Ciarán Kilkenny is ready and able to carry the mantle
Having turned his back on Aussie Rules, gifted young player is enjoying his season back in the blue of Dublin’s footballers
Dublin footballer Ciaran Kilkenny signs an autograph for Killian Griffen, St. Patrick’s GAA Club, Palmerstown. Photograph: Pat Murphy/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny holds off Meath’s Padraic Harnan during the Leinster football final. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The boy prince wears his cap backwards and his sleeves rolled to the shoulders. He’s spent the morning coaching a summer camp and the last hour signing his name. Big C, big K, long line. On jerseys, on footballs, on hurleys. Then crouching in for photos. Aon, dó, trí - cheese! Aon, dó, trí – cheese!
It isn’t so long of course since Ciarán Kilkenny was the recipient rather than the signer. So recent in fact that the big prize from when he was scuttling around ankles in search of autographs was Alan Brogan, the player whose boots he’s made such short work of filling this summer.
He turned 20 the week before the Leinster final, eight days short of the Man of the Match turn against Meath that seemed to settle any questions as to whether he belonged or not.
Those questions were there alright. No point pretending they weren’t. That’s the only problem with coming like a comet. People notice. And then people notice people noticing. And soon enough, you’re the campfire around which everyone is circled, stamping their feet and warming their hands.
The Jack O’Shea kerfuffle at the start of the championship was a perfect case in point. In a round-table discussion in the Sunday Times, Jacko pointed out that Kilkenny was often static when he got on the ball and that he must have been blocked down 20 times in the league. He called him a junior footballer as well, which was technically wrong as Castleknock are up to intermediate.
Anyway, it became a thing.
It seemed a distinctly ungenerous verdict to send down about a teenager who’d only played a single senior championship game at that point but there you go. O’Shea took a little heat over it as the championship progressed, especially after the Kildare game where Kilkenny’s link play and finishing were eye-catchingly mature.
And in his column before the Leinster final he walked it back a little. “I’ll bow my head,” he wrote, “and concede he’s developing into a fine player”.
Hop the ball at the boy himself and he takes it in his stride. Doesn’t duck it, doesn’t pretend not to have heard what was said. Just shrugs and pays his respects.
“I’ve never spoken to him but people mentioned some of the stuff to me. I would look up to him so much and some of the footage from the ’70s and ’80s is great. He was one of the best footballers of all time. And if he thinks I need to improve something in my game, I’d be the first to listen to him. No problem at all.
“I’m always open to trying to improve my game. So if a legend like him said, ‘You might need to do this a bit better or that a bit better,’ I’d go off and work on it as much as I could.
“As a Gaelic footballer, you have to take the criticism. You’ll get plenty of good and plenty of bad. I don’t mind it at all. Personally, I’m delighted to find another thing to go and work on. I’ll take it on board and try to improve as much as I can. He is an all-time great of the game after all. I’m just starting out.”
Listening to him, it comes as no surprise that he was a promising tennis player in his early teens. Serve what you like at him, he’ll find a return.
When he threw his lot in with Jim Gavin’s footballers instead of Anthony Daly’s hurlers on his return from Australia, he knew he couldn’t do so without leaving a nose or two out of joint.
After all, there had been a constituency in Dublin hurling who were even happy to see him head to the other side of the world in the first place because they’d rather he be lost to Aussie Rules than to football. So when he came back and didn’t pick up a hurley straight away, the reaction wasn’t universally kind.