Friday 24 May 2019

Joe Brolly: What do you think of this, Kieran Donaghy?

Kieran Donaghy and (inset) with Joe Brolly
Kieran Donaghy and (inset) with Joe Brolly
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

When Kieran Donaghy strode into the square for a big game, they should have had Michael Buffer announcing his arrival. "In the green and gold corner, standing 6' 5" in height, weighing in at 16.5 stone, with a heavyweight championship record of 13 goals and 32 points, an incredible 41 goal assists and 103 points, the Tralee Terror, Kieran 'The Star' Donaghyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy."

No full-forward in history has brought such excitement and drama to the position. He didn't so much go to the square as climb into the ring.

Joe Brolly with Kieran Donaghy. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly with Kieran Donaghy. Photo: Sportsfile

Now, the only Gaelic footballer in history to give the bird to St Patrick has retired. The curious incident of the middle finger happened during a league game against Mayo in 2008 at MacHale Park. Near the end, with Kerry a point down, Donaghy - who had tortured Mayo in the All-Ireland final 18 months earlier, scoring 1-2 and setting up 1-4 - shot for the equalising point. It tailed wide and as he trotted back to the square, he was hit on the leg by a wooden spoon thrown from the crowd. He looked up, saw a Mayo supporter who was dressed as St Patrick cheering, and gave him the bird. The crowd went wild, the moment was captured on camera, and Kieran was where he loved to be, in the eye of the storm.

It was always thus for him. In 2006, he marched to the edge of the square against Longford in the qualifiers, launching a 12-year war against opposing defences. That day he became Gaelic football's first fairground attraction. "ROLL UP, ROLL UP, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, COME AND WATCH THE INCREDIBLE HIGH-CATCHING MAN. IF YOU CAN KICK IT, HE CAN CATCH IT, OR YOUR MONEY BACK." He sky-walked that day for a point, and 3-4 in assists. We gasped. We laughed. We shook our heads in amazement. A star was born. Or rather, The Star was born.

After the Longford game, next up was that fearsome Armagh team in the quarter-final, still hunting relentlessly for their second All-Ireland. Armagh had been beaten by a last-minute point in the semi-final the previous year in an epic battle with Tyrone. Smashing up Longford was all well and good, but Armagh and their legendary Crossmaglen hardman Francie Bellew was another story.

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The game quickly became a battle between Armagh and Star. If they could cow Donaghy, they would win. Everything depended on him. The pivotal moment came in the 38th minute of the game. A long ball was driven in to the square. Donaghy came from behind Bellew and caught the ball high over his head before falling to his knees. Bellew swarmed him. Donaghy got off his knees, shrugged him aside, leaving him on the ground, before deftly planting the ball to the net as big Paul Hearty rushed him.

The defining moment of the game came a few seconds later. Armagh had subjugated and intimidated this Kerry team in the previous years since 2002. Donaghy stuck his face into Hearty's, asked him how he liked those apples, and the contest was over. For the rest of his career he was a symbol of Kerry resistance. When he was on the field, anything was possible.

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In the All-Ireland final that year he smashed up Mayo within ten minutes. In the eighth minute, he took a ludicrous high catch in traffic, stormed through and blasted to the net to leave the score 2-2 to 0-0. Anything that happened afterwards was mere window dressing.

He wasn't a one-year wonder. In 2007 he took on all comers and maintained his perfect record, capping it with two goals and five assists in the All-Ireland final against Cork. As always, the psychological impact of his contributions on the opposition was as important as the scores and assists themselves. He was larger than life, and when he expressed that huge personality, opposition heads drooped.

Kieran Donaghy. Photo: Sportsfile
Kieran Donaghy. Photo: Sportsfile

Double-marking soon became a necessity for opposing teams, and because Kieran was so war-like, referees left him to fend for himself. Kerry decided in and around 2010 that route-one football was no longer working, so he was used in a different way, unsuited to his abilities. Yet, he still burst with enthusiasm and could wreak havoc at a moment's notice.

In 2014, when Kerry were facing certain defeat to Mayo, the call to 'roll up, roll up' went out again and he performed one of the most miraculous rescues in the history of the game. That fetch and pass had to be perfect and it was, allowing James O'Donoghue to slot that immortal goal. Eamonn Fitzmaurice's logical (and as it happens incorrect analysis) was overborne by his emotional response to what happened that day, so he picked Kieran for the replay in the Gaelic Grounds. Donaghy destroyed Mayo, and made O'Donoghue the Player of the Year. In truth, Donaghy was the Player of the Year, something he went on to underline in the final against Donegal's mass defence. That day, he scored 1-1 including the killer goal, which he took with the deftness of the Gooch. O'Donoghue didn't even get a shot off.

Last year, he ruined Galway in Croke Park with another staggering exhibition. Six high balls were kicked in that day, and I mean high. Star was double-marked. David Moran boomed in a 65-yarder. Donaghy caught it, went through the two defenders, and slotted it to the net with his left foot. Yes, his left foot. Of those six balls, he caught all six, resulting in 1-1, 0-2 assists, and 0-1 from a free.

When he led Austin Stacks to the Munster club title in 2014/15, I was the secret guest at their celebrations. I arrived in good time at the hotel and was miked up before being smuggled in to the function room under a coat. Kieran was on stage being asked about his "What do you think of that Joe Brolly?" moment, when I got the signal to go. "You cheeky bastard," I said as I walked into the function room. The place went wild. Big Kieran jumped up and down in surprise and delight, his face red as a beetroot. Afterwards, I drank with the two Bombers, Sean Walsh, Ger Power, Tomás O Sé and many other greats of the game, which has allowed me to name-drop ever since. "Bomber Liston was saying to me that . . ." or, "As Ger Power was saying . . ." or, "You wouldn't believe what Seanie Walsh told me . . ."

Kieran played the game with honour. He loved the contest and the drama, and he never shirked his responsibility. No hiding around the middle third for him, taking an easy pass and hand-passing it off. When he was on the square, it was as though there was a giant thought bubble above him saying "BRING IT ON."

For 12 years, he was Kerry's symbol of resistance, their 'fuck you' to the others. Now, the mantle passes to young David Clifford.

Turned out it wasn't St Patrick who threw the wooden spoon at him all those years ago. In the circumstances, one presumes God can bring himself to forgive that minor indiscretion.

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