Don­aghy still caus­ing con­fu­sion long af­ter we thought he was gone –

Af­ter not touch­ing a foot­ball through­out the spring, Kerry’s num­ber 14 is wreak­ing havoc

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin

In Kieran Don­aghy’s book, What Do You Think Of That?, he tells a story about the drawn game against Mayo in 2014. For so long that day in Croke Park, Don­aghy was a by­stander. Or, more pre­cisely, a bysit­ter, glued to the chair among the Kerry subs in the Ho­gan Stand. If we gave him any thought for most of that game, it was to pre­sume that if he got a run at all, it was look­ing like the last game of his Kerry ca­reer.

He came on in mid­field that day, just as Mayo were stretch­ing clear. With six min­utes to go, Andy Mo­ran kicked Mayo five ahead and Don­aghy turned to see Ai­dan O’Shea mouthing at David Mo­ran. Be­fore he had time to go in and teach O’Shea some man­ners, he got the call from the side­line to go in full-for­ward.

There’s no need to de­tain our­selves with what hap­pened next, other than to spin the tape on to the fi­nal whis­tle. Kerry have pulled a draw out of the fire, thanks in the main to Don­aghy and just as he is shak­ing hands with which­ever Mayo play­ers he comes across, he spots O’Shea and heads over to him, hand out.

“I haven’t forgotten his goad­ing of David Mo­ran,” Don­aghy writes. “Ai­dan is more talented and more high-pro­file than his brother who just made the last catch of the game, but when I clasp his hand, I look him dead in the eye. ‘Well done, Sea­mus.’ He looks back, con­fused, as if to say, ‘I’m Ai­dan.’ But I’ve al­ready moved on. I’ve to get ready for Lim­er­ick.”

Still rel­e­vant

And so, the last hur­rah for his ca­reer turned out to be the first game of the rest of Don­aghy’s life. Three years, an All-Ire­land, an All Star and an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy later, not only is he still go­ing at 34, he’s still rel­e­vant. So much so that much of the noise in Mayo this week has been around what scheme they’re go­ing to come up with to con­tain him. Whether or not Sun­day’s game pans out as a test of his cre­den­tials is im­ma­te­rial. Don­aghy still mat­ters, is the thing.

This was an un­likely turn of events, even as re­cently as ear­lier this year. When he col­lected the Eir Sport Book of the Year award last De­cem­ber, he was vis­i­bly torn as to what to do with him­self for 2017. All through the book, the sense you got was the he was us­ing it to pull up his own per­sonal draw­bridge. He ad­mit­ted as much when we talked to him at the awards lunch. So what changed?

“Hav­ing to make the de­ci­sion,” he said. “Hav­ing to bite the bul­let. I’m at this a few years now, com­ing and go­ing. I’d say there’s a few young fel­las on the panel who are think­ing, ‘Will he not just f*** off?’ I know in 2014, I was gone. You get that from the book, I felt like I was gone. Time was up.

“To be hon­est, I planned on prob­a­bly an­nounc­ing some­thing around when the book came out. But I lit­er­ally don’t have a clue what I’m go­ing do­ing. The pub­lish­ers wanted me to say I was ei­ther go­ing or stay­ing and I was like, ‘Lads, I’m not com­ing out with some­thing here and then four months down the line say­ing, f*** it I want to go back or I want to quit.’ So I’m keep­ing sch­tum for the next while to see where it takes me. I might be go­ing back, I might not be go­ing back. I don’t know what I’m go­ing to do.”

For a man with a young daugh­ter at home and a cou­ple of binders-worth of bad in­juries in the files, Don­aghy was still com­ing off one of the most ac­tive sea­sons of his ca­reer. He started 11 of Kerry’s 13 league and cham­pi­onship matches in 2016, a to­tal he’s only ex­ceeded four times since join­ing the panel as a 21-year-old. It was only the fourth sea­son of his ca­reer where he started ev­ery cham­pi­onship game. He was named at mid­field in ev­ery game but drifted in to full-for­ward part-time in some of them, full-time in oth­ers.

Mike Quirke, long-time friend, con­fi­dante and golf part­ner of Don­aghy, was of the same view as every­one else. Once he knew his friend was work­ing on a book, he pre­sumed that was that.

“It was ob­vi­ously his punc­tu­a­tion mark,” says Quirke. “You could see all through it that his think­ing was, ‘I’m gone here, lads. Here’s me sign­ing off with a book.’ But then last year prob­a­bly went bet­ter for him than he would have an­tic­i­pated. His in­juries had cleared up. He was feel­ing good and his body was back where he wanted it and he was feel­ing the love from [Ea­monn] Fitz­mau­rice.

“The bas­ket­ball thing kicked in over the win­ter and it was more a men­tal thing than a phys­i­cal thing, I would have said. It re­freshed him. Dif­fer­ent sport, dif­fer­ent game, dif­fer­ent peo­ple, dif­fer­ent places. It kept him fresh and ob­vi­ously the will was still there. Fitz­mau­rice ob­vi­ously thought he was ef­fec­tive the pre­vi­ous year so he kept him in­volved. And once he was fit and fresh and wanted to do it, I sup­pose why would Fitz­mau­rice not keep him in­volved?”

