FRANK O’SULLIVAN was the manager of the Summerstown United U14s.
An electrician by trade, his van was our team bus. For away matches, a couple of us sat in the front while as many as could reasonably fit were stashed in the back, perched precariously in between shelves of fuses, plugs, wires and the other tools of his profession.
Every bump in the road was an adventure, but the conditions of the journey didn’t matter because Frankie Sull, as we called him, was the most generous, funny and warm character. We loved, especially, his live commentary during every match.
“Fair play to you Davey boy, me swan in the lough,” he shouted whenever I scored a goal.
The way he bellowed the most curious turns of phrase — “Dowtcha me daza, me flower!” — made us laugh and inspired us to greater heights.
Who wouldn’t want to do something on the pitch to elicit that response from the man on the sideline?
Every time we played we were all looking to impress him just to find out if he had any other curious colloquialisms in his arsenal.
There was only one morning I remember Frankie Sull being rendered more or less speechless. We had travelled to Whitechurch on the outskirts of the city to play a cup match against Rockmount, a team a division above us.
A team we knew only by reputation. And when they took the field that Saturday we discovered very quickly why they had a reputation.
Every side we played had a couple of star players, Rockmount had some of the best the city had ever seen.
Alan O’Sullivan had blonde hair and the type of floppy fringe that wouldn’t have been out of place on a member of ABC. He wasn’t bigger than us. He didn’t appear stronger. He just looked normal as he took his place wide on the left.
From the kick-off, Rockmount tipped and tapped it around then pushed the ball out to him. He collected it just inside his own half, very far from danger, and then he set off down the wing.
He dropped a shoulder and went past one of us. Then he did some sort of a thing with his feet to ghost past another. He wasn’t moving at great speed. He had that languid pace of somebody in complete control of the ball and their body, travelling just as fast as the task required him. No faster until the occasions demanded.
Our centre-halves, big, burly boys capable of inflicting pain if needs be, converged upon him. One stuck out a malicious leg a millisecond after he’d already passed by. The other saw this so he went to grab him with both hands and ended up with his fingers flailing in vain at the fabric of the jersey. O’Sullivan was moving along the edge of the box now, another defender hovering into view about to try and, inevitably, fail to check his progress.
Having done all this with the ball apparently glued to his left, he pulled back his right to shoot with venom. The ball cannoned off the crossbar with an impressive thud and then flew over as our goalkeeper watched on helpless. Stricken. Impressed.
I witnessed hundreds, maybe thousands of goals scored in the games that I played. But I remember that near miss with greater clarity than any of them. The whole movement was so balletic and beautiful. There was a certain grace about the way he rode tackles, evaded attempted assaults, and turned defenders inside out.
Years later, I read Paddy Crerand’s famous quote about George Best giving opponents a case of ‘twisted blood” and I understood exactly what he meant because that was what I’d seen Alan O’Sullivan do.
From my vantage point in the middle of midfield on that day, the sight of this boy in full flow was mesmeric enough to stop me even bothering to track back. I was too hypnotised by the natural beauty and the poetry of the movement to remember I had a job to do for the team.
We’d heard stories that this team had a couple of special players. Nobody had prepared us for how many.
Paul McCarthy was a centre-half to whom the ball appeared magnetically attracted. Once it went anywhere near the box, he met it with his head or his foot. For corners, he sidled up field with menace before hurling himself at anything flying through the air.
Broad-chested, tall and athletic, against us that morning, he played like a man who never had to bother getting out of second gear, somebody saving himself for more serious engagements. He was destined to captain the Irish U21s and to start over 500 first-team games in England with Brighton, Wycombe Wanderers, and Oxford United before his tragically premature death at just 45.
Alongside him at the back was Damien Martin, a fair-haired Franco Baresi, always mopping up mistakes and setting Rockmount back in motion. At the other end of the field was Len Downey, a lanky centre-forward who could score from anywhere when he was in the mood.
In midfield, there was a diminutive dynamo with a mullet who seemed to hoover up every loose ball before passing unerringly to a team-mate. Hard in the tackle for a fella his size, he was complaining to his colleagues the whole time even as they lorded it over us.
A relentless, narky force of nature, he covered an immense amount of ground, one moment he was threatening in our six-yard box, the next he was tracking back on the edge of his own area. That morning I gave up trying to compete with him very quickly. I knew I was out of my depth. His name was Roy Keane.
Yet, the future Manchester United and Ireland captain did not leave an impression quite like O’Sullivan in his magnificent pomp. This character was an up-close glimpse of something otherworldly. One of those cameos that made me begin to realise that no matter how hard I trained or dedicated myself, I was never ever going to rise to the top of this sport. No amount of juggling the ball in my spare time would empower me with his preternatural gifts.
No physical fitness regime to make myself stronger could possibly bridge the yawning gap between my effort and his effortlessness. Here was empirical proof of that.
Of course, I looked at his boots when I got up next to him. There had to be something different about them, some special powers. There is something about the boy child that we think there has to be an extraneous factor giving this person an edge over us. It can’t be anything innate like ability. But that’s what it was because he was wearing Adidas boots. Nothing special about them at all. Except his feet in them.
The rest of that match is a blur of those green and gold Rockmount jerseys weaving their way through us and scoring at will. Most of them were a year younger than us, dominating an age group above them, and playing a game with which we were not familiar. By the second half, we were time wasting to try to keep the score down before — like rugby players we kicked for touch with length and purpose. Finally, thankfully, in the traditional way of merciful Cork Schoolboys’ League referees, the fight was stopped before we bled all the way into double figures.
“That Sullivan boy kind of reminds me of Matthews,” said Frankie Sull in the van on the way home.
“Who’s Matthews?” we asked.
“Stanley Matthews. Ask your fathers about him.”
Later that season, I got another look at the Rockmount players from a different angle. Every club in Cork was invited to send players to participate in a training camp over the Easter holidays. It was sponsored by 7-Up and Billy Bingham, the then Northern Ireland manager, was one of the coaches.
For three days, I got to play with and against McCarthy, Keane, and O’Sullivan in between doing drills under the baton of the Ulsterman who had led his country to the second round of the 1982 World Cup finals. I learned very little from Bingham but I benefitted hugely from the experience.
How so? Well, having spent three days studying O’Sullivan, a boy then on the cusp of signing for Luton Town, I knew, for certain, that I would never be a professional footballer. The dream that started to fade the first time I saw him out in Whitechurch was now officially dead.
It had to be. How could I ever possibly measure up to somebody of his gifts? I was immature and as narcissistic as any other teenager, but I wasn’t blind to reality.
When we departed The Farm in UCC on the final day of the camp, I resolved to head back to school the following week with renewed determination to study. I knew now that, whatever else it held, my future definitely did not involve scouts from England tracking my progress before making me a lucrative offer.