On the weekend of the May bank holiday in 2012, Ciarán Kilkenny won his first All-Ireland title. The Dublin under-21s beat Roscommon in Tullamore by 2-11 to 0-12, with Kilkenny scoring four points in the full-forward line. Still only 18, he was one of the youngest players in the whole competition but nonetheless ended the year as the Cadbury Hero of the Future. His senior debut for Dublin followed three months later against Laois.
A decade on, it feels like a good time for a stocktake. On the one hand, Kilkenny has already put together one of the great GAA careers. He has seven senior All-Irelands, five All Stars and has forgotten more Leinster and league titles than 99 per cent of players ever get to compete for. Throughout Dublin’s glory years, he has been a one-man rhythm section, drumbeat and heartbeat rolled into one.
On the other, he has never been Footballer of the Year. He has played in nine All-Ireland finals including replays and only once made the shortlist for man-of-the-match. That was in the 2019 replay against Kerry and while he carried off the award that night, his team-mates and coaches point out that it was no coincidence that he finally won it on the day his most memorable intervention was a covering block on Jack Sherwood.
“That’s what management had been looking for out of Ciarán for a long time,” one former Dublin player says. “He would have been challenged on it and challenged on it. It wasn’t a case of just tracking back, it was getting back and really going for it and doing something effective. He was delighted with himself afterwards. He wanted to talk as much about his block as anything else.”
In the Dublin set-up, Kilkenny has always taken a bit of handling. A brilliant player and an obviously incredible weapon to have at their disposal. But at the same time, someone who can be prone to drifting along on his talent if he isn’t challenged constantly and made to focus.
Athletically, he is without peer in the group, generally a good 10 per cent ahead of the next best participant in the bleep tests when the mood takes him. His recovery from a 2014 cruciate injury was such an ahead-of-schedule success, there was a worry in the Dublin set-up that his rapid progress was disheartening defender Kevin O’Brien, who had the same injury at the same time but recovered at the pace of a normal human.
"The cruciate injury probably came at a good time for him," says Jason Sherlock. "In terms of refocusing him and doubling down on what was important to him. His trajectory has been very positive since then.
“Speaking from experience, I can see a lot of opportunity for growth from challenge. Normally, challenge comes with defeats and losses and that’s part of sport. The reality with Ciarán and these lads is that they haven’t had many defeats so they have had to explore growth and resilience in other ways. The injury was a way for Ciarán to do that.
“Those Dublin players are very selfless, they’re willing to do whatever’s required. Tactically, Ciarán has so many physical and mental attributes that he is the type of player you could probably play in any position. He was very adaptable. Mentally, he is a very smart footballer and a very smart human being.”
Very smart footballers and very smart human beings come with their own challenges. One former Dub describes Kilkenny as being someone who, “always has his own plan”. Occasionally, his focus on that plan would cause frustration among team-mates and coaches, who wanted him to work on something else.
“He would take a notion that he needed to improve a particular thing and even though it might not be the thing management had in mind for him, he would go after it relentlessly,” says the former player. “He doesn’t always play into the team’s needs when he has something like that in mind.”
Sherlock, who coached Kilkenny for five years in the Dublin set-up, doesn’t quite chime with that view. But he can see how it would be formed.
“With all highly talented people, they’re very focused and they have a very fixed view and perspective, because obviously they know what works for them. With all individuals like that, the challenge in a team set-up is ensuring that they’re as collaborative as they can be. You want to create that autonomy and you want to create that freedom. But you do have to have some constraints and conformity in terms of what you expect as a team.
“That’s an area that is a challenge for players like Ciarán. You can see why there would be a perception from some people that Ciarán would be quite individual. But that would be my explanation of why he is perceived that way.”
As the years passed and the Bernard Brogan generation faded from view, Kilkenny gradually became the fulcrum of the Dublin attack. This brought its own challenges, not the least of which was the fact that opposition man-markers began to single him out for targeted treatment. He has generally dealt with it incredibly well, right up until the point where he hasn't.
The 2017 All-Ireland final brought a reckoning of sorts. Lee Keegan thoroughly outplayed him that day, effectively disappearing Dublin’s most important player from the biggest game of the year. Though they came through one of the greatest ever finals as champions, the review of that game was as thorough as any other when it happened.