A win­ter spent in­doors. No muck, no rain, no league foot­ball. From Jan­uary to April, he was a baller in soft-soled shoes. It was ex­actly what he needed” All the fo­cus is on Don­aghy. Mayo’s whole con­cen­tra­tion is on stop­ping this guy. It’s in­cred­i­ble that he’s still an is­sue, 10, 11, 12 years on”

Juicy side­pot

The bas­ket­ball thing was the sea­son he put in over the win­ter with Tralee War­riors. It went so well that he even made the 20-man Ire­land squad in March but for Don­aghy, it car­ried with it a juicy side­pot – a win­ter spent in­doors. No muck, no rain, no league foot­ball. From Jan­uary to April, he was a baller in soft-soled shoes. It was ex­actly what he needed.

On the first Sun­day in April, he was up in Let­terkenny as the War­riors pulled out an over­time win over Tem­pleogue in the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy to crown their sea­son. On the Mon­day night, they painted the town back in Tralee. On Wed­nes­day, he togged out for his first foot­ball ses­sion of 2017 with Kerry. By Sun­day, he was wear­ing num­ber 26 in Croke Park as Kerry beat Dublin in the league fi­nal.

“I met them all in town on the Mon­day night and they were all hav­ing a great time, en­joy­ing them­selves,” says Quirke. “Next thing, he went in and played a bit of ball with Kerry on the Wed­nes­day night and out of nowhere, he made the 26 for the league fi­nal that Sun­day. He told me af­ter­wards that he went out to train­ing with Kerry that Wed­nes­day with­out hav­ing once touched an O’Neill’s ball in the pre­vi­ous three or four months.

“He had been in since Fe­bru­ary do­ing one weights ses­sion a week with them. There’s a group in­side in Tralee so he met up with them once a week for gym ses­sion. And about three weeks be­fore the league fi­nal, that was gone up to a sec­ond weights ses­sion. But that was it. He hadn’t touched a pitch or touched a ball or even put on a pair of boots.

“He came back com­pletely re-en­er­gised and just feel­ing good. And Fitz­mau­rice wouldn’t have been do­ing it out of sen­ti­ment, ob­vi­ously. If Fitz­mau­rice brought him on the panel, it was be­cause he saw some­thing that was go­ing to be use­ful. He was sup­pos­edly very good at full-for­ward that night, he caused wreck in there, and so he got the num­ber 26 jer­sey. Fitz­mau­rice clearly thought, ‘Well, okay, I can use this guy for the last 10 min­utes if I have to.’

“He’s play­ing a very short foot­ball sea­son. There is no slog. He’s straight into the Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship. Big games, big crowds, Croke Park – sure this is the easy stuff. We were out play­ing a few holes of golf a cou­ple of weeks ago and he was laugh­ing and say­ing, ‘Lis­ten, I could do this for an­other three or four years.’”

MacGuf­fin

One mir­a­cle at a time, Kieran. There is, of course, ev­ery chance that Don­aghy is a MacGuf­fin this week. It would be no shock if we were sit­ting here at teatime on Sun­day with a thou­sand things to talk about that have noth­ing to do with the Kerry num­ber 14. Es­pe­cially given his com­pany in the Kerry in­side line, as Quirke points out.

“When you’re look­ing at the full-for­ward line that will prob­a­bly line out the next day, Paul Geaney, Kieran Don­aghy and James O’Donoghue – of the three of them, Don­aghy is by far and away the worst foot­baller. I know he got a goal off his left leg against Gal­way but it was a col­lec­tor’s item. The other two can kick com­fort­ably off both feet, their skills and abil­i­ties are just so far su­pe­rior to what Don­aghy is ca­pa­ble of in terms of pure foot­ball.

“And yet, all the fo­cus is on Don­aghy. I mean, James could go and get 3-4 the next day or Geaney could get 1-6 and yet Mayo’s whole con­cen­tra­tion, cer­tainly out­side the camp, is on stop­ping this guy. I hear peo­ple talk­ing about Donie Vaughan and Lee Kee­gan and even Ai­dan O’Shea go­ing back there.

“Even if he doesn’t score on Sun­day, the kind of at­ten­tion that he’s go­ing to draw from their de­fen­sive game­plan is go­ing to be a big deal. It’s in­cred­i­ble that he’s still an is­sue, 10, 11, 12 years down the line. I am sure the two boys aren’t up­set that he’s the one who is in the spot­light this week.”

And yet here he is, long af­ter we pre­sumed he wouldn’t be. Still fight­ing, still com­pet­ing. Still look­ing the game dead in the eye and throw­ing it into con­fu­sion.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: CATHAL NOONAN/INPHO

Kieran Don­aghy cel­e­brates scor­ing a goal against Mayo in the 2014 All-Ire­land SFC semi-fi­nal re­play at the Gaelic Grounds in Lim­er­ick.

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