Kieran Donaghy: 'I am playing well. I can have a big say in what Kerry do this year'
Kieran Donaghy's reaction to losing his place has been to work harder
IN the days before the Munster football final on July 7, the talk wasn't about who would be playing as much as who wouldn't. The decision to drop Kieran Donaghy whipped up a small storm and the pigeon carrying the news found itself hopelessly outmanoeuvred by the faster wings of social media. The leaking of the story became a story too.
The poor soul caught in the middle faced the scrutiny of sympathetic customers at the bank where he works offering their tuppence worth of football opinion. He doesn't mind it usually; it comes with the territory and he takes it in good spirits. But on this occasion, would you blame him – he took two days off. He did what is hard done for a man of his size: he made himself small.
Some of that escape was spent in Dublin where he had a few duties to fulfil and some was spent at home or on a quiet beach with the dog. At 30, this decision by a new management team could have you worrying. But Donaghy, some weeks later, is philosophical and certainly not bitter. He is hoping to make the team for the All-Ireland quarter-final next weekend where Kerry will be hoping to go one better than they managed in 2010 when losing to Down and last year when smothered by Donegal's blanket defence.
"I wasn't really shocked," he says of the news, "I had a back and rib injury for about two weeks where I didn't train. Came in then and played a challenge game. I didn't play well in that challenge game. Then we had an internal game and I didn't play well in that. And Eamonn (Fitzmaurice) is kind of saying all year the team won't be picked till the Tuesday before the game and they will go with guys going well in training. And if you are not playing well, you are dropped. And unfortunately I wasn't playing well and Darran (O'Sullivan) was going well in training. So I wasn't shocked. Just, I suppose, disappointed."
He says that in the final trial game in Killarney they switched him on to the other team at half-time. "And that's a bad sign. You'd be hoping. I played well in games for Kerry before. That was what I was holding on to. That he'd go with me. But it is a good sign that management can make a hard call. They said to me unfortunately you haven't been setting the world alight in training and we are going with the players in form."
He isn't the first Kerry player to be dropped – Colm Cooper is among an illustrious list of the overlooked – and it isn't the first time Donaghy has been dropped either. Last year he was left off the team for the first round of the Munster championship against Tipperary, a breach of discipline where he attended the Champions League final being the suspected cause, but he started all the matches after that and he started the first two rounds of this year's Munster championship as well.
Since the Munster final, in which he came on in the second half, he has been doing his utmost to impress in training, with many of the sessions now held in camera. "It certainly has added to the training, the trial games. Like, I am going to work my arse off now to get back on the team. I don't want to be a sub."
The decision to drop Donaghy was partly due to a broadening attacking strategy. In the first half of the Munster final, the policy paid dividends as they dissected Cork and ran up a strong lead. The basis of this was low, direct ball in front of their full-forward line, using the burning pace of Darran O'Sullivan and James O'Donoghue, and the football brilliance and brain of Declan O'Sullivan, shelving the skyline deliveries that Donaghy thrived on early in his career and which became a trademark of his game.
That does not mean Kerry will abandon direct aerial raids but they are becoming less of a feature. Whereas once Donaghy could expect up to a dozen high balls with his name on them, in more recent matches he'd be lucky to see two a half. He was finding it more profitable to come on to ball rather than wait toe-to-toe and he preferred it that way as well.
While he sat on the bench in Killarney, Kerry gave an exhibition of forward play. Surely he was worried about seeing them doing so well without him? "I'll be honest with you, it's not in me. I am a team guy. If being a sub is my job for the year, I will do that job to the best of my ability. I'll do all I can to get back. I was delighted for Darran (O'Sullivan), thrilled for Declan (O'Sullivan); he played so well at full-forward. Gooch was Gooch. (Paul) Galvin was brilliant, very disciplined with the stuff he was getting, he kept his head. Donnacha Walsh was running riot. I was delighted Kerry were playing well at half-time."
He can be composed without compromising his competitive edge. "I wouldn't be a worrier really. I am a relaxed person. I try to keep positive. From working in the bank you would see people coming in stressed, and I would say to myself I am under no pressure, really, 'cos I see people under real strain every day. You can see the stress in people's faces straight away. Unfortunately, in the current climate there are a lot of people in that position. So you think you are lucky that your worries are only slight and minor in comparison."
But time ticks on and he has become increasingly conscious of a Kerry career narrowing towards the point of extinction. "Like, I am wondering how many more years do I have, you might have two, three, maybe one? The pressure you put on yourself there; like, every game could be your last game. When you are 24 you don't think that way. I remember Darragh (ó Sé) saying he had pressure coming into games, there was a lot expected of you to perform. Not only that. That is an outside thing. The inside thing is a worse thing. The inside pressure you put on yourself to play well. That gets worse and worse as you get on.
