five minutes to go.”
It’s only now he can fully appreciate how hard it was trying to live up to his reputation as a ‘Cork hurler’.
“There’s a freedom because you’re not worrying about what it means for Cork. You don’t have to think ‘he got 1-4 in his match last night so I need to get that now tonight for the club’. You’ve a challenge game down in Waterford and you can stop in the chipper on the way home. By the end of the season you’re after at least 20 games of hurling, proper games.
“There’s no one going to be saying ‘I saw Paudie O’Sullivan out there on Saturday night in Midleton’ and you’re getting a phone call. All because I was out for dinner with Denise. You’re obviously not drinking but you’re thinking the next time is it even worth the hassle of being sociable at all.”
The Monday we met in The Elm Tree in Glounthane, he was after winning an East Cork football league final with Cloyne and getting Man of the Match for Churchvilla in an AUL soccer win. A week earlier he’d great craic on his stag in Galway, which had been postponed because of his equaliser in the county semi-final against Sars.
He won a Rearden’s Club All-Star on Wednesday but couldn’t attend because last week he married Denise and they jetted off to South Africa for the honeymoon. They’ll be home for Christmas and he can keep tipping away with Churchvilla and a bit of a five-a-side – despite his strength, Paudie isn’t fan of the gym and likes to put the hurley away rather than winter in the alley.
He’ll return with Imokilly and Cloyne again as Fergal Condon’s side look to defend their SHC crown, which the division managed in 1998.
“I won’t say there’s no pressure, but at the same time if you lose there’s not the same fallout. You’re not spending half an hour beforehand going through tactics and spare men. Obviously there was man-marking and a few basic plans in place, but it was never over-complicated. It was about the 15 going on and hurling as hard as they could.
“Imokilly let you tip away and do your bit. It turned out that I scored more than ever and in the games I didn’t, others did. There’s a difference trying to win for Imokilly as opposed to: ‘win for Imokilly, do well for yourself, get on the Cork team’.
“You’re not in the situation where fellas are coming away saying ‘I saw Paudie O’Sullivan for Imokilly and he didn’t puck a ball’. They’re looking at what you scored in the paper on a Monday morning, not if you one won 20 balls and set up scores for your team. You don’t miss that!”
He doesn’t mind a tactical approach to hurling per se. He got a lot from a stint with CIT when they reached the Fitzgibbon Cup final in 2012, despite being pipped by UCC after extra time in the Mardyke.
“Pat Mulcahy was a very tactical manager, but as a forward he was ideal on one level because it was about working the ball up the field, like they did in Newtown, and guaranteeing the inside forwards decent possession at the end. There was no such thing as a blind half-back clearance, it was measured and the focus was on picking out the lad in the best position.”
Paudie, in keeping with how he hurls, loves to see players with personality, vision and guts. Ben O’Connor, Joe Deane and Eoin Kelly were his idols growing up.
“Eoin’s striking, free-taking, the over-the-shoulder shot when he’d be nearly horizontal hitting it. He had that style always.
“Ben was the best player I ever played with. Skill, team-play, cutting. He’d cut a fella in half as quick as he’d pop a ball to you.
“He was an established senior player but the team always came first. You were guaranteed to get the ball if you were in a better position. If he got no score and you got seven from his hand-passes he wouldn’t care. It was a dream to play with him and Jerry. I got on well with them off the field too.
“I never got to play with Joe as much because he left in 2008 but he was the king. Everything about him. The free-taking, the size, the cuteness. I think he’s nearly under-rated now because he retired early.
“The year they drew with Wexford in 2003 he got a goal the first day when the ball broke to his left hand. He ran to the diagonal and hit it left-handed back into the top corner.
“In the replay he got the ball in the exact same position, made his run to the corner, but pretended to hit it. The full-back tore right past him and he tucked back and finished it to the opposite bottom corner. Small stuff like that you watch as a forward. He knew his marker would expect the same and it was on a goalie as good as Damien Fitzhenry.”
These days he loves watching John and Noel McGrath, Bubbles O’Dwyer and Joe Canning.
“They’re so skilful but so unselfish too. They’re never in a hurry but no one ever seems to be catching up with them either.”
And that’ll do him just fine, being an inter-county spectator. There is no ambition to return to the fold with Cork. It’s all about the hurling now and that’s more than enough.