James O'Donoghue: 'You're not a real Kerry footballer until you've won an All-Ireland'
Kingdom man under no illusions about huge Kingdom demands as he eyes summer glory
At the All Stars ceremony last year, James O'Donoghue collected his award and threw a cheeky wink at the camera. For those who knew him, that was the Legion man all over.
It was a simple act but it reflected the easy way O'Donoghue has about him. In Kerry circles, he has been tipped for big things for some time now, but Tomas O Se admitted when writing in these pages that he'd look at O'Donoghue in training sometimes and wonder was he "wired in" at all.
For the An Ghaeltacht man, O'Donoghue reinforced the old saying that the best Kerry teams were made of 'west Kerry backs and townie forwards'. In terms of football, they don't come much more 'townie' than O'Donoghue.
He lives a minute's walk from Kerry's training base at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney but has been known to miss team meetings through oversleeping.
Perhaps that relaxed nature stands to him now. He shows no strain from the expectancy placed on him in the absence of Colm Cooper and Paul Galvin from the Kerry forward line.
His emergence as a top-class inter-county attacker last year came when 'Gooch' was the conductor. This year, responsibility has been loaded on his shoulders and so far he's flourished.
His laid-back attitude shouldn't be mistaken for flippancy. A couple of weeks after collecting his first All Star he was brought back down to earth with a bang at a table quiz. A question reminded him he was one of just two Kerry footballers to hold an All Star award but not win an All-Ireland. Respect, he knows, will have to be earned.
"That's definitely something. You're not a real Kerry player until you've performed in Croke Park, in the white heat of championship, in an All-Ireland final, and come home with the trophy.
"Even last year, I got an All Star, and realistically that means nothing unless you have an All-Ireland title. I was actually at a quiz a couple of nights later and the first question asked was to name the two Kerry players who have won an All Star and no All-Ireland. So no one really cares how many All Stars you've won. It's All-Irelands you're tested on."
An indifferent league failed to show anything to suggest they'd be in the shake-up this year. But they laid down a significant marker in the Munster final. With the pressure on in Pairc Ui Chaoimh against Cork, O'Donoghue and Kerry were masterful.
His display seemed to be the result of a long apprenticeship served under some of the best players around. After all, O'Donoghue has been in the Kerry set-up since 2010.
He made his championship debut the following year but was forced to bide his time as the last remnants of a great team – that had been very successful even by Kerry standards – drifted away. Last year, an exodus of established talent opened the door.
"It was hard to get on that team because they were so good and they wanted to win the All-Ireland. You're not going to risk it and throw in a 20-year-old when you have proven, brilliant players on the field. It's up to the player on the bench to step up and earn a place and that's it.
"But I think mentally, with the lads retiring, maybe it was about time for us (to step up) because they had led that team for so long. There were a lot of us younger fellas that had been in the panels but hadn't quite pushed on because it was hard to get into the team, you know?
"They were some of the best (players) ever. You're on the panel but you're not really sure where you are in terms of playing or whatever. But we were forced into stepping it up and showing some sort of form.
"The boys were at such a high level that when you were coming through at 19 or 20 you're not there and you have to try and facilitate them more than maybe you'd like to.
"They've done it all, won everything and you're trying to get up to that level while still being successful. Maybe it's better to be just thrown in at the deep end and (be told), 'you've got to go and win us this game, see what you can do'."
On Sunday they return to action in Croke Park against Galway. It's their first championship outing there since last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin. That game is widely acknowledged as a classic but O'Donoghue has largely erased it from his memory. It simply meant another year where Sam Maguire wouldn't winter in Kerry.
Sam hasn't been down since 2009, a long enough period to make the locals a little jumpy with withdrawal symptoms. And despite the break-up of a great team, expectation remains as high as ever.
"It's tough being down in Kerry sometimes with that sort of stuff because Kerry people are so forthcoming with their opinions. You ask if they're going to the game and they'll say, 'nah sure why would I go down to see them get beaten?'
"That does stir something inside you. It's rare that it happens in Kerry but when it does, of course you get that bit of a kick up the backside. You're kind of questioning are you a true Kerry player and do you deserve to be wearing that shirt?
"Eamonn (Fitzmaurice) has asked us questions: do you really want to win an All-Ireland? It's up to us now to go on."