Thursday 29 September 2016

Star-ing Role

Nobody has shaped the final stages of the All-Ireland Championship more than Donaghy and tomorrow Kerry's talisman will pose questions that Dublin have yet to answer about their head for heights

Declan Bogue

Published 27/08/2016 | 02:30

There are question marks about Dublin’s ability to contest the high ball and Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy is sure to test them tomorrow, like he did against Cian O’Sullivan in this year’s league final Picture: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE
There are question marks about Dublin’s ability to contest the high ball and Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy is sure to test them tomorrow, like he did against Cian O’Sullivan in this year’s league final Picture: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE

Over the winter, Pat Spillane caught Kieran Donaghy in action wearing the white singlet of St Brendan's Tralee, during their march to the Intermediate Club Championship title.

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Beating BC Leixlip Nemunas in the final, Donaghy scored 18 points, provided 12 assists and horsed his way to a staggering 26 rebounds. Afterwards, he wore that radiant smile as he collected the MVP Award.

"Jesus Christ, he is a great basketballer," says Spillane.

At 22, he had to suspend his court commitments. The twinges in his back sent up flares while Jack O'Connor demanded monogamy with the county footballers. At 33, he emerged from a winter's action in greater physical shape in years, contributing to his fine start in the National League for Kerry.

Things have been nice and quiet on their run to tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final. Nevertheless, they had to face down the competition including a Clare side full of motivation for their quarter-final. Donaghy was sent out and, in time-honoured Kerry style, hammered the hammer.

"I think he did a job against Gary Brennan that a lot of people didn't give him credit for," says Spillane. "Because Gary was coming in with an All-Star in his pocket and he left with… well, there's no All-Star there now."

By the 47th minute, Donaghy vacated the field to be replaced by Anthony Maher. Bigger days ahead and a chance for Eamonn Fitzmaurice to rest up a Fear Láidir.

Journey

It's been quite the journey for the boy who didn't even think enough of himself as a minor to continue playing for Austin Stacks, to the rapid acceleration after rediscovering his love of the game through the Junior C wing of the club.

He came to prominence when Mickey Ned O'Sullivan nabbed him for 'The Underdogs' reality TV programme, prior to Jack O'Connor re-imagining him as a full-forward and spawning a thousand imitations.

Kerry football held him enthralled as a child. In a 2006 interview, he recalled: "I've a picture at home of me sitting inside the wire in Fitzgerald Stadium at a Munster final. Pat Spillane's fallen out over the sideline, and you know the small stone wall? He hopped his head off that and he's bleeding. Jack O'Shea's over and I'm two feet away. I could've been killed."

Now he is respected by the Kerry Golden Circle.

"I thought he was more of a man possessed last year when he was over-hyped and he was trying too hard, because of the captaincy and all that," says Spillane. "I think the captaincy weighed too heavily on him and he was trying to be all things to all men and getting too involved. I think this year he is calmer, he is playing solid without being spectacular."

It took a long time for them to become aware of it, and they had already faced each other in two All-Ireland finals, but Tyrone's Joe McMahon and Donaghy spent a little part of their childhood only a couple of kicks of a ball apart, even attending St Conor's Primary school in Omagh together briefly. If Tyrone had him now, you could only imagine how their own jigsaw would be complete.

For one thing, McMahon believes Donaghy's personality would thrive in most environments, having played in a couple of International Rules series along with him.

"He is very lively in company. Open and honest," says McMahon. "He is very likeable that way, has a good personality and there is a bit of craic out of him. He wouldn't be shy in getting involved in the action and if something is going down, he will be involved."

Tomorrow, he will need to be involved in a different kind of action. After being bullied around Croke Park in last year's final, the baseline for Kerry is to make an impression on Dublin's key men.

"I think Dublin haven't really been tested with that high ball in the recent past," says McMahon. "There have been questions about their ability to deal with it but certainly, Kerry will put a few questions to answer.

"Donaghy at full-forward gives them an option. He is cute enough to hold a man off and knock the ball down, or catch it himself.

"He is very intelligent in his running too. If the high ball comes in dropping, he can mark out a couple of yards for him to step into. The crossover with the basketball helps him in this regard."

In the past decade, nobody has shaped All-Ireland finals and semi-finals as much as Donaghy. In the 2007 final, he stripped Cork's Michael Shields of possession to tap into the net Alan Quirke had vacated.

But it was his intervention in 2014, when retirement looked a distinct possibility, that might hold the key for the Kingdom this weekend. Trailing to Mayo, Fitzmaurice sent on Donaghy in the semi-final. A punt by David Moran, caught by Donaghy, flipped to James O'Donoghue and stitched to the net, got them out of Croke Park alive.

A matter of weeks later, those big waving arms scrambled Paul Durcan's mind as he gifted Donaghy a chance, one that he took with a coolness that belongs to the finest of finishers.

McMahon feels he can have one of those days again.

"If the ball comes in, Kerry have boys who can pick off that. If it works, then Dublin might drop Cian O'Sullivan deeper. And then the rest of the half-back line could drop deeper. That could create more space out the field for the likes of Bryan Sheehan and Donnchadh Walsh to pick off points in those pockets out the field."

For Spillane, there is only one place for him.

"They have to ask questions of Dublin and to ask questions, that means Donaghy at full-forward. Oh yeah, it has to be. No doubt about it."

One final throw of the dice.

Irish Independent

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