Darragh Ó Sé confirmed this week what he'd suspected all along. He's found peace with his decision and with himself. On Wednesday morning having woken early, he cleaned the sleep from his eyes, the haze from his dreams and remembered what had been going through his subconscious all night. There he was on the line in Killarney, ripping off his tracksuit top, pinning back his shoulders like the raging bull and seeing red everywhere as he prepared to enter the Munster semi-final as a substitute. Yet over breakfast he didn't regret his retirement. Instead, he knew his dream was the death rattle of his past life. And besides, that life, those 15 summers spent tormenting Cork, seemed like a dream anyhow.
Avoiding the past, he got thinking about today. He wondered whether he'd take his place in the stand or on the terrace or more precisely, "If I'll be standing there jumping up and down, shouting on my two brothers and the rest the lads, or if I'll end up in the stand with my knees going into some Cork lad's back every time I sit down again. At this stage I'm bumming tickets so I don't know where I'll end up. But that's part of it now too."
He laughs. But so will all of Cork knowing if he does mooch a stand ticket, at least it'll be only one of their own that he'll be irritating. After all those years, after Cork defining him and him defining Cork, after winning as many All Irelands in his time as Cork did in all time, he'll be missing in action for the first time. In the eight seasons before he came on as a substitute against his neighbours in 1995, the old enemy put Kerry out of the All Ireland six times. They did the same that year but since then Ó Sé has either helped or single-handedly dumped Cork out of the championship on 10 separate occasions, while Cork have managed to do likewise just once.
Quite simply, Ó Sé has been a plague on all their houses.
"I'll still get nervous," he adds, leaning back in the chair in his office in Tralee. "I found that was the case watching the lads during the league and I was roaring and shouting a lot. Not as nervous as before though. I used to get very nervous as a player before Cork games. If I didn't, I'd have been worried because it's very important to be that way. But people are wondering now and asking me how I feel about not being there for this Kerry-Cork game but I made my decision and am glad. Was it time for me to go? I think so. I could have been a bit-part player but after everything I didn't want that."
Everything began on 24 July, 1995. After John Quane had shown him to be too light and too green the previous summer, he'd missed out on the 1994 game against Cork. But this time it was Liam Flaherty and Conor Kearney who were out-muscled and out-hustled and Maurice Fitzgerald and a 20-year old Ó Sé would finish that day at centrefield. It had been so bad that legend has it Flaherty was tempted to fire his boots into the river. "That's a myth, he would have been too mean to throw away a good pair of boots," jokes Ó Sé.
"But Liam Honohan and Danny Culloty were big, strong men. Too strong for me at that time and probably in 1996 too because my recollection that year was that Maurice [Fitzgerald] had to come out to the middle and he sent over some long-range points. But there were a lot of good performances that stand out from '96 and it was a sign that things were beginning to come together. There were a lot of young lads coming into the mix who'd started their careers as winners at underage. They had a belief and when you mix that with the experience of the established guys, you've a good side."
But he was the major reason for them being a great side. Cork and Kerry's rivalry had long been decided by the stronger midfield. Before Darragh came along the likes of Fahy, McCarthy, Tompkins and Culloty had spent a generation keeping Kerry down. But they couldn't keep Ó Sé down. Just think of the games in Munster in 1998, 2000 and 2001 where he won five kickouts in the last 20 minutes or the games in Croke Park in 2002 and 2005. Even after the drawn Munster final in 2002, Seamus Moynihan admitted that until that day he hadn't realised just how good Darragh really was.
"To be fair, traditionally Cork always had superb fielders like Teddy McCarthy, Culloty, the great Declan Barron," continues Ó Sé. "That was carried on in my time. All their guys were very comfortable with the ball above their heads and it was never negative fielding in those games we played against each other, everyone was positive, very little was broken, and that always helped. I even remember Damien O'Neill on a wet day with no gloves taking balls above my head and I've still never worked out how he did it.
