Saturday 22 October 2016

Johnny Buckley ready to take centre stage after too long on the periphery

Dermot Crowe

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Kerry's Johnny Buckley
Kerry's Johnny Buckley

Now if Mikey Sheehy had done that, kicked the first Kerry point against Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final, you'd never hear the end of it. Or Colm Cooper. But it was Johnny Buckley and even Kerry people, or a good number of them, are probably still figuring out the Dr Crokes player. Having scored the first, he landed the next two as well in the opening ten minutes when Tyrone were uppity and proclaiming themselves game.

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The first was the pick of the three. Kick pass into the left corner leaves James O'Donoghue hugging the flag and left with no option but to recycle the ball out the field. It moves in an arc to the middle around the 45-metre line where Kieran Donaghy feeds a short hand-pass to Buckley. There is an army of white shirts between him and goal but in one hop of a ball he breaks the line. He dummies the first Tyrone defender and gains ground. He then works a one-two to eliminate another and a third is taken out with a second well-disguised bounce when he looks set to kick. With that he has a clear shot at goal and gets Kerry off the mark.

Tyrone might have expected Buckley to pass the duty of cracking their defensive code to some of the marquee forwards but it is a measure of his development into a more complete player that he had the confidence to take it on himself. If he hadn't scored Buckley would still have contributed handsomely, being Kerry's most prolific tackler. His tackle count of 13 was the highest by a Kerry player in the Championship this year, Anthony Maher coming closest in the Tyrone game with 11.

"We knew Tyrone focused quite heavily on the first ten minutes of the match and it had been a strong point of their game all year" says Buckley. "After they kicked the first couple of points I think there was a collective (decision) - be it a look at another player or a wink and a nod, saying, 'we just need to get stuck into this now'. There was a collective will, the whole team, not to let Tyrone get a strong hold on the match early on."

Now 26, Buckley has gradually become an integral part of the Kerry game-plan. Darragh Ó Sé was advancing his claims on a Kerry jersey as far back as 2010, recalling a club game in which he faced Buckley and admired his kicking and direct feeds into the forward line. In Jack O'Connor's last game in charge of Kerry, the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Donegal, he was introduced as a substitute. The following year in the semi-final defeat by Dublin he was the first player taken off, after 50 minutes, replaced by David Moran. With Moran and Maher having forged a formidable midfield alliance, Buckley has had to stake his claims outside that zone, though it is expected he will eventually become Moran's midfielder partner.

Losing his place in this year's All-Ireland quarter-final against Kildare had some mitigation in a knee injury which hampered his preparations after the Munster Championship. When the selectors recalled him to the team against Tyrone in place of Bryan Sheehan, the move was vindicated with a man-of-the-match performance. Despite Ó Sé's endorsement, it wasn't until 2012 that Buckley started his first senior championship game, and he has been steadily building his reputation since.

"He had a frustrating early part of the season because he was carrying a bit of a knee injury and he was trying to play through it, and it was impeding his performance a small bit," says his manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

"But by the time the Tyrone game came around he was functioning perfectly again and he was top of the ground and he played really well in training between the Kildare and the Tyrone game and got himself back on the team. And then played outstanding in the Tyrone game.

"But he's a brilliant player. He's a very natural footballer. He can play in a lot of different positions for us. I mean, he is a natural midfielder but he can play across the half-forward line for us and there aren't too many fellas that can play in the half-forward line if you're a natural midfielder because it's so demanding. He's a vital player in our set-up."

Buckley was on the Kerry minor team, along with Moran, Shane Enright and Tommy Walsh, defeated by Roscommon in the All-Ireland final replay in 2006, and won an All-Ireland under 21 medal two years later, going to play three years at the grade. In Kerry he is recognised as one of the county's best fielders. One of the matches which showcased his talents under a high ball was Kerry's win over Cork in the 2010 Munster under 21 championship, when Cork were reigning All-Ireland champions and had beaten Kerry by 11 points the year before.

Sylvester Hennessy was the team statistician, working under manager John Kennedy. "He caught seven kick-outs but had only about ten possessions in the whole match. Basically, he gave a spectacular fielding performance but his overall game wasn't at the same standard. He has really developed under Eamonn Fitzmaurice. He has gone from the quintessential midfielder to be an all-round player.

"He regularly tops the Kerry tackle county with Maher. That was something you would never associate with Johnny Buckley four years ago. He was basically a high fielding midfielder, a skilful footballer, he could always kick left or right, But you could see that incessant work-rate he has now against Tyrone."

Buckley has always been a willing learner and prepared to do what's asked of him. "As a forward you have an obligation to score and we all know how important the half-forward line is in your defensive set-up," he says himself. "No more than a full-forward hoping to be strong defensively and not letting them attack up the field. "

Being left off against Kildare didn't unduly alarm him. "Form is the big one they pick on and he's (Fitzmaurice) proved that in the past - he's made calls and left some big players out for different games. It's a big part of our set-up that if you are dropped it's not the be all and end all. Obviously there's personal disappointment, but the focus is on the collective and getting your head around it for the next training session or whatever it may be.

"For every fella it's different. For myself there was a slight dip in form, from the Cork games I suppose. I had missed a couple of trainings with my knee and I tried to get that right and things were just starting to come good so I had no problem whatsoever with the decision. I think it was the right one, if I was in his position I would have made the same one. So again just after the Kildare game then you've got another couple of weeks to try and get back on the team."

His father, Mike, won an All-Ireland club medal with Dr Crokes in 1992 and Buckley has All-Ireland winning pedigree on his mother's side too: her uncle Tom Costello won an All-Ireland with Kerry in 1955. "He is a player that's still developing," states Weeshie Fogarty, the Kerry radio presenter. "We haven't seen the best of him yet. For the Crokes he has been absolutely outstanding over the last couple of years. He is oozing class but for Kerry he has been a little bit inconsistent. But that is because he is still progressing and building up stamina. I think he will be one of the great Kerry midfielders."

Kerry trainer Cian O'Neill says Buckley was "relatively novice" when the current management team took over ahead of the 2013 season. "His potential was clearly there to be seen. I'd see a lot of him at Sigerson (Buckley won the title with UCC in 2011). I managed the UL team for years so I knew what be brought to the table but I guess he was still finding his feet in the senior set-up back then. You still had all the (more) senior players, a lot of them retired in the year or two after that. But for us he is a huge player because he has the full package. He can play. He is skilful. He is very intelligent. On and off the pitch. He has a good game intelligence, a high level of understanding.

"And he is such an attritional player; if there is a ball on the ground he'll dive on it, if there are tackles to be made he'll put his body in there and when he had that niggle in the knee I could just see even in training he wasn't able to do the things that he wanted to do. He is crucial to what we do, he is pivotal. And all the players know that as much as we do in management."

John Kennedy had him at minor and under 21 with Kerry. "He was a good learner always," he says. "He came from a club where there was great pedigree there, he got proper coaching and he had all the basic skills coming in like a lot of the Crokes guys.

"With the club, college and underage he played a lot of football for a few years, whereas now he has had some time with Kerry to develop. He is an unassuming kind of a guy, it will never go to his head."

O'Neill rates this year his best so far. "He's grown into a leadership role. In the last two years people probably would have regarded him as a good Kerry footballer and a great part of the team.

"This year he would be see more as a leader and when Johnny's on form, particularly up front, the whole forward line is working harder. Why? Because they get it from the work he does."

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