July 29, 2006 was the day everything changed
IT’S Kerry football’s version of where were you when. You know the sort of thing. Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? Where were you when you heard JFK had been gunned down in Dallas?
Those epochal events have a way of staying with you years or even decades later. Those moments they break the mould of what we think is possible, they redefine the parameters of what can and what can’t be done, they can define an age, an era.
On July 29, 2006 a new era began with a bang. If you were there – and we were on the Michael O’Connor Terrace with St Finnans looming large behind us – you aren’t likely to ever forget it.
Whatever we were expecting of Kerry’s new full-forward that day as we ambled up to Fitzgerald Stadium, this far exceeded it. We watched him that day with a combination of slack-jawed astonishment and giddy delight. Was this really happening? Could this guy be as good as he appeared to be?
Each time the ball went in he raised his gangly arms and plucked the O’Neills from the sky causing absolute consternation in the Longford ranks. They really didn’t know what hit them. They were the first, although by no means the last, to experience the particular type of fear Kieran Donaghy is capable of inducing in a full-back line.
At a stroke a season had been rescued, but even more than that you could see the possibilities open out in front of you. This thing had legs. Nobody was dismissing what he’d achieved that day on the basis that it was achieved against Longford (who to be fair were a stronger force then than they are now).
Donaghy had too much about him for it to be shrugged off quite so easily. Once you saw him there it was all so obvious – except of course it wasn’t quite and that Jack O’Connor could see what the rest of us couldn’t.
It took Donaghy just sixteen minutes to blow a consensus apart, to leave half the country terrified and the other half scrambling to find their own big man for the edge of the square. The big man was back and back with a bang.
What the rest of the country would soon discover is that there was only one Kieran Donaghy. All those other Kieran Donaghys were just imitating. There was always more to the Austin Stacks man than his sheer size and ability to field. This guy had the whole package. Along with the physical attributes – height and reach and spring and bounce – he had vision and one of the best football brains of his generation. Donaghy was driven and bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. He had (has!) the ability to make people feel better about themselves.
The way he interacted with team mates before, after and during games told you so much about him. He was the focal point of the team in more ways than one. He was both the tip of the spear and the cornerstone.
The Kingdom scored four goals against Longford that sunny Saturday evening and Donaghy had a direct had in three of them – he also won a penalty which Kerry didn’t convert – but it’s the one he assisted for Colm Cooper following an interception that was probably the most significant of all.
Their on-field relationship would blossom to become probably the most significant partnership of each man’s career. To think of one is to think of the other. At their best the two men’s understanding was absolute. At their best they were downright unstoppable. Donaghy’s longevity is probably the thing that confirms his greatness more than anything else. In a crisis – much as 2006 was after a disappointing defeat in the Munster final to the old enemy – he was the one Kerry turned to. Éamonn Fitzmaurice – who came on as a second half sub against Longford all those years ago – was still calling upon Donaghy over a decade later and over a decade later Donaghy was still delivering the goods.
In Clones in July Donaghy was the one who got his paws on a long ball to direct it into the path of a wunderkind number thirteen to save the Kingdom’s bacon. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. There was something a little bitter-sweet to that too. Can you imagine what sort of a partnership Donaghy and David Clifford could have struck up if time had not caught up on the big man? Alas it wasn’t meant to be beyond that fleeting cameo in St Tiernach’s Park. Now probably is the right time to call it a day. He’d given all he could to the cause and more. Not even he could have imagined all that awaited him as he sat in the old dressing room at the Lewis Road end after being handed the jersey by Jack O’Connor. It’s been a hell of a ride. He wouldn’t change it for the world and neither could we. Thank you for the memories.