Donaghy bench warrant to allow Kerry speed through Cork

Fitzmaurice’s first Munster final selection marks a change in tactical emphasis and a challenge for former Footballer of the Year

Kieran Donaghy in action during the 2008 All-Ireland final against Tyrone. Photograph: Inpho

Kieran Donaghy in action during the 2008 All-Ireland final against Tyrone. Photograph: Inpho


In a week when sport was provided with one of the year’s great crossover stories, as the country at large reacted unhappily to the dropping of one sporting icon, the omission of another was causing shock waves down south.

The news that Kerry’s 2006 Footballer of the Year Kieran Donaghy had been benched for tomorrow’s GAA Munster football final against Cork in Killarney – a fixture that’s one of the abiding glories of the championship season – developed into a big story in its own right.

The mysterious nature of its emergence – being obliquely slid into the twittersphere by, amongst others, former Kerry great Eoin Liston – was accepted even at county board level to have influenced the premature official release of the team.

In the modern game team announcements are decreasingly dependable and Cork manager Conor Counihan has all but washed his hands of the duty to name an accurate 15 for matches. So the first thought was naturally to question whether this was a mind game by new Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice: the rumours, the projected fluster of the team announcement and the contentious dropping.

Is this the latest example of the traditional process by which Kerry artfully adapt to modern stratagems while still jealously guarding the football flame? A new manager pulling a dummy team in his first Munster final against Cork in Fitzgerald Stadium? Not a chance, according to former county manager Pat O’Shea.

“That’s not something we’ve done before in Kerry and I don’t see Eamonn Fitzmaurice being the one to start it; he’s an honourable guy. Training sessions have been behind closed doors so the public aren’t aware of what’s going on . . . to try and keep the plans secret so it’s disappointing that the information got out early.”

Replacing Donaghy in the starting line-up accordingly marks a major shift in Kerry thinking. It’s seven years since then manager Jack O’Connor made one of the most famous switches in football history.

“It was more by accident than design,” he says. “Kieran had played midfield during the league and early championship. We realised that we needed a ball winner in the full forward line and had a couple of weeks to do something about it. In the first qualifier against Longford we scored four goals and he had a hand in three of them. He brought something different – teams didn’t know how to cope with him.”

The stats show in the four matches in the provincial championship when Donaghy wasn’t at full forward, the team scored no goals; in the four that followed they scored 11 and won the All-Ireland. In that slipstream came an All Star, the Footballer of the Year award – despite Kerry misgivings that Darragh Ó Sé should have received that particular gong – and a call-up to the International Rules squad.

One experience
That series against Australia was the one experience that didn’t go well for Donaghy in 2006 and he later admitted his head had been in a spin: “I was all over the place, I was trí na chéile, didn’t know if I was coming or going. I was going through things I’d never been through before.”

In time he became an accomplished international player, the game’s tangible reward for high fielding and its premium on dextrous hands and quick feet – a legacy of his basketball career – making him a key player for Ireland in the series of 2008 and 2011. O’Connor accepts that, for all its watershed significance, the revival of the traditional target-man role at full forward was on borrowed time. “That focal point in the full-forward line revolutionised the game but it eventually became more difficult, teams started playing a lot of men back in defence. We used to move him around. In the 2011 All-Ireland final he lined out at wing forward, moved in to full forward and came out. It was to stop the whole thing becoming too predictable.”

Donaghy wasn’t a one-season wonder. Kerry got three good years out of him at full forward. The 2008 All-Ireland final marked the end of that phase and although he won an All Star for that championship, Tyrone’s effective repulsion of the aerial threat posed by him and Tommy Walsh meant that an antidote had been found.

Injury and fluctuating form have characterised the seasons since and last year there was a compliance issue when he was dropped by O’Connor for travelling to the Champions League final in the run-up to the championship match with Tipperary.

Nonetheless he delivered in Kerry’s biggest match of the year to date: scoring three points from play in the win over Tyrone in Omagh that kept the county in Division One. O’Shea says that he was taken aback to hear of the dropping. “Definitely. He gives the ability to go direct with the long, diagonal ball and with Colm Cooper playing centre forward he’s been getting a better supply. But obviously with Cork dropping players back there’s a belief that more pace gives better options and some people think his game is predictable and that Cork know how to play it.

“The view for this game is that he’s an impact sub so it’s a tactical play, a horses for courses decision. It’s a shock but I would agree that if they weren’t going to start him at full forward, they shouldn’t start him anywhere else.”

O’Connor points out that the county’s most recent All-Ireland was won when Donaghy wasn’t playing. “People forget sometimes that when he was injured in 2009 we won an All-Ireland (against Cork) with a smaller inside line of Darran O’Sullivan, Declan (O’Sullivan) and Colm Cooper. Eamonn (Fitzmaurice) was a selector with us and would be aware of how effective it was.”

The 2006 episode in Killarney marked Donaghy’s last appearance as an out-and-out centrefielder – he was sent off and missed the replay in Cork, a defeat which triggered his reinvention. Will tomorrow mark his transition into an impact sub or create a new need for his talents. Speaking before the 2011 All-Ireland final about his fluctuating role in the team, he spoke maybe prophetically.

“They might want something different from me and I have learned to adapt in the last year or two. I have said it before: I wouldn’t care if I didn’t touch the ball as long as Kerry got over the line.”