Thursday 14 December 2017

Joe Brolly: What do you think of that Kieran Donaghy?

Kieran Donaghy’s introduction almost turned the game in Kerry’s favour last Sunday – but why did it come so late?
Kieran Donaghy’s introduction almost turned the game in Kerry’s favour last Sunday – but why did it come so late?

Joe Brolly

'What do you think of that Joe Brolly?' At the risk of sounding like Father Ted at the Golden Cleric Awards, it is time for me to answer Kieran Donaghy's question.

I have been thinking about Kerry all week and how their image as the kingpins of Gaelic football no longer accords with the reality. Since 2002, they have faced nine serious tests in Croke Park. Their record in these has been abject. Armagh, Tyrone (three times), Dublin (three times), Donegal (2012) all brought war and on each occasion Kerry wilted. Their only All-Ireland victories during that period have been soft ones, where the games were over by the end of the first quarter and they were made look like the Harlem Globetrotters against the white men.

The single exception was last year against Donegal, which I will return to anon.

Last Sunday, when it was put up to them, they flopped again. Dublin did nothing more than play with heart and courage. Indeed, their tally of 0-12 was woeful. It was raining, but then again, this is Ireland. Kerry simply surrendered and that is the bottom line.

Colm Cooper is a barometer for this Kerry era. Often described as the greatest player of his era, I have always strongly disputed this tag. What he is, is the most skilful player of his era. At an All Stars night some years ago, in the vampire hours, Michael Lyster was in full flow at the bar, which is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in Irish society. The Northern journalist Paddy Heaney, sober as a young Mormon going door to door, later described the events.

Gooch wandered over and sat up on a bar stool next to Lyster. As the two men chatted, an astonished Heaney noticed that Gooch had dropped an empty beer bottle on his foot and was casually playing keepy-uppy with it. Indeed, we have seen the man produce countless moments of genius throughout his career, but only when he has had time and space.

Philly McMahon (left) speaking to Kerry's Colm Cooper
Philly McMahon (left) speaking to Kerry's Colm Cooper

When the heat is turned up, he disappears, starting with that second half in 2002 against Armagh, after Big Joe Kernan had smashed his 1977 runners-up trophy against the changing room wall at half-time and asked his players why they were "being so fucking polite". Or that trilogy against Tyrone. Or the second half of the 2013 semi-final against Dublin when Cian O'Sullivan picked him up. Or 2012 against Donegal when he was entirely anonymous and looked like he simply gave up. Or last Sunday, when Philly McMahon was rampant and Cooper - as usual - went with the flow.

My point is that he is not a leader. In adversity, he fails. He cannot turn the tide for his team. Unlike say Peter Canavan. Or Bernard Brogan. Or Michael Murphy. Or Michael Darragh Macauley. Or Tomás ó Sé. If Philly McMahon had tried that stuff with Wee Peter he would have been waking up next morning with a very sore face and probably about 1-3 scored off him.

The Kerry adoration industry, led by Micheál ó Muircheartaigh, were upset once when I described him as the greatest first-half footballer in the history of the game, but it is the truth.

One man, and one man alone, has rescued Kerry from a generation of nothingness: Kieran Donaghy.

After being unable to cope with Armagh's sheer courage in 2002, then trounced by Tyrone in 2003 and 2005, Kerry, and the Gooch, were in a very bad place. Then, in an act of desperation by Jack O'Connor, as his team were sliding out of the 2006 series, he brought in the big man from the TG4 programme Underdogs to play against Longford in the qualifiers. A Star was born. But, most importantly, he was a heavyweight competitor. So, he led Kerry to pushover 2006 and 2007 titles against abject opponents and Cooper and Co flourished off the back of his Trojan work. But against Tyrone's warrior team in 2008, Star couldn't do it all by himself. There was no one else to step up, so Kerry lost. The pattern has continued ever since.

It was the same old story last year. The narrative was about Eamonn Fitzmaurice's tactical acumen but there was little sign of it against Mayo. In echoes of Jack O'Connor's last desperate throw of the dice in 2006 against Longford, Fitzmaurice, five points down with a few minutes to go, brought on the big man and hoped for the best. And as he has done so often in the past, the big man with the big balls delivered. Star drew the game for Kerry, Fitzmaurice hinted it had been his plan all along and in the replay, Donaghy wiped the floor with Mayo's defence, doing the dirty work that allowed his team-mates to look like the Golden Years crew. That, coupled with Mayo's natural generosity of course.

Dublin’s Michael Darragh Macauley is challenged by Kerry’s Aidan O’Mahony during the All-Ireland SFC final at Croke Park
Dublin’s Michael Darragh Macauley is challenged by Kerry’s Aidan O’Mahony during the All-Ireland SFC final at Croke Park

The final against Donegal was a curious affair. Jim McGuinness told me earlier this year that before the Dublin semi-final, his squad was at fever pitch. They knew that if they didn't go for it 100 per cent they would be annihilated. So, they played as though their lives depended on it. But before the final, their thinking was, 'We can only screw this up ourselves'. So, instead of going for it, they played conservatively. Even so, they were well on their way to winning the game when Paul Durcan's freak kick-out handed the trophy to Kerry. And of course it was Star, again, who made the telling contribution. His 1-2 from play - in a game where James O'Donoghue didn't even get a shot off - was the crux.

Fast forward to last Sunday, where for 50 minutes, Kerry were entirely subjugated by the Dubs. Timid, fearful, uncompetitive. I will never understand how Fitzmaurice delayed it for so long, but when he brought the big man on, he almost won them the game. Why? Because he is a competitive big bastard and won't lie down to anyone. Suddenly, Rory O'Carroll and the boys were out of their comfort zone.

The first impossible ball Star won, he put the goal on a plate for Cillian Young only for Young to slip. Shortly afterwards, he was denied an absolutely clear penalty when a high ball came in and the Dubs panicked. Six points would have won Kerry the game and kept the Kerry Adoration Industry rolling. As it is, the truth is out there.

What do you think of that Kieran Donaghy?

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