"You're at a stage now where the years are running out and you're trying to get yourself another medal and that is what it comes down to – that is what I am playing for."
And winning another All-Ireland is the bottom line. "You wouldn't be playing (otherwise), what would be the point in playing? It's about trying to win an All-Ireland. If we lose the quarter-final, there will be no one talking of how good we were in the Munster final. We have the players. It is about performing on the big day in Croke Park. We have worked very hard training-wise and Croke Park should show that, come the quarter-final, that we are ready to go. That we don't lose like we did in 2010 and 2012."
The Munster final was a game they felt they had to win. Why? "I don't know, we put it up to ourselves to win it. Cork were good at getting draws in Killarney, they weren't winning matches but they were getting draws and getting us back down to Cork and we often lost the replay. We just said we'd win three matches in a row and be in a quarter-final, that was the target."
Last year Donaghy scored 2-4 in the championship, similar to his 2-6 in 2006 when he was Footballer of the Year and when he played one game more. He has never been in their top three finishers; most of his work is as a provider of scores or a creator of disarray in defences where stability is critical. "Scoring isn't a big part of my game. They are trying to get me more aggressive at the posts. But it's, like, if I ever go to coach a team, I will be looking for fellas to make the right decisions on the field. And if I'm going to kick a score, 40 yards out, and Gooch is next to me and I have scored 70 per cent of the time and he has scored 85 per cent of the time, I'll give him the ball 100 per cent of the time. Like, he's a better chance.
"I feel I'm playing well. I feel I can have a big say in what Kerry do this year. Form is a thing that comes and goes but I will keep working hard, keep training hard and it will come for me."
One area he feels he has improved on is discipline and something, he says, that the current management regime have targeted for improvement. Donaghy, along with other Kerry players, has earned a reputation for challenging refereeing decisions and remonstrating on the field.
"It's something I just stopped doing. I came from a basketball background where you are constantly talking to referees, and they talk back to you, and I came into (GAA) and I wasn't really used to it – football was kind of a second sport to me. And then when I came into football and I'd say something and a ref would turn and run away from me that would drive me mental. But it uses such energy and time that I stopped.
"I mean you saw Gooch in the last game, like, he made an unbelievable tackle and he was deemed to have fouled and he lost the plot, he totally lost the plot. He was totally wrong done by. And you have fellas coming up to you saying 'ah you should not be giving out to the referee' but you put your life on the line and you see he has made a mistake and you'd like to say 'watch that holding' or whatever.
"Like, I'd a scenario there (in this year's championship) where I said to an umpire 'watch the holding' – there was a lot of holding going on inside, bear-tackling basically, and I turned to the umpire and he says to me 'ah go away back out Donaghy and play the game'. If he didn't agree with me fair enough but it was just the manner. You hear them going on about giving respect, but there is give and take. Like, with a rugby player and match officials there is an understanding there.
"After that thing happened to me, I said I am not going to open my mouth to them anymore. I'm never going talking to an umpire again, I will just stay away. This year we looked at that, and we decided, they are doing their best, keep our mouths shut, just play the game. As well as everything else it takes your mind off the ball. You tune out of the game."
There is one issue we talk about before we conclude and he rushes back to work, already late, on a sunny midweek day in Tralee. His father died at 56 last year and Donaghy spoke movingly later about his life and the impact it had on him and his family. He was ten, the eldest in a family of three, when his father moved out of their home and lived a separate life.
"All I was saying is that he had a tough life and I didn't get to know him the way I wanted to get to know him. I didn't get to know him the way a son should get to know his dad and he didn't get to know me the way a dad should get to know his son. He was living here for a while too after that, we used to go visiting him on a Friday and a Sunday but that is never enough when you are young.
"My mom did such a good job, she really covered both positions you might say, full-back and full-forward; mother and father. In that article what I was trying to get across is he's gone now and he's passed on, Lord rest him, but now is the kind of time where you would like to meet him and go for a pint."
His parents met in London and returned to Ireland to set up home, eventually in Tralee, his father being a Tyrone man. It is there, to Tyrone, he later returned and it is there he died.
"He died on March 16 last year, during Cheltenham, it was sad, he died by himself in an apartment where, like, if he'd played the cards right he'd have been home with his family."
Not too many players open up about football matters in this day and age, let alone a subject as personal as this. It reveals, plainly, that he is as impressive a man off the field as he is on it.
adidas Ambassador and Kerry footballer Kieran Donaghy is pictured wearing the next instalment of the world's most iconic boot, the Predator® Incurza XTRX SG II. The new boot is available to buy now. Visit adidas.ie