Tuesday 18 December 2018

Talented peers polarised by place of birth

Kilkenny and Kingston are both top forwards but their inter-county goals are worlds apart

Dublin's Ciaran Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Ciaran Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

This is how it is. Two precociously talented footballers born on different sides of the tracks. Their careers begin at a similar point and then start to diverge. Sport is soon imitating life. But only to a degree. Even life is not that cut and dried. Life is not that discriminatory.

Today in the Leinster final, their career lines briefly converge. On one side you have Donie Kingston, aged 27. Remember the tumult that attended Donie's unveiling? He featured in an All-Ireland under 21 final at 16, made his senior championship debut at 17, ten years ago. On the other side is Ciaran Kilkenny, 25 next month, an outstanding dual minor who played All-Ireland finals in both codes in 2011. Of all the footballers who have come out of Dublin in recent times he was one of the most flagged.

Laois' Donal Kingston. Photo: Sportsfile
Laois' Donal Kingston. Photo: Sportsfile

At minor Kingston won a Leinster title, but soon after the success started to dry up. Kilkenny, by dint of birthplace and fortunate timing, is enjoying a level of success that he may only properly appreciate after he has retired.

There is common ground, but root deeper and wild variations emerge. In his time playing, Kingston has had seven managers. Kilkenny came on as a sub with a minute left in the Leinster semi-final against Wexford in 2012 under Pat Gilroy, making his first senior championship appearance for Dublin, and he started the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo later that year. Ever since he has only worked under Jim Gavin, his manager when he won an All-Ireland under 21 medal in 2012. Over the same period that Gavin has been there, Kingston has had four different Laois managers. The last two have each lasted one season. On one side you have stability and continuity; on the other upheaval and uncertainty.

Today's Leinster final features a bunch of footballers for whom playing for their county may be the only reward. For Dublin it is the central motive too, but success has brought supplementary benefits that a Laois footballer could only dream of. To use one example: since winning the All-Ireland in 2011 under Gilroy, and the four times since under Gavin, Dublin players have gone on foreign holidays to the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Thailand, Jamaica and South Africa. In Kingston's time Laois have not have a holiday of any description. The most recent training camp abroad was in Sean Dempsey's time as manager almost ten years ago.

Saturday, January 27, 2018. Two weeks after getting home from the team holiday in South Africa, Ciaran Kilkenny scores two points as Dublin ease themselves back into competitive action with a win over Kildare at Croke Park in the opening round of the National League. A crowd of 26,000 is present to see Dublin repeat their Leinster final win over their neighbours from the previous summer.

Kingston, meanwhile, is not on the Laois team who on the same evening host Limerick at O'Moore Park in their first taste of life in Division 4, having been relegated the previous season. They win 2-12 to 0-9. Six of the starting team are making their competitive debuts. Limerick have a blanket defence and trail just 0-5to 0-3 at the interval in a predictably dour match. At this point of the year there is growing concern in Laois that Donie Kingston might not return.

Over the winter he withdrew from football and began playing basketball again, joining a team, Old Leighlin, in the Midlands League. When younger, Kingston was a talented basketball player who made national trials. "It was a big concern within Laois that he wouldn't be back," says former Laois player Chris Conway, who coached Kingston at Knockbeg College. "I suppose we have to be grateful to John Sugrue's man-management and the fact that Paul (Kingston), his brother, is there, with the squad; he was able to tell him the vibes were positive. Unfortunately, the last couple of years things haven't worked out for various reasons. Suppose the way the game has gone, tactics-wise, it hasn't suited Donie either."

In the spring of 2011 Laois gained promotion from Division 2, winning their last match in Portlaoise against Donegal. On April 24 they faced Donegal in the Division 2 final in Croke Park, as a curtain-raiser to Dublin's Division 1 final meeting with Cork. Laois went down by a point with Kingston coming on and scoring 0-4, three from play. Donegal won Ulster that summer and powered on to win the All-Ireland the following season.

What became of Laois? On June 5, Dublin beat Laois in Leinster with Kingston coming on at half-time. That loss sent Laois into the qualifiers. On June 25 they defeated Tipperary in the first round in Portlaoise, Kingston scoring 0-3, two from frees. Four days later, Ciaran Kilkenny scored 0-7 from play in the Leinster minor semi-final for Dublin against Kildare in Parnell Park. They won by 16 points.

