IN HINDSIGHT it was obvious … of course an O’Sullivan would be a leader at another historic footballing institution, but on his way to his 150th VFL match, Tom O’Sullivan has done it his own way.

His dad Shane, an AFL life member, spent 41 years as a highly respected administrator, mostly at Carlton, but also holding key roles at the Western Bulldogs and at the Bears during their inception in Brisbane.

Young Tom spent hours at the old Princes Park mixing with Carlton players as if they were extended family in his formative years.

Shane is rated as one of the greats of football administration, having spent a lifetime at Carlton, plus stints at Footscray and being a key part of the establishment of the Brisbane Bears, while uncle Garry held key roles at the Northern Blues (now Bullants) and Casey Demons, among others.

Just out of high school, Tom did a pre-season with the Blues when Garry was in charge, but felt he was not ready and decided to create a path away from the links to his surname.

Tom also has sporting pedigree from his mother, a talented tennis player, while one of his three sisters, Lily, played netball for Melbourne Phoenix.

He played in a premiership for Caulfield Grammarians in the Premier Division Premier B in 2011 and thought amateur football might be his ceiling, especially as he was also pursuing cricket, reaching a second grade level for Premier club Carlton.

But O’Sullivan was always conscious that a career in the AFL was likely not an option.

“If your old man is a recruiter and he doesn’t pick you up then nobody is going to pick up,” he laughed.

It was former Brisbane, St Kilda, Williamstown and Port Melbourne defender Steve Lawrence, O’Sullivan’s coach at Caulfield Grammar, who pushed him to get more from his career at the end of the 2012 VAFA season.

Lawrence connected O’Sullivan with Port Melbourne coach Gary Ayres, who invited him to 2013 pre-season training, and he has not looked back.

O’Sullivan, known to all and sundry around North Port Oval at TOS, said the belief Ayres showed in him was critical to his confidence to play at VFL level.

“(Ayres) just backs you in,” he said.

“If you’re a midfielder, you play midfield. He doesn’t try to shove you into a different position.”

Ayres highlighted the standard required to break into in the Borough midfield in 2013, only two seasons after the immortal 2011 team went undefeated to win the VFL Premiership.

“When (O’Sullivan) first came into the club all those years ago it was a star-studded midfield (with) the likes of Toby Pinwill, Chris Cain (and) John Baird … we had certainly a lot of depth,” he said.

Tom O?Sullivan tackles Carlton's Josh Honey in June 2021. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos

O’Sullivan took no time to feel the history and culture at Port Melbourne, something he credited for his longevity at the club – a period in which he has only missed the finals once.

“Everyone around the place – the first thing on their mind is to win,” he said.

“That winning feeling – and how to win – is underrated in building a successful era.”

“Playing at a club like Port Melbourne, there’s premierships on the wall, there’s 150 game players, 200 game players, guys that have won Liston trophies … you see success all around you and you’re living and breathing it every day.”

Winning is important, but O’Sullivan said Port Melbourne was about something bigger than on-field results.

“Port Melbourne is an old school football club – it’s not a program – that’s what I love about it,” he said.  

“The facilities aren’t crash hot, it’s not somewhere you come for the luxuries, it’s somewhere you come for the feel of the place, and the cameraderie it can give you.”

O’Sullivan and his teammates’ development culminated in the most remarkable of VFL premierships in 2017, especially given the off-field start to the year.

“There was an issue financially but the boys just rolled the sleeves up and got on with it, which showed the quality of those boys – and six months later they won a flag,” Ayres said.

O’Sullivan rated the 2017 VFL Grand Final as one of the best moments of his career, not just for the victory but the circumstances in which it was achieved.

“It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it,” he said.

“To come up against a Richmond side when the whole media (and football world) was obsessed with Richmond at the time … they had 17 or 18 (AFL) listed players playing against us at Etihad (now Marvel) Stadium when none of us had played under a roof.

