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.
“Yeah, I had to expect that a bit. Because when I came back from Australia, I said I’d prioritise football just for 2013. I said I’d give that a good lash and then wait for what the future might hold. I’d love to give hurling a go at some stage.
“But yeah, you are going to annoy a few people by just choosing one of them over the other. There were managers that I played under down through the years that I knew would have liked me to play hurling.”
And now that Daly’s side have a Leinster title to their name, do you feel like you’ve missed out at all?
“No, because I have my own connection with my own dressingroom. It’s not like I’ve been in with the hurlers and have stepped away from it and left it behind me. I’ve only known the football set-up at senior level so that’s what I know. And that’s the connection I have at the moment. But as a Dublin supporter and a hurling man, I’m just delighted to see what they’re doing.
“It’s sheer elation when I see them winning. We were training the day of the Leinster final but I watched it on the laptop.”
The hurling side of him comes from his father. John Kilkenny hurled a bit for Dublin near the end of the 1970s in the bad old days when a few did a bit and not many did more.
When Castleknock won the Féile All Ireland in 2007 – just nine years after the foundation of the club – John was one of the mentors, Ciarán the big red-haired midfielder laying waste to all before him.
His dad’s influence runs through most aspects of him. The cupla focail he tends to throw into conversation is a direct hand-me-down. He went to Gaelscoil at primary and secondary level and often when he was playing football or hurling, his dad would throw the odd message on to him in Irish.
“If there was a penalty or something and he wanted me to go for goal, he’d shout ‘Scoil Caitríona!’ or something like that.”
At Scoil Caitríona, Irish and history were what grabbed him tightest. For his Leaving Cert history project, he chose Gaelic Sunday as his project – the August 1918 day of rebellion against the British ban on Gaelic Games when 54,000 people played in matches, assuming (correctly) that the authorities could get round them all to tell them to stop. A popular kid, he was chosen to be ‘head boy’ in his final year by the other students.
“It was good for communication because I had to learn to stand in front of the school and speak. It was good for me to get the confidence to talk in front of people. It definitely helped me the older I got and the more I met the press. I didn’t know what I was getting into really.
“There’d be 10 or 13 journalists standing in front of me, which is kind of a scary thought at the start. You get the confidence after a while. But it definitely stood to me.”
It was just a fortnight after he got his exam results that Pat Gilroy started him in the All Ireland semi-final against Mayo and barely a month later that he was faced with the choice of moving to Melbourne to sign up for Hawthorn. As the whole country would find out, he gave it six weeks and then came home. In truth, his heart wasn’t in it from the start.
“About a week before I made the decision to go, I sat down with my mam and dad and said I didn’t want to do it. I just felt that I wanted to stay. I wanted to win All Irelands, I wanted to play in Croke Park and win Leinsters and all of that.
“I wanted to be part of Dublin really. That’s what you grow up dreaming of. And just in that week in October, I started to feel like I’d be throwing that away if I went.
“But in fairness, my parents basically said, ‘Look, you should go. You are far better off not having the regrets in years to come.’ And what it really came down to was, I was 18 years old and I listened to my mammy and daddy! I said I’d give it a go.”
For what is was, he enjoyed it. Six weeks of training and conditioning – running, cycling, boxing, even wrestling. But when it came to the sport of Aussie Rules, he just couldn’t see how he’d ever love it. Play it, yes. Like it, okay. But his heart wasn’t for hire.
“The game itself just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t free-flowing, it was very stop-start and I just couldn’t get passionate about it. There are so many stoppages in any game. When the ball goes out of play, it takes so long to get it restarted and that was one of the things that was just so annoying about it.”
So he came home and started training with the footballers. By March he’d made his league debut, pulling the strings at centre half-forward and looking to the manor born. Though injury curtailed him for a few games, it became increasingly clear that youth and pace were what Gavin was building his Dublin side around. Kilkenny was a cert for the championship, as were Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion.
Even in the faceless city, the world is small. Kilkenny has known McCaffrey since they were no height. He was Castleknock, McCaffrey was Clontarf. They were the best players on each other’s teams, forever sent to keep the other quiet.
“Ever since I was eight or nine years old I’d say, I would have had to mark Jack in every game we met. We were always in midfield against each other and we were so competitive with each other. I used to play against him for the club, for the school, everything. And every game it would be the two of us running after each other.
“That was what actually kind of made us close over the years. We’d have these battles with each other so many times that we all knew each other when we came together to play for Dublin from under-13 all the way up. That’s when we met Paul Mannion as well. We lost that minor All-Ireland together in 2011 – there was Jack and Paul and Emmet Ó Conghaile and a few others.
“That was such a big loss for ourselves. Like, that was such a heartbreak. Every time we won anything on the way up, we always said, ‘This isn’t going to be our last summer together.’ And then when it did come to the last one, we lost. It was very tough.”
Yet here they are. A summer of summers and still they ride together. The three of them bunched at the head of the field in the race for Young Footballer of the Year. Leinster medals already in their pocket, August and September shimmering with promise.
“I remember after the Leinster final thinking that this was what coming back from Australia was for, you know?
“Playing in front of 60,000 people, winning trophies, even playing in this kind of weather. The camaraderie of doing it with such a tight bunch as well. You can’t beat that. What’s better than it?”
He isn’t looking for an answer. He did that once and all he found was what he’d known all along.