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O'Donoghue X-factor still central to Kerry hopes

Clifford now the leading light but return from injury of former Footballer of the Year will give Keane a crucial option to help overturn Dubs

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James O'Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

James O'Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

James O'Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

Perhaps it was fitting that on the week that saw James O'Donoghue start consecutive games for Kerry for the first time since the summer of 2018, Eamonn Fitzmaurice name-checked the Legion man.

Fitzmaurice referenced O'Donoghue as one of the main reasons why they had won an All-Ireland in 2014. And also as an explanation to perhaps why they didn't get over the line again during his tenure.

"We weren't a million miles away at any stage. A factor, I think sometimes, is James O'Donoghue hasn't had much luck in the meantime in terms of staying fit. He stayed fit for all of that season in 2014 and was huge for us."

Fitzmaurice was responding to a question about whether that '14 All-Ireland win was more satisfying with hindsight, as it came in the midst of the emergence of Dublin's greatest team. The former Kingdom boss's response was that Kerry could have squeezed another one out of his side, and mentioning O'Donoghue was a reminder of the esteem he is held in the county.

For Fitzmaurice, O'Donoghue is the kind of player who can be a game-breaker even at the highest level, something that might be forgotten in the slew on injuries that followed his Footballer of the Year award in '14.

His emergence once again this year has sparked optimism that he could, finally, be on the right road. But his body has paid a hefty price.

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Since late 2014, there's been surgeries on both shoulders, hamstring pulls, calf strains and other assorted knocks. Once the heir apparent to Colm Cooper in Kerry's inside forward line, injuries have so far robbed him of any meaningful run of games.

Across league and championship, he's sat out more than twice the number of Kerry games (36) than he has started (17) over the past five seasons.

Last season was as bad as any for the Legion star. He managed three substitute appearances in the league and started just two of Kerry's eight championship games.

Emergence

In terms of scores, he contributed 1-4 in the whole season. Given his injury profile and the fact that he turns 30 this year, combined with the emergence of David Clifford as their star inside forward, Kerry fans could be forgiven for thinking they had to move on without O'Donoghue.

However, his performances so far this year, as well as the campaign he put down with his club, have given Kerry great Seamus Moynihan reason to believe that he can work his way back. "James actually had a great winter where his own club Legion of Killarney won the O'Donoghue Cup in East Kerry for the first time in 43 years, and James was one of the main reasons because of his form," said the former Kingdom star.

"Stephen Stack and Pat Flanagan have gone in and trained them, and they have been living underneath the shadow of Dr Crokes for a number of years. Winning that competition is an extremely big one for Legion, and James played a pivotal role in that, and he has brought that form into the Kerry set-up as well.

"He seems to have found that burst of pace that he had back in 2014 with that four steps, and he got that back again."

It was a reminder that even with all the options Kerry have, O'Donoghue is worth waiting on.

"James has been extremely unlucky with injuries and he's been there or thereabouts. He just needs to get an absolute clear bill of health, and once he can get that he's a serious player.

"He has struggled with his shoulder, he got that right, but he has had calf and hamstring and mostly muscular injuries. Unfortunately with James, he is such a fast player that he wants that sort of pace, and if we can get him back it gives you options."

Last Saturday night there was flashes of the old O'Donoghue with a couple of fine points against Galway. There were also fears that his injuries had come back to haunt him when he didn't reappear after half-time. Peter Keane insisted afterwards that it was all part of the plan for him to share time with Tommy Walsh.

If that's the case it seems a wise course of action. O'Donoghue started two games inside a week, playing 85 minutes. And Moynihan believes that should he get some luck and stay fit, he can return to something like his 2014 form.

"There's no reason why he can't (get back to that level). It's the same guy, albeit a few years older. Maybe a bit more experienced and he will have to use his ceann a wee bit more as well as opposed to using his speed. But he's an exceptional scorer and if fully fit he's a hard guy to mark over 70 minutes."

A fit O'Donoghue would be another option in the already stacked deck that is the Kerry full-forward line. But even with all the talent, Fitzmaurice still believes O'Donoghue can make a difference.

"He just has an X-factor and a bit of magic about him. Plus, you know, you can account for one or two, but, if you've a full-forward line of James, Paul (Geaney), David (Clifford) …you've quality subs to come into that too, but if you're starting with the three of them then you might keep one of them quiet, two of them quiet, but it's very hard to keep the three of them quiet all of the time.

"So, yeah, if Kerry can keep him fit and he can avoid injury for the year it would be huge."

Irish Independent