Tuesday 23 October 2018

Páirc return can fire O'Donoghue once again

Kingdom star seeks to launch second coming at Cork venue he stormed four years ago

James O’Donoghue has been a thorn in the side of Cork in Kerry’s recent successes over their Munster neighbours. Photo: Sportsfile
James O’Donoghue has been a thorn in the side of Cork in Kerry’s recent successes over their Munster neighbours. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

As the ball soared high, spinning off David Moran's right boot from the Hogan Stand sideline and Kieran Donaghy spread himself wide in preparation to receive, James O'Donoghue's darting run in around his bigger companion was instinctively that of a great predator.

He knew what was coming next. He knew where he had to be.

Donaghy did the needful, O'Donoghue obliged with a clinical goal and an All-Ireland semi-final second half that they had been adrift in for so long was now in their collective grasp.

It was the second successive match that O'Donoghue had plundered a goal from play in that summer of 2014, bringing his tally from three games to 2-18, even before he'd land another 2-6 in that absorbing Gaelic Grounds replay against Mayo six days later.

Scoreless

It was so much O'Donoghue's summer, even if he'd finish scoreless in the All-Ireland final against Donegal as Kerry took him away from his more natural hinterland into a more creative role, to leave room for Donaghy and Paul Geaney to thrive.

But the significance of that late strike against Mayo in Croke Park, apart from its redemptive nature, was that it was O'Donoghue's last goal from play in championship or league for Kerry.

All three championship goals he had scored subsequently - two against Mayo in the replay and one in the drawn 2015 Munster final replay against Cork - have come from the penalty spot.

In 16 subsequent championship games that O'Donoghue has featured in since (Kerry have played 17 in that time), either as a starter or a substitute, O'Donoghue has drawn a blank from general play. He would finish 2014, of course, as Footballer of the Year but the intervening years have been like a blurring from one injury to another. Which shoulder did he have operated on in what year? What calf has throbbed to keep him out of part or most of successive league campaigns. Were there hamstring and even hip injuries thrown in for good measure?

The upshot is that O'Donoghue has played in just five of the 31 league games that Kerry have played since 2014. He has recuperated to be ready for each championship, including the current one, but form has been fleeting. After hitting Clare and Cork for 16 points, eight from play, in last year's Munster Championship, the O'Donoghue of old, who had also made his mark in the 2013 championship, looked like he was about to rediscover himself.

But once again, when it came to the business end of a championship, that form petered out, so much so that he has started each of Kerry's last two championship games (Dublin 2016, Mayo 2017) on the bench. For O'Donoghue, a return to Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow may not be of any great significance but it's where he delivered arguably the best provincial final performance from a forward since Tyrone's Frank McGuigan's destruction of Armagh in the 1984 Ulster final.

O'Donoghue took Cork for 10 points that afternoon in 2014, the last football championship football match to be played there before the rebuild. Eight were from play, five off his left foot.

It became a despairing sight for Cork supporters to watch O'Donoghue step out in front of any of the three markers he had tracking him at different stages and with nonchalant ease, pop over points off left and right.

His best displays since have, arguably, been reserved for Cork. In the replayed 2015 Munster final, despite scoring just a point, he played a commanding role.

But the dearth of goals from play in his career mirrors the stop-start nature of its since. Without a steady flow of league football to bank the man who his manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice described as a "freak of nature" after that 2014 Munster final, because of his ability to hit form so soon after an injury, is getting harder to do just that over a sustained period of time. Just when he looked like he might be building up a head of steam in last year's league, a calf injury derailed him prior to the Dublin game in Tralee.

Similarly, the opportunity to share a stage with David Clifford was undone with another calf injury in the opening league game against Donegal - he lasted just six minutes after coming off the bench - that finished his involvement in the campaign.

The emergence of Seán O'Shea and David Clifford and the progression of Paul Geaney since 2014 has certainly taken some focus off him. But a Clifford-Geaney-O'Donoghue full-forward axis at peak fitness and form, with O'Shea outside them, is the high water mark that Kerry continue to aim for.

Recently O'Donoghue spoke of feeling like he was 22-year-old again with all the insecurities that can drive him. He described it as a "nice" thing. Such uncertainty, after a terrible run of injuries, have forced him to be a different player looking forward to the second half of his career. Maybe the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh can fire it, just like the old one fanned those early flames.

Irish Independent

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