Kieran Donaghy still causing confusion long after we assumed he was gone
After not touching a football throughout the spring, Kerry's number 14 is wreaking havoc
Kieran Donaghy celebrates scoring a goal against Mayo in the 2014 All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay at the Gaelic Ground. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
In Kieran Donaghy’s book, What Do You Think Of That?, he tells a story about the drawn game against Mayo in 2014. For so long that day in Croke Park, Donaghy was a bystander. Or, more precisely, a bysitter, glued to the chair among the Kerry subs in the Hogan Stand. If we gave him any thought for most of that game, it was to presume that if he got a run at all, it was looking like the last game of his Kerry career.
He came on in midfield that day, just as Mayo were stretching clear. With six minutes to go, Andy Moran kicked Mayo five ahead and Donaghy turned to see Aidan O’Shea mouthing at David Moran. Before he had time to go in and teach O’Shea some manners, he got the call from the sideline to go in full-forward.
There’s no need to detain ourselves with what happened next, other than to spin the tape on to the final whistle. Kerry have pulled a draw out of the fire, thanks in the main to Donaghy and just as he is shaking hands with whichever Mayo players he comes across, he spots O’Shea and heads over to him, hand out.
“I haven’t forgotten his goading of David Moran,” Donaghy writes. “Aidan is more talented and more high-profile than his brother who just made the last catch of the game, but when I clasp his hand, I look him dead in the eye. ‘Well done, Seamus.’ He looks back, confused, as if to say, ‘I’m Aidan.’ But I’ve already moved on. I’ve to get ready for Limerick.”
And so, the last hurrah for his career turned out to be the first game of the rest of Donaghy’s life. Three years, an All-Ireland, an All Star and an autobiography later, not only is he still going at 34, he’s still relevant. So much so that much of the noise in Mayo this week has been around what scheme they’re going to come up with to contain him. Whether or not Sunday’s game pans out as a test of his credentials is immaterial. Donaghy still matters, is the thing.
This was an unlikely turn of events, even as recently as earlier this year. When he collected the Eir Sports Book of the Year award last December, he was visibly torn as to what to do with himself for 2017. All through the book, the sense you got was the he was using it to pull up his own personal drawbridge. He admitted as much when we talked to him at the awards lunch. So what changed?
“Having to make the decision,” he said. “Having to bite the bullet. I’m at this a few years now, coming and going. I’d say there’s a few young fellas on the panel who are thinking, ‘Will he not just fuck off?’ I know in 2014, I was gone. You get that from the book, I felt like I was gone. Time was up.
“To be honest, I planned on probably announcing something around when the book came out. But I literally don’t have a clue what I’m going doing. The publishers wanted me to say I was either going or staying and I was like, ‘Lads, I’m not coming out with something here and then four months down the line saying, fuck it I want to go back or I want to quit.’ So I’m keeping schtum for the next while to see where it takes me. I might be going back, I might not be going back. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
For a man with a young daughter at home and a couple of binders-worth of bad injuries in the files, Donaghy was still coming off one of the most active seasons of his career. He started 11 of Kerry’s 13 league and championship matches in 2016, a total he’s only exceeded four times since joining the panel as a 21-year-old. It was only the fourth season of his career where he started every championship game. He was named at midfield in every game but drifted in to full-forward part-time in some of them, full-time in others.
Mike Quirke, long-time friend, confidante and golf partner of Donaghy, was of the same view as everyone else. Once he knew his friend was working on a book, he presumed that was that.
“It was obviously his punctuation mark,” says Quirke. “You could see all through it that his thinking was, ‘I’m gone here, lads. Here’s me signing off with a book.’ But then last year probably went better for him than he would have anticipated. His injuries had cleared up. He was feeling good and his body was back where he wanted it and he was feeling the love from [Eamonn] Fitzmaurice.
“The basketball thing kicked in over the winter and it was more a mental thing than a physical thing, I would have said. It refreshed him. Different sport, different game, different people, different places. It kept him fresh and obviously the will was still there. Fitzmaurice obviously thought he was effective the previous year so he kept him involved. And once he was fit and fresh and wanted to do it, I suppose why would Fitzmaurice not keep him involved?”
The basketball thing was the season he put in over the winter with Tralee Warriors. It went so well that he even made the 20-man Ireland squad in March but for Donaghy, it carried with it a juicy sidepot – a winter spent indoors. No muck, no rain, no league football. From January to April, he was a baller in soft-soled shoes. It was exactly what he needed.
On the first Sunday in April, he was up in Letterkenny as the Warriors pulled out an overtime win over Templeogue in the Champions Trophy to crown their season. On the Monday night, they painted the town back in Tralee. On Wednesday, he togged out for his first football session of 2017 with Kerry. By Sunday, he was wearing number 26 in Croke Park as Kerry beat Dublin in the league final.
“I met them all in town on the Monday night and they were all having a great time, enjoying themselves,” says Quirke. “Next thing, he went in and played a bit of ball with Kerry on the Wednesday night and out of nowhere, he made the 26 for the league final that Sunday. He told me afterwards that he went out to training with Kerry that Wednesday without having once touched an O’Neill’s ball in the previous three or four months.
If Fitzmaurice brought him on the panel, it was because he saw something that was going to be useful
“He had been in since February doing one weights session a week with them. There’s a group inside in Tralee so he met up with them once a week for gym session. And about three weeks before the league final, that was gone up to a second weights session. But that was it. He hadn’t touched a pitch or touched a ball or even put on a pair of boots.
“He came back completely re-energised and just feeling good. And Fitzmaurice wouldn’t have been doing it out of sentiment, obviously. If Fitzmaurice brought him on the panel, it was because he saw something that was going to be useful. He was supposedly very good at full-forward that night, he caused wreck in there, and so he got the number 26 jersey. Fitzmaurice clearly thought, ‘Well, okay, I can use this guy for the last 10 minutes if I have to.’
“He’s playing a very short football season. There is no slog. He’s straight into the Munster Championship. Big games, big crowds, Croke Park – sure this is the easy stuff. We were out playing a few holes of golf a couple of weeks ago and he was laughing and saying, ‘Listen, I could do this for another three or four years.’”
One miracle at a time, Kieran. There is, of course, every chance that Donaghy is a MacGuffin this week. It would be no shock if we were sitting here at teatime on Sunday with a thousand things to talk about that have nothing to do with the Kerry number 14. Especially given his company in the Kerry inside line, as Quirke points out.
“When you’re looking at the full-forward line that will probably line out the next day, Paul Geaney, Kieran Donaghy and James O’Donoghue – of the three of them, Donaghy is by far and away the worst footballer. I know he got a goal off his left leg against Galway but it was a collector’s item. The other two can kick comfortably off both feet, their skills and abilities are just so far superior to what Donaghy is capable of in terms of pure football.
“And yet, all the focus is on Donaghy. I mean, James could go and get 3-4 the next day or Geaney could get 1-6 and yet Mayo’s whole concentration, certainly outside the camp, is on stopping this guy. I hear people talking about Donie Vaughan and Lee Keegan and even Aidan O’Shea going back there.
“Even if he doesn’t score on Sunday, the kind of attention that he’s going to draw from their defensive gameplan is going to be a big deal. It’s incredible that he’s still an issue, 10, 11, 12 years down the line. I am sure the two boys aren’t upset that he’s the one who is in the spotlight this week.”
And yet here he is, long after we presumed he wouldn’t be. Still fighting, still competing. Still looking the game dead in the eye and throwing it into confusion.