Over that winter, Kilkenny was forced to face up to the fact that a big part of why Keegan had done a number on him was the fact that he hadn't prepared properly. He hadn't taken enough cognisance of how Keegan had wiped the likes of Diarmuid Connolly and Seán Cavanagh from big games before. Also, where had he been for Keegan's goal?
“From a footballer perspective, a lot went his way,” says Sherlock. “But he has had tough times on the pitch, where guys have paid a lot of attention to him. Looking back, he didn’t play as well as he would have liked and that brought challenges for him.
“That was a two-fold thing. One, how you cope at the time, what you do in those games to find a way to deal with the attention. But also it’s the preparation. It’s expecting this challenge and being ready for this challenge and that was something Ciarán had to work on. Obviously, you would have to see the majority of his performances in a positive way. But certainly there were challenges and opportunities for growth in terms of his preparation.”
“His one flaw was that things had come too easy to him,” says one former Dublin player. “Ever since he was an underage star, his talent had been so great that he was able to do anything he wanted, almost at will. But he didn’t have the right plan for Keegan. He hadn’t done the work.”
Broadly, Kilkenny's Dublin career can be broken up into three parts – the pre-cruciate years, the five-in-a-row and the post-Jim Gavin era. In this third section, the demands Dublin are making of him now tower over everything that has gone before. In a dressing room with no Stephen Cluxton, no Michael Darragh, no Philly Mac, they need him to be the sort of leader he never had to be before.
More to the point, he has to do it without Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion, his compadres from those minor and under-21 teams a decade and more ago. The footballing loss of McCaffrey and Mannion is clearly huge and has been noted by all. But for Kilkenny, the sundering of his peer group within the squad can't have been easy either. He, Brian Fenton, James McCarthy and Jonny Cooper are the dressingroom generals now – each of the other three find that a more natural calling.
For all that, Kilkenny has probably been Dessie Farrell’s best player in the past two-and-a-half seasons. He has started all 27 games under Farrell and only failed to score in three of them. When Gavin left at the end of 2019, Kilkenny’s scoring average in league and championship stood at a highly respectable 1.8 points per game. Under Farrell, he has hoisted that to over 2.5 per game.
For someone who doesn’t take frees and doesn’t always play as an inside forward, that’s a phenomenal return. Little wonder he is the only Dublin player to win an All Star in both seasons of the Farrell reign. Considering how poor Dublin were for long stretches of last year, making it onto the 2021 All-Star team is no small achievement. Leadership is a many-splendored thing.
“This is a really interesting season for him,” says Sherlock. “There’s an opportunity there now for him to show resilience and to respond to the challenge that comes with defeat. So now it’s for the senior leaders in the team like Ciarán and like Brian Fenton to do something they never had to do before.
“Like all dressingrooms, they didn’t have that responsibility when they were the young bunch. They were able to focus on themselves. Whereas now, that question has to be answered. And in a way, I’m really looking forward to that. There’s so much more room for growth. There’s so much more improvement in him.”
Where He Stands: Ciarán Kilkenny’s Dublin career by numbers
5 – All Stars: Only Stephen Cluxton has more (six). John O'Leary and Brian Fenton also have five.
6 – National Leagues: Joint record for a Dub, alongside, Jonny Cooper, James McCarthy, Mick Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon and Cormac Costello.
7 – All-Irelands: Only Cluxton, McCarthy, McMahon, Fitzsimons and Michael Darragh Macauley have more (eight).
9 – Leinster titles: Cluxton retired with 16, so he has a bit to go yet.
53 – Championship appearances: Joint 16th on the all-time Dublin list, alongside Dessie Farrell and Brian Mullins
110 – matches in total: Tied for 25th on the all-time Dublin list with Johnny McDonnell, the O'Tooles goalkeeper who played for 19 years between 1919 and 1938.
7-204 – scored overall: Puts him 13th on the all-time Dublin list, six points behind John Timmons.
5-115 – scored in championship: Puts him sixth on the Dublin list. Ahead of him are Dean and Barney Rock, Jimmy Keaveney, Charlie Redmond and Bernard Brogan. All five of those were free-takers – although Brogan is by a distance the Dub's all-time leading scorer from play as well.
– Thanks to Dubs To The Four by Gerry Callan for the assist