"There were guys like Graham Canty too even though he was a victim because he was always seen as a leader of Cork. He was playing full-back, centre-back, wing-back, corner-back, midfield. They never really gave him the chance to man a position for a number of years and get used to it. But he was always a great man to get on the ball and play it well and he was hard and he was honest and he was brave. There were always great Cork players like that."
Of all the Cork names associated with Ó Sé though, it's Nicholas Murphy that jumps to mind immediately. They initially came across each other when Murphy was introduced as a substitute in the 1998 Munster semi-final but little did either man know at that moment that they'd spend more than a decade going at it. But in hindsight Ó Sé reckons of all the Cork midfielders that have stared him down, Murphy was the best.
"People don't realise how big Nicholas became. The best example of his physicality was Meath in the semi-final in 2007. He ploughed through no less of a man than Darren Fay and put him whistling on his arse. He's about 16 stone weight and 6'5" and he has hands down to his knees. You try it. I'm 6'1" so do the sums. The best compliment I could pay him was I never once underestimated him and always felt I was going out against a very tough opponent and my motivation every time was to beat him at all costs."
For Ó Sé, there were sore days against Cork like in 1999 when he found himself with shingles. "Our physio saw a rash on my torso and put me on a course of tablets. They were a bit severe on the system. It's not an excuse though, Cork were better than us. They deserved that. Simple as. My direct opponent Micheál O'Sullivan played very well too."
There were hot days against Cork, like Killarney in 2000. "Boiling. I noticed on the road outside that there was a river of melting tar. Larry Tompkins got a bit hot too with [referee] Mick Curley. But you wouldn't have any beef with that. He put a lot of effort into that team, he gave blood, sweat and tears for them. But I got great enjoyment after that because we hung on despite Colin Corkery kicking everything and won a classic."
There were controversial days against Cork, like when he was cleared to play before the 2002 All Ireland semi-final. "I was playing a club game against the Stacks and there was a small bit of pushing. To be honest I've done a lot worse. Next thing I'm off but the card was rescinded. I didn't feel the slightest bit guilty because I knew in my heart and soul I had done nothing. I wouldn't have ever let Cork being cynical weigh me down because my conscience was clear going into that game."
There were angry days with Cork, like the sendings off against Pearse O'Neill in 2008, when after the second met Joe McQuillan in a bar and told him he was perfectly correct.
But most importantly there were days like his father's funeral in 2002. Just 48 hours after Michael Ó Sé had been present and correct to witness Marc, Tomás and Darragh line out together for the first time in a championship match, in Killarney against Cork, he was dead after a massive heart attack. Yet despite the proximity of the replay, many of the Cork team showed up to his funeral.
"Fair play to them, then again I'd expect no different from that bunch. Great guys. Like people talk about me and Nicholas going at it and Billy calling us cynical in 2006. But I see Nicholas around Tralee when he'd be here working the odd time and we'd always talk. I'd regularly meet Billy as well, not that I brought up that cynical stuff. I'm brave but not that brave. But the point I'm making is that we all get on away from football.
"Fair enough, there was always some messing and plenty of physicality out there. But it swung both ways and I always made sure I gave as good as I got and they did the same. In fairness when they were the aggressors, a lot of the guys were told to do it but weren't used to doing it and I knew that well because they weren't doing it right. I've given it and taken it but you'd always have a pint with the Cork lads. There'd be no real baggage. I came from a family like where we were taught that you play your opponent but shake hands with him after and leave it there."
Last year after he had fittingly played against Cork in his final game in a Kerry jersey, himself, Tomás, Paul Galvin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice went for a pint together only to see Billy Morgan and Jimmy Keaveney sitting at the bar. "Sure Paul and Billy were drinking away, they were like kindred spirits. The final whistle was gone and we all get on with it. That's the way it is."
For 15 summers he was their worst of enemies. Now in retirement Darragh Ó Sé is their best of friends.
Darragh Ó Sé's autobigoraphy, co-written by Ewan MacKenna, will be in bookshops later this year