Kieran Donaghy’s star still burning as brightly as ever

Three years after he appeared set to retire, Donaghy still tormenting opposition defences

 Kerry fans with a flag supporting Kieran Donaghy in 2014. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Kerry fans with a flag supporting Kieran Donaghy in 2014. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Three years ago, as you perused your All-Ireland football semi-final match programme, a name might have caught your eye on the Kerry subs’ bench. Number 22, Kieran Donaghy. If that name did jump out at you, you would most likely have wondered for how long more was he going to keep plugging away at this inter-county lark.

Kerry had beaten Galway at their leisure in their quarter-final win a few weeks earlier and Donaghy hadn’t seen a single minute of action. As happens to all players, time marches on. It was a pity in some ways that Donaghy hadn’t retired the winter before and spared himself the humiliation of picking splinters out of his ass for the summer.

Maybe you went looking elsewhere in the programme for his age, saw that he was only 31 and thought ‘well, you’d hardly retire at 31’. But there it was in black and white, displayed as obviously as you like - Donaghy on the scrapheap. If he was surplus to requirements against Galway, he was only going to be filling a jersey. If he was anywhere in the plans, surely he’d have been given 10 minutes.

Three years later, the question that was first posed 11 years ago is being posed again - how do you stop the force of nature that is Kieran Donaghy?

Outrageous

After all the outrageous dramatics of the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final drawn game and replay between Mayo and Kerry, the fact remains that if Donaghy had not plucked that one ball out of the skies and set up the goal for James O’Donoghue that rescued the draw for his team, the course of recent footballing history, not just the 2014 season, might have been rather different.

Kieran Donaghy celebrates scoring a goal against Mayo in the 2014 semi-final replay. Photograph: Cathal Noonan
Kieran Donaghy celebrates scoring a goal against Mayo in the 2014 semi-final replay. Photograph: Cathal Noonan

If Ger Cafferkey had won that one ball, Mayo would have won the game, and would have been a good bet (sort of) to beat Donegal in the final. And how would we view Eamonn Fitzmaurice as a coach, without the All-Ireland winning imprimatur of that season? Would they be where they are now without that All-Ireland tucked away in their back pocket, or would Dublin have streaked off even further into the distance with no-one to challenge their dominance?

In this era of football, it might be the most intriguing sliding doors moment of them all. Donegal might have two All-Irelands. Andy Moran might be lying on a beach somewhere right now with his All-Ireland medal. And it’s a racing certainty that Kerry wouldn’t have Donaghy to unleash on teams because he would surely have walked away.

The old F Scott Fitzgerald quote about there being no second acts in American life is also usually applicable to sport. There’s a career arc that more often than not is followed. After the highs, must come the lows. Time catches up with everyone. But that one fetch opened the door for one of the more outrageous late-career revivals in Irish sporting history.

Mayhem

He got a goal and caused untold mayhem in the sprawling epic that unfurled itself in Limerick six days after the drawn game. In the All-Ireland final, he got the goal that broke the game open in the second half. He ended up on the All Star team. And he’s still causing palpitations.

We’ve had another week of mad-cap schemes and hair-brained plans to stop Donaghy. Play Aidan O’Shea on him. Bring back Barry Moran. Convince Liam MacHale (or Tim Duncan) out of retirement and stick him in on Donaghy, see how he likes having another ‘big’ in the paint with him.

He creates this kind of hysteria because, at root, there is something emasculating about the idea of Donaghy. If James O’Donoghue skins a corner-back it’s seen as part of the game. If O’Donoghue, or Conor McManus, or Bernard Brogan, are on form, that’s going to happen. But if Donaghy pushes your full-back around, bullies him, catches ball over his head - it’s embarrassing.

Kieran Donaghy scores his side’s opening goal against Galway in the quarter-finals. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Kieran Donaghy scores his side’s opening goal against Galway in the quarter-finals. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Watching Galway try to decide how best to handle him three weeks ago put you in mind of that old Tom Waits line - two dead-ends, and you’ve still got to choose.

That’s why Kerry people love him so much. That’s why fans of so many other counties love to hate him. It shouldn’t happen. He shouldn’t be allowed to catch the ball that cleanly. It’s the sword of Damocles over your head - no matter how far ahead you are, if they give him one good ball, they could be back in this.

Mayo might turn to Donal Vaughan on Sunday, with Keith Higgins posted in front of him to get physical once he lands. Maybe it’s where Lee Keegan will end up on his return to the team, a combustible combination if ever there was one. Either way, three years after Mayo had a chance to kill him off forever, Donaghy is still around - still relevant, and still causing mayhem. You’d need a heart of stone not to admire him for it.

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