Kieran Donaghy is mocking the suggestion that football is a young man's game
Kieran Donaghy has lost the athleticism of a 23-year-old, but he has other enduring qualities
In 2013, Kieran Donaghy gave an interview to this newspaper at a time when his career looked to be approaching a hairpin bend. He had turned 30 in a younger man's game in which his own brand now seemed antiquated. He had been dropped for the Munster final by Éamonn Fitzmaurice, in his first season in charge since replacing Jack O'Connor. These were troubling tea leaves if you were to read them a certain way.
Donaghy was inclined to see more positive interpretations. He had been stifled by injury and unable to give his all in training and lost his place. He held out the hope of winning it back for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cavan, which he did, but he didn't start the semi-final against Dublin. Kerry's best football that day was not about long ball into a big man but intricate patterns. It looked like he and his way had had their day.
"You're at a stage now," he said that midsummer, "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."
He did, a year later, with a Phoenix-like rise late in the year, win an All Star after not playing a full championship match, nor anywhere close, until the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo. And in spite of winning that fourth medal in his 30s, and the All Star as added decoration, he's still there sniffing around for a fifth Celtic Cross at 34.
The last day against Galway surely had people feeling a surge of nostalgia as he produced a panoply of what he used to do best, creating havoc, scoring a goal and being a focal point of Kerry's attack. Now we must enter the caveat of Galway's defending not being top drawer nor terribly street-wise but, allowing that, it was still a little weird to be talking about Donaghy more than anyone else in the Kerry forward line last week.
"It's incredible with a full-forward line with the calibre of the likes of Paul Geaney and James O'Donoghue that everybody coming up to this game is talking about Donaghy," says Mike Quirke, the former Kerry player. "And out of the three he is by far and away the third best footballer, he would be third in terms of skill, scoring and two-footedness. And because everyone is talking about Donaghy, Geaney and O'Donoghue must be delighted, there is no real spotlight on them. Donaghy soaks all that stuff up, it doesn't bother him. The others are coming in more under the radar and could cut loose. It is great from that point of view; he is like a magnet for media which just rolls off him."
Mayo know him well and will have been spending time plotting how best to ensure he gives them no problems of the scale he inflicted on Galway. Donaghy has never been renowned as a prolific scorer, rather more a scorer of important scores. Whatever system you employ to defuse him, either by foul means or fair, he is still, if in the right frame of mind, a sizeable threat at 6'5".
This is maybe his third or fourth career wind. A year before he gave that mid-season interview in 2013, he played in the Allianz League semi-final against Mayo when his misplaced pass led to a late penalty concession with his team cruising. The goal that followed got Mayo back into the match against the run of play. They forced extra-time and won.
The previous September Kerry also squandered possession to allow Dublin jackknife the All-Ireland in the final minutes. A careless pass in Kerry isn't welcome at the best of times. All the more so back then. In the 2012 championship that followed he scored 2-4, only 0-2 less than the 2-6 accumulated when Footballer of the Year in 2006. That, five years ago, came after Jack O'Connor dropped him for the opening match against Tipperary for attending the Champions League final shortly before.
If he has stayed longer than even he might have expected, it may be something to do with the fact that he only started at 23. "I suppose my career has always been a roller-coaster with huge surges followed by dips," he told Sylvester Hennessy in an interview with Kerry's Eye in October 2015, the year he captained Kerry when they lost the All-Ireland final to Dublin in the rain.
He didn't start the final but came on in the last quarter and did much to cause Dublin a good deal of stress. Donaghy wasn't playing his best football that year but, as he told Hennessy, his lowest ebb was before the Mayo games in 2014 when he had played just a few minutes of the championship up to that point.
When he came in against Mayo late in the drawn match it transformed the year for Kerry, who looked on the brink of defeat. Donaghy set up a goal for O'Donoghue and started the replay when he scored a goal and created numerous problems for Ger Cafferkey. The same player did a good job containing Donaghy in 2011 when the counties met in the All-Ireland semi-final but the more recent experience is less reassuring.
"After the two Mayo games [in 2014] my confidence was sky high," Donaghy told Hennessy. "Not only that but I felt that the players, management and supporters were all looking to me for inspiration again and that is something that I have always thrived on. You can't beat that feeling."
The extended club campaign with Austin Stacks over the winter of 2014, which ran into February of the following year, allowed him no break from football, although it conferred on him the captaincy of the county. He felt in retrospect that he needed a break but he kept playing. Last year he was used at midfield through the league and championship until the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin when, despite having number eight on his back, he started at full-forward. He was taken off after 50 minutes. But he still held back on retirement.
Not having played league football this year is seen as a key element in bringing a renewed vigour and appetite to his game. He focused his energies on basketball but the time out of football, and free run from injuries, worked in his favour. Against Galway he looked fresh, having come on late in the Munster semi-final against Clare and started his first match against Cork in the Munster final.
"I'd say to be honest it wasn't his intention, I'd imagine, to be playing at this stage," says Quirke, "but sure you couldn't walk away from it after 2014, the way things fell, and then the injuries cleared up. I think injury has been a big thing. He had a number of different injuries that were well documented, he had a nagging groin thing that wasn't so much keeping him out but inhibiting his movement and he was not jumping the same way or running with the same flow. Since last year you can see his movement is better, the high catches tend to get all the attention obviously but even in the Munster final his quickness was there and he was getting out in front of lads. Even though he only got a point he was very effective because he was able to get out in front."
In the 2011 All-Ireland final, when the best point he's ever scored for Kerry drew the match before Stephen Cluxton's winner, he played at wing-forward. O'Connor was unhappy with his display against Mayo in the semi-final but the option of dropping Donaghy carried the risk of lifting Dublin psychologically. He has played in the corner for Kerry too. But positioned anywhere near goal, he poses that familiar threat to every team he plays against.
Off the pitch, Donaghy is also happier in himself, having a young daughter and a career change from the bank to a company, PST, who manufacture synthetic pitches. He is rolling back the years, the last Kerry survivor of the 2006 All-Ireland win to start this year's quarter-finals. To the naked eye the act is still much the same but he is not the same player. He couldn't be the same athlete at 34 that he was at 23.
"I mean, he was obviously a huge leaper and a guy whose vertical jump would have been very, very high," says Quirke. "When you are six five and you have long arms like he has and jumping four and five feet off the ground and have good hands there are very few guys who can compete with that. But as time has gone on and injuries accumulate that vertical jump has got closer and closer to the ground, so he is not getting up as high. I really think because of deterioration from injury and age he just stopped being as effective for a spell. I don't think it was anything in particular that other teams were doing.
"When (David) Moran's ball was sent in against Galway I'd say you might have fitted a sheet of paper under his feet; he did not lift that high off the ground. He has got cuter using his body and backside, in eating up the space and denying others the space. I think he has become effective in other ways."
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