On July 9 Kingston's Laois lost to Kildare in the next round of the senior championship qualifiers by 15 points. A humiliation. All the promise of the spring went up in smoke. The next day in Croke Park, with a noon start, Dublin's minors won the Leinster championship with a ten-point win over Meath. Kilkenny ended the campaign as the minor football championship's top scorer with 0-39. In the All-Ireland final their defeat was unexpected, but seismic as Tipperary's win was, the later events of the day would be even more transformative. In the final ten minutes of the senior final, with Kilkenny watching along with the rest of his minor team-mates, Dublin turned over Kerry and won a first title since 1995.

The following May, Kilkenny won an All-Ireland under 21 medal under Gavin and the stars were beginning to align. Kingston took a year out. When he came back, Kilkenny was a key figure in Dublin's plans.

In 2012, while Kingston played in Boston, with a minute of normal time left in the Leinster senior semi-final against Wexford, Kilkenny came on for Kevin McManamon. Dublin went on to win the Leinster title and Kilkenny made his first start in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo.

Saturday, February 10, 2018. Donie Kingston makes his first appearance of the season as a half-time substitute against Waterford before a tiny attendance in the third round of the National League in Portlaoise. Laois win; he scores 0-2. Kingston's return is a massive relief to those who worried that they might have seen the last of him in a Laois jersey, who feared that all those fruitless years might finally have weighed him down. On the same evening in Croke Park, Dublin host Donegal and complete their third win on the bounce in Division 1. Ciaran Kilkenny scores 0-2 in a 0-20 to 0-15 victory before 21,462.

If Kilkenny had been born in Laois, would he still be playing ten years later? He probably would but who can tell for sure? Would you forgive him if he hadn't the heart to go on? This is how it is, always was and always will be. The stronger counties and the less well off. The football poor will always be with us. Some players won't be able to take it without some prospect of winning, but enough will regard it as a duty, and an honour to play. And there is always hope of some reward, however faint.

"I suppose it is the nature of the game and the GAA, one of the great things is how loyal people are to their counties and that," says Conway. "If there was a transfer market I would say Donie Kingston would be on every radar. He has been a bit unfortunate. In terms of Knockbeg, he missed out on the All-Ireland winning team (2005), and he was unlucky not to win a Leinster Colleges in his own right (lost 2009 Leinster final to St Pat's after extra time). If he was a few years older he probably would have been knocking around our last strong Laois senior team, in the period '03-07, when he was just coming through as a minor."

July 19, 2008. Aged 17, a year before he sits his Leaving Cert, Kingston makes his senior championship debut for Laois in a first-round qualifier against Longford in Pearse Park. He scores 1-3 during a late Laois surge, with 1-2 coming from play, and he almost scores two more goals, two of his points narrowly clearing the crossbar.

The 6ft 4in teenager transforms a dull contest with the only goal after 55 minutes. "He has a huge amount of talent," says Laois manager Liam Kearns. "He is physically very strong, mentally very strong, and he's as good a 17-year-old as I have seen.

"We thought we'd be taking him off the bench, but he was just playing too well in challenge matches. We were forced into playing him - we just couldn't keep him off."

In the next round, at home to Down, Kingston scores 1-5, including a stunning goal, as they lose 2-14 to 1-15. The season is done but he has left an indelible mark.

Earlier that year, Laois were relegated from Division 1 of the National League, while Dublin earned promotion from Division 2. Kingston was part of the promotion-winning campaign in 2011 but by the time the new season came around he had decided to step away for a year and go travelling. Laois lasted one year in Division 1 and Kingston returned in 2013 with his county back in the second tier. He has never played at a higher level than Division 2, and in 2017 he was part of the team that went down from Division 3 to 4.

In all his time with Dublin, Ciaran Kilkenny has never known a year to pass without his county being involved a Division 1 league final. Except for last year, when Kerry caused a surprise, they have won each time, taking five of the last six titles. In 2014 he was part of the early league campaign before suffering a cruciate tear. He has four All-Ireland medals, two All-Stars and terrific prospects of more silverware. He has lost only one championship match at senior level with Dublin, in his first full start against Mayo in 2012.

