But with every passing year that Sam studiously avoided the Kingdom, there was a growing danger that the mantle of expectation would morph into a millstone.
But now Seán O’Shea, O’Brien’s Kenmare clubmate, has his Celtic Cross. And so too does Brian Ó Beaglaoích, his regular companion on the road from Leeside back to training in Kerry.
With 2022 captain Joe O’Connor starting on the bench, against Galway on Sunday, O’Shea even had the honour of being the first Kerryman to lift Sam from the podium in eight years.
“I’m lucky enough to have played with him for so many years,” O’Brien says. “Just such an impressive guy. Everything he does, he does with class. And if you know his family as well, you’d know that’s where it came from.
“I’m so happy now that we’ve won our All-Ireland together. That’s what I said to him after the game! For the next 50 years or whatever, if we’d never won the All-Ireland together, we would have been avoiding each other – kind of. Even if he went on after to win All-Irelands. But to get one with him is just sweet and I’ll cherish that moment.
“Even Brian Ó Beaglaoích, I’d be travelling with him from Cork. He’s been in since 2016 and he’d won nothing, so you just felt for those lads. You knew we had a great chance with such quality coming through … but it was just a matter of time.”
Ó Beaglaoích was actually the first of those minors, from Jack O’Connor’s original 2014 team, to make the senior step-up. Not long turned 19, he was handed his Allianz League debut by Éamonn Fitzmaurice in January, 2016.
A nice handy opener – the Dubs in Croke Park. To begin with, the An Ghaeltacht tyro had a torrid time chasing Paul Mannion but grew into the contest and emerged as the best of an embattled full-back line.
But here’s the rub: Dublin left behind a handful of ‘majors’ and still won by two clear goals. It was a salutary early lesson for Ó Beaglaoích that senior is a different ball game … and he would have to wait until his seventh campaign for the ultimate prize to arrive.
“I feel it’s been a long time coming,” he says. “It’s just some feeling. It’s probably what you dream of, coming to Croke Park since you’re a young fella, so it’s nice to finally get that feeling.
“Dublin in 2016 in the league was my debut. It was a tough old day out - Dublin gave us a good lesson.
“The pressure probably came from ourselves more than anything. Like, I’ve always wanted to win it. I’ve been putting the pressure on myself. I’m not really listening to what others are saying, but I did feel like it was a long time coming. I felt like we could have won it in the last few years, but we didn’t.”
So, why this year?
“Paddy Tally has been a big addition, and Tony Griffin – they’ve both done serious work,” says Ó Beaglaoích of the Tyrone native who brought streetwise defensive nous to the team and the former Clare hurler who worked as performance coach.
But he reserves most praise for the main man. “Jack knew a lot of us as well from minors,” the 25-year-old points out. “He’s just some manager. Wherever he goes, his record speaks for itself. He’s won it every time he’s been a Kerry manager.”
O’Brien is six years older than Ó Beaglaoích and was starting to wonder would he ever get to add a second Celtic Cross to the won he snared in 2014.
“I suppose there’s doubts, definitely in ’20 and ’21,” he admits. “Going into the dressing-room after losing those games, you know, it’s apocalyptic inside there.”
Unlike many of his younger colleagues, O’Brien never earned his starting spurs as a Kerry minor, held back by knee surgeries at the time. But he won a Sigerson Cup medal with UCC in 2011 – “a great stepping stone” – and had words of gratitude for their iconic coach, the former Cork manager Billy Morgan.
“I was a couple of years underage with Kerry, but I really owe a lot of allegiance to UCC,” he explains. “Actually, myself and Seánie (O’Shea) both got a text from Billy Morgan just before the game, which I really appreciated because it means a lot coming from him. And he’s such a Cork legend, you know, it probably was hard for him to send a text … I really owe UCC, Dr Con (Murphy) and all those guys.”
Now that they’ve finally come of age, O’Brien is predicting big things for Kerry’s minor graduates of 2014-18 – with one caveat.
“When myself and Paul (Murphy) came through in 2014, we were saying, 'Oh yeah, we're going to really kick on here’ … and it didn't happen. It could go any way,” he warns, “but they have the ability and they have the character, that's for sure.
“The lads were saying inside in the dressing-room, inside in the warm-up room, 'Come on, we'll head, we'll make shapes here.' I was like, 'Man, this is where it's at, inside in this dressing-room.’ That's the moment.”