Kieran Donaghy was one of the most unique talents ever to play
Star’s easy-going nature off the pitch belied a fiercely ambitious competitive streak on it
Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy celebrates a goal in the 2014 All-Ireland final victory over Donegal at Croke Park. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
He has left the scene just as he entered; a fun-loving, leftfield figure who defied easy category as a footballer and, behind the good nature and easy clowning, a burningly ambitious competitor.
Every full back and manager knew the kind of threat Donaghy presented but nobody ever fully figured out how to stop him. In one way, he was a throwback; an archetypal edge-of-the-square full forward who just wanted to battle a fullback for a high ball.
But if he was that, then he was, simultaneously, one of the most unorthodox and unique attacking talents to ever lace up a pair of football boots.
Pat Spillane has been RTÉ’s favourite contrarian for so long now that it is sometimes forgotten that in his first life, he was one of more spellbinding ball players of the colour television age. Spillane called Colm Cooper “the greatest footballer of all time”.
Kerry in the ’00s will, as time rattles on, be remembered as Cooper’s time in that from his well-documented appearance as a mascot in the club All-Ireland final of 1992, everything about his career in green and gold seemed predestined.
Donaghy, his towering, ambling sidekick, seemed like a happy accident. And it’s only now that he is leaving that the magnitude of his contribution to the Kingdom’s history is apparent. Kerry have produced many brilliant footballers down the years. But they’ve never produced anything quite like Donaghy.
It could easily have never happened. When Mickey Ned O’Sullivan chose him for the TG4 show The Underdogs, featuring players who felt they were worth a crack at county level, Donaghy was known around Tralee as a terrific basketball player who could moonlight as a decent midfielder.
The truth was a little more complicated. He was a hoops devotee, yes, but also sufficiently serious about Gaelic football that he declined a college trial in Chicago so he could stick around to play an All-Ireland under-21 semi-final for Kerry. They blew a five-point lead to lose by a point.
Even after Jack O’Connor drafted him into the Kerry senior squad, Donaghy could easily have become one of those do-ya-remember-yer-man stories about the pubs of Killarney and Tralee.
Russ Bradburd, an American coaching in Tralee, became an unofficial mentor, taken with Donaghy’s enthusiasm and openness. Bradburd chronicled his time in Irish basketball in a book, Paddy on the Hardwood, in which Donaghy featured strongly.
“He was and is a great friend,” Donaghy said in an Irish Times interview in 2007. “He was a guy I probably needed in my life at that stage. I suppose at 19 and 20 years of age I was going out every Thursday to Saturday night. And he influenced me and got me to change and I will never forget that.”
In fact, Bradburd could have found Donaghy a place on his team roster at his next coaching job in New Mexico. Nobody in Kerry football circles would have batted an eyelid had he left then. For nothing was set in stone until midway through the summer of 2006.
Kerry had been turned over by Cork in the Munster final and the season felt as if it was at an impasse. Towards the end of training one night, Jack O’Connor decided to satisfy an idle curiosity. He sent Donaghy into full forward on Marc Ó Sé. He then had other players rain ball into them. Leaving the field, he asked Ó Sé for a verdict.
“He’s deceptively quick,” was the reply.
O’Connor then asked Donaghy was kind of ball he might life, if ever he happened to find himself at full forward. Donaghy, solemn as a monk, described a dropping diagonal ball that he could “attack”.
Straight away, a thrilled O’Connor knew he’d broken some kind of code. Kerry played Longford in the qualifiers. They scored 4-11. Donaghy was directly involved in 4-4. Shortly afterwards, his nickname, ‘Star’ became public property. In his biography, Cooper recalls how Donaghy would land up to training in “this purple ’04 Astra that he nearly needs a shoehorn to get into”.
“But within weeks of that end-of-July demolition job on Longford, he’s got a sponsored Volvo. We see him driving through the gates and all anybody can do is laugh. Good luck to the f***er He’s after making our lives fun again.”
He started 2006 as an outsider; an understudy midfielder to Daragh Ó Sé. He finished it as footballer of the year. His goal against Armagh, shaking off the unshakeable Francie Bellew with a shoulder feint right and then a quick pivot into clear space, confirmed that Kerry had found something different.
The famous scream in Paul Hearty’s face – the pair had been ‘conversing’ all day – showed a different face of the Kerry game. The suspicion was that Donaghy might be one-season-wonder.
Instead, he formed, with Cooper, and in more recent years James O’Donoghue, one of the most dangerous and enduring attacking partnerships in Gaelic football. Donaghy was an edge of square ball winner in the grand tradition of Eoin Liston and Johnny Crowley. But he had these quicksilver hands and a love of the killer pass that bamboozled defences for over a decade.
Gaelic football changed and the space required for Donaghy to thrive disappeared. But even in his later years, even when his starting place was never guaranteed, he had this stardust ability to transform summers.
He did it during Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s first championship (2014) when he came in as a substitute to save Kerry’s bacon in the All-Ireland semi-final and replay against Mayo before bagging a poacher’s goal against Donegal in that year’s final. Even last year, his duel with Aidan O’Shea – two nominal forwards, two behemoths, two winter basketball players – became one of the highlights of the championship.
Fitzmaurice’s decision to step away may have influenced Donaghy’s announcement on Tuesday. With Cooper gone too, it feels like the end of a chapter for Kerry football.
What a glorious run. In recent years, he has revealed a formidable analytical side and has always come across as piercingly – almost helplessly – honest and direct when speaking about the tougher aspects of his life.
Here he is, after his autobiography was published, telling Ryan Tubridy about the wake of his father, Oliver Donaghy, who died in his native Tyrone at just 59. in 2008. The pair hadn’t spoken in some time.
“The biggest feeling I had was a regret almost for him that he didn’t get to be that dad that is at home all the time; that got to produce three fabulous children and had a great wife.
“I would see Paul Galvin’s parents after All-Irelands and himself and the dad hugging and you could see that real bond. And I missed that real bond with him at that time – but when I was young, he was my hero. It was tough but even at his funeral, there was a lot of people that came in and all the stuff he did for people and all the stuff he used to do for people up in the estate . . .”
One of Star’s greatest tricks was to play and behave as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Donaghy’s lightness and energy swept through Kerry football and, apart from the scores and assists and the leadership he gave the others, he was a big, bright fun-filled presence in a team that operates under a huge demand for success.
It may take a few years but he will, if he wants, some day return to a Kerry dressing rooms as a coach and mentor. The Kingdom nearly let him slip away once. That mistake won’t be made again.