O'Connor Park, Tullamore, Sunday, April 2, 2017. Kingston lines out for Laois and scores 3-4 in the final round of Division 3 matches in the National League. Laois need a favourable result to stay up but despite Kingston's best efforts they lose 4-11 to 3-15, and go down, having suffered earlier defeats to Louth, Tipperary, Sligo and Antrim. Their only wins came against Armagh and Longford. When the season is done they are bottom of the division. This is as low as Laois football has been in living memory.

On the same day, Kilkenny is in Clones helping Dublin secure a win over Monaghan and stretch their unbeaten run in league and championship matches to 36, an all-time record. Kilkenny plays wing-back and scores a point. The result leaves Dublin with their fourth win of the season, which, combined with three earlier draws, earns them a place in the league final for the fifth year in a row, where they will be seeking their fifth successive victory.

This has been a regular story retold of rich and poor. In 2016, Laois were relegated to Division 3, finishing bottom of the table, with one win from seven. On April 3, in the final round, they lost 1-9 to 0-18 to Meath at home, Kingston scoring 0-1. On the same day Dublin narrowly defeated Roscommon in Carrick-on-Shannon, with Kilkenny coming on as a late sub. Kilkenny went on to win a league medal, scoring 0-3 in the final against Donegal, and afterwards he was declared man of the match. It was his fourth league winner's medal in succession.

A win over Wicklow in the Leinster championship earned Laois a chance to play Dublin in Nowlan Park, where they lost 2-21 to 2-10, and a rare opportunity for Kingston and Kilkenny to play in opposition. On the day that Con O'Callaghan made his debut, Kilkenny scored 0-4, while Kingston managed 0-2, including a free. Before this match, Dublin had beaten Laois six times since they'd last lost to them in the championship in 2003.

Laois took refuge in the qualifiers. They beat Armagh, then lost to Clare in the second round on July 10. A week later Dublin were crowned Leinster champions, before moving on to win another All-Ireland, Kilkenny's third.

"I suppose for the last four or five years he has been the mainstay of our attack," says Eddie Kelly, who was Kingston's manager at minor and under 21. "Everything centres around him. He is more important to us than Ciaran Kilkenny is to Dublin. He is one of those players, to use the old saying, who would get on any county team in Ireland. A big man who is good with both feet, good in the air."

Kingston wears Sondico boots, not a fashionable brand, and in the recent Leinster semi-final win over Carlow, Conway noticed that his boots had some tape wrapped around them. "I couldn't believe it," says Conway. "They must be a pair of boots he is particularly fond of. A couple of frees he'd normally score didn't go his way. I don't know if that was a factor. You wouldn't like to think so."

The idea of a player wearing boots taped together, if that was the case, or a pair at a knock-down price, is in conflict with the overriding impression of the modern footballer. But while Kingston and Kilkenny have much in common in terms of raw talent, they are on opposite sides of the coin in terms of opportunities.

The two didn't meet when the counties faced each other in the 2014 Leinster championship, as Kilkenny was injured. He made it back for 2015, coming on in the second-round win in the league over Donegal at Croke Park on February 7 before 22,968. The same evening Kingston scored 2-2 at home against Cavan but it wasn't enough to save his team from a five-point defeat, their second loss of their Division 2 campaign.

Later in the summer Laois overcame Carlow in the opening round of the Leinster championship, losing to Kildare in a replayed quarter-final, then to Antrim in the first round of the qualifiers in Portlaoise. Kingston scored six points from play and they led by eight points early in the second half but still lost. Eight days later, Dublin demolished Laois's conquerors Kildare, 5-18 to 0-14, Kilkenny scoring 0-4, in the Leinster semi-finals.

Having met briefly in 2016 their paths diverged again last year. Mostly they have gone their own way, lived almost in two different worlds. Laois opened their Leinster championship with a win over Longford, then lost to Kildare by 14 points. In the qualifiers they beat Westmeath, but collapsed against Clare, going down by ten points in Portlaoise on July 1. Two weeks later Dublin beat Kildare to win another Leinster title, a record seventh provincial title in a row, winning 2-23 to 1-17. Another All-Ireland beckoned.

For Kilkenny another medal to add to his collection. For Kingston, the club was his only concern, another summer cut short. He would be watching the remainder of the championship as he had grown most accustomed: as a spectator.

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