“To match it and especially come back in the final quarter (was incredible) … the couple of days that followed were some of the best days of my life.”

Tom O'Sullivan fires off a handball. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos

O’Sullivan won the Frank Johnson Medal as the VFL’s best player against Western Australia in 2017 – an award he holds dear, and backed up in 2018 to be runner-up in Port’s best-and-fairest before being named co-captain of the Borough with Jordan Lisle in 2019.

He remembered the continuous link of players from successful Port teams staying on at the club to teach the next generation of the culture and standards required.

“I always wanted to keep the traditions and the standards of the club going,” he said.

“(It’s a club) that’s got a culture of winning and success and that’s pretty hard to build … if you’ve got it, you’ve got to hold on to it – I felt a bit of responsibility to take on a leadership role.”

“(Lisle) was a bit more of an accountant, white collar leader, and I am the blue collar plumber, so (we) kind of just worked (as co-captains).”

When Lisle retired at the end of 2019, O’Sullivan took sole possession of the captaincy, which Ayres said was an obvious transition.

“(It) says a fair bit about what they players think of Tommy,” he said.

O’Sullivan’s thriving plumbing business kept him sane during the cancelled 2020 season, and 2021 was difficult for all clubs and leagues in Victoria.

More change presented itself in 2022 and O’Sullivan is keen to build a new era alongside new coach Adam Skrobalak.

“The group is definitely heavily invested and there is so much learning to do (on Adam’s coaching style),” he said.

“He’s more of a systems-based coach and has the new-age game plans which we still need to learn, so we’re really using (the remainder of this year) as a launchpad for next year.”

Port Melbourne captain Tom O'Sullivan and coach Adam Skrobalak have bonded well. Picture: Graham Denholm/AFL Photos

Skrobalak highlighted the close relationship between coach and captain.

“Right from when I got the job he has been amazing,” he said.

“We’ve done five long walks around Albert Park just talking about different players and what had been happening at Port, so I got a real good feel for him as a person and his care for the club.

“A lot of his leadership goes unseen with what he does behind the scenes, chatting to players, going for walks with them, just finding out more about them outside football.

“He’s a very strong leader and I can see he’s going to make a really good coach at some stage because he sees the game so well and understands it and articulates it well.

“As a player we’ve actually changed his role a fair bit this year and he’s really starting to get going on that now … he’s playing as a more defensive midfielder.”

Port Melbourne football manager Glenn Balmforth said O’Sullivan was intrinsic within the four walls of the Borough.

“Many players come and go through a footy club and have an impact over the years, but very few become the heart and soul of a club – Tommy is certainly that to all of us at Port Melbourne,” he said.

“He is a team and club-first person and one of the biggest things I noticed when I got to Port at the end of 2018 is TOS’ passion and commitment to drive success, high standards and make not only others around him, but the club as a whole better.”

O'Sullivan battles Aspley's Ryan Banks-Smith in Round 1, 2021. Picture: Abert Perez/AFL Photos

In addition to the fanatical and loyal supporters, who O’Sullivan credits with alerting him to his 150th game milestone, he acknowledges there are many influences in his football journey.

Most crucially, he acknowledges the family environment and support he has received along the way, as well as Lawrence for pushing him to question his potential.

He also credited Ayres’ “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” mentality, which opened up opportunities, and he said he learnt from the best in Toby Pinwill, Chris Cain and John Baird.

“(Being around) a successful club and going to a successful school like Caulfield Grammar, you’re around successful people (and) it just makes you want to succeed, do better and achieve higher things in life because that’s what people around you are doing,” he said.

“(In the VFL) there’s enough in it for an older bloke like myself to get a game and feel like you’re playing for something every week, and then there’s opportunities for young kids to come to a (VFL club) to get drafted (to the AFL).”

“What I have (learned from) footy is you want to be the best you can be.”

Twitter: @ukurrie, @BRhodesVFL