Kilkenny's brave decision bound to be liberating for others
SIDELINE CUT:As a Dublin friend remarked on the phone yesterday, the return of Ciarán Kilkenny wasn’t quite as stunning as the return of David Bowie. But it was in the same ballpark.
You take whatever good news stories you can get in the grim clutches of January and the thoughtfulness and eloquence with which the Dublin teenager announced his intention to quit his apprenticeship with Melbourne Hawthorn and resume his primary passion for Dublin Gaelic games was admirable.
There was, after all, something tantalising about Kilkenny’s starting debut in the sky blue shirt last September. Along with Paul Flynn and MD McAuley, he shone on the schizophrenic afternoon against Mayo when the Dubs gave the impression that they couldn’t be bothered defending their All-Ireland title only to put together a gallant last stand in the closing 20 minutes. It has been half forgotten that the goal chance which fell to Bernard Brogan and which would have probably assured the Dubs one of the great GAA comebacks originated in a fabulously accurate pass (from a free) from distance by Kilkenny. It was his speed of thought which created the chance. The teenager was a late – if well flagged – replacement for Alan Brogan and it wasn’t just his three points from play that stood out.
It was how much at home he looked in the environment of a high-octane All-Ireland senior semi-final. He just looked as if he belonged there.
His decision to accept the offer from Hawthorn marked the closing notes of a deeply disappointing summer for Dublin GAA fans. Everyone wished him well and anyhow, who could blame another young Irish person for seizing a brilliant opportunity and getting out of a country where sport, it often seemed, offered the only reason left to cheer. Many Dubs must have assumed that they had seen the last of the dual prodigy. Like the late, great Jim Stynes, Kilkenny might well have taken to Australian life and culture as he progressed through Australian Rules football. Down Under is crammed with Irish expatriates now: it has never been easier to move there.
In his statement, Kilkenny did allude to the fact that he enjoyed his Australian experience and the way of life there. His basic reason for returning was that being so far away from home crystallised everything he had left behind. It is not hard to imagine how far removed from it he must have felt. The friendships and good times he had enjoyed as a central figure in Dublin’s glittering underage sides were suddenly a distant echo.
Even with the new media technology, GAA gossip wasn’t as easy to come by.
At home, all the talk was of Dublin’s new manager Jim Gavin and how he might reshape the team. Like other exceptional GAA youngsters, Kilkenny’s head was turned by the allure of Australian Rules: the chance to play professional sport in the sunshine. Declining the offer from Hawthorn would have always left him wondering “what if”.
It wasn’t until he moved to Australia that his future with Dublin hurling and/or football teams became the “what if”. Dublin championship summers could well have become the sporting life not lived. And it is easy to say that he could have run with Aussie Rules for three of four years and then come back to Dublin. But there are no guarantees. In four years’ time, he might have missed out on Dublin hurling and football All-Ireland titles. In four years’ time, he might be too engrossed with Australian Rules to turn back.