Wednesday 21 March 2018

Donaghy gets chance to silence the doubters

Big calls in the week of an All-Ireland final have become a staple diet of Jack O'Connor's two spells as Kerry football manager.

For his first final in 2004 against Mayo the case for the inclusion of Johnny Crowley was made straight-forward by the foot injury Darragh O Se picked up in the semi-final against Derry. Eoin Brosnan came into midfield, Crowley slotted into the full-forward line and consequently no one felt the axe fall upon them.

But in the three other All-Ireland finals that O'Connor has steered Kerry to there has always been one unforced change in personnel, with the forward line the object of surgery on each occasion.

In 2005 Bryan Sheehan started the semi-final against Cork, as Dara O Cinneide was ruled out with an infection, but for the final Sheehan had to make way for the previous year's winning captain.

Twelve months on, the most controversial omission saw Brosnan lose out to Declan O'Sullivan at centre-forward. O'Sullivan had struggled in the middle part of the summer, to the point where some Kerry supporters elicited ironic cheers when he was withdrawn in the Munster final replay against Cork at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

But O'Sullivan's form in the build-up to the final made him impossible not to select and it was Brosnan, who had scored three goals in a fourth-round qualifier against Longford in Killarney only weeks earlier, who was sacrificed.

Three years on and fresh from a couple of seasons away from the grind, O'Connor and Kerry were back in another All-Ireland final against Cork and this time it was Tommy Walsh, removed from the action after only 20 minutes against Dublin in that landslide All-Ireland quarter-final win, who was making the most compelling case for inclusion after his impact role against Meath.

Donnacha Walsh had lost his place between the two All-Ireland semi-finals against Cork in 2008 and he was again the victim as his namesake came in, a decision justified by his four impressive points against their Munster championship conquerors.

In each of the years that Kerry have won, O'Connor's changes have come up trumps. Crowley was devastating in the air against Mayo in '04, O'Sullivan ran Mayo ragged in the early stages two years later and Tommy Walsh eventually turned the screw on Cork in '09.

Changing a winning team before a final has never been an issue for O'Connor. But this week has provided arguably the biggest conundrum yet.

The conventional wisdom was that Paul Galvin had to be included for Sunday's game and that Donnacha Walsh would for the second time in three years be the man to make way. But last night's early team announcement has given Walsh some peace of mind.

If it came to pass it would have been devastating for him, but Walsh's form on the training ground has preserved him as O'Connor announced an unchanged team for the first final of his stewardship.


However, there has been a strong undercurrent in Kerry surrounding Kieran Donaghy's place on the team, given the way that they have been playing.

What was unthinkable this time five years ago has now become a reality in the Kingdom and begs the question: is the big man no longer indispensable?

His form has been a recurring theme in Kerry all summer, but it was former midfield kingpin Jack O'Shea who lowered the blades most on the question of Donaghy last weekend in his column for a Sunday newspaper when he addressed the issue.

"Kerry have built a huge portion of their gameplan around Donaghy, but he hasn't been playing well. Dropping Donaghy would be a big punch to throw, but it must be on the cards," wrote Jacko.

In truth, Donaghy has not really had any sustained spell of good championship form since the latter stages of the 2008 championship. In that rain-sodden All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway in Croke Park he was the pivot around which the Kerry attack functioned and despite being restricted by Tyrone in the final, he still finished the season with an All Star at full-forward.

But a foot injury in 2009 derailed him and when he suffered a recurrence against Longford, his season was effectively over, despite a late All-Ireland final appearance.

Re-establishing his best form has been a slow and stuttered process since. In the first league game against Cork this year he was a creative force, but against Dublin in one of the subsequent 'spring series' games in Croke Park there was clear evidence that the long delivery into Donaghy had become predictable.

Dublin's stand-in full-back, Sean Murray, coped comfortably on the night with what came his way and it wasn't until they played down the wings and used Darran O'Sullivan, Donnacha Walsh and Kieran O'Leary that Colm Cooper began to profit.

Was that game in the minds of the Kerry management when they continued their deliberations on the starting 15 last weekend?

Darran O'Sullivan has been on the periphery with Kerry for some years now, but 2011 has seen him take a much more central role in how the team plays.

Most of his incisive runs this season have been made through the centre-forward channel and that will have given O'Connor further food for thought.

Would a Darran O'Sullivan/Declan O'Sullivan central attacking axis be more beneficial against Dublin given how Dublin are sure to drop the lines back and allow Ger Brennan to patrol the area in front of where Donaghy will ordinarily be?

Against Mayo, Ger Cafferkey got tight to him and most of the ball was aimed directly down on top of them, which suited the defender. The clever diagonal balls that always had Donaghy as favourite on the receiving end were no longer a priority.

Donaghy was left looking for crumbs and, to his credit, he got sufficient sustenance to score two points. But the doubts over his form have lingered. Does including him force Kerry to play a particular way? With O'Leary and a reconstituted Darran O'Sullivan offering broader options based on pace and movement, it looks like Donaghy is becoming more and more marginalised.

The old telepathy and understanding between himself and 'Gooch' has not been as obvious this season. Donaghy has always brought much more to Kerry than just the option of an aerial target.

He is arguably the most energetic character in the squad and always maintains a positive frame of mind which has an effect on those around him.

At his best he can be devastating. But Kerry's game no longer revolves around him and that is sure to have figured in deliberations all weekend. They'll expect a big response.

Irish Independent

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