Kingdom’s James O’Donoghue inspired by ultimate goal

All Star says the only currency that counts in Kerry is All-Ireland winner’s medals

It wasn’t without some gently ironic coincidence that James O’Donoghue was walking through St Stephen’s Green yesterday, carrying the Sam Maguire along with some of the other remaining contenders, when just moments earlier Paul Galvin was spotted walking anonymously in the other direction, down Leeson Street.

O’Donoghue may not have been recognisable to many people on the Green, but he is unquestionably the new face of Kerry football. He burned a hole through Cork in the Munster final earlier his month, scoring 0-10, and still only 23, his All Star award last year is already looking like being the first of a great many.

Although later, when sitting down at the Mansion House for the launch of the All-Ireland football series – otherwise known as the business end of the championship – O’Donoghue reveals he doesn’t yet consider himself a true Kerry footballer. It’s one thing playing for Kerry; it’s another thing playing for Kerry for real.

“That’s definitely something Eamonn Fitzmaurice has been getting through to us,” says O’Donoghue. “And I would say you’re not a real Kerry player until you’ve performed in Croke Park, in the white heat of championship, in an All-Ireland final, and you know, come home with the trophy.

“Even last year, I got an All Star, and realistically that means nothing, unless you have an All-Ireland title. I was actually at a quiz, a couple of nights later, and the first question asked was to name the only two Kerry players who have won an All Star, and no All-Ireland. So no one in Kerry really cares how many All Stars you’ve won. It’s All-Irelands you’re really tested on.”

His lips

“And I suppose only a few weeks ago, before the Cork game, people were saying Kerry were also-rans. That does stir something inside you. It’s rare that it happens in Kerry but when it does, of course you get that bit of a kick up the backside. You’re kind of questioning are you a real Kerry player and do you deserve to be wearing that shirt?”

With that O’Donoghue points towards some of the “real” Kerry footballers that inspired him, and the first name to roll off his lips is Paul Galvin.

“When I was younger I never even thought I would play for Kerry,” he says. “I was a huge fan. But it wasn’t until Paul Galvin trained us inside in the school (St Brendan’s in Killarney), and he brought that sense of possibility to the table, that some of us were good enough.

“So I always looked up to Paul Galvin. He was always good for a word, and always such an excellent player. Before that I really admired Mike Frank Russell. He was such a good kicker. You could tell he put such graft into his trade, and got success from it.”

O’Donoghue doesn’t mind being under the championship spotlight and nothing about being the centre of Kerry’s attention appears to unnerve him, either. It’s a role he was at least partly forced into, following Galvin’s retirement, and then the season-ending injury to Colm “Gooch” Cooper.

“I think mentally, with the lads retiring, it was about time for us to step up because they had led that team for so long.

“There were a lot of us younger fellas in the panel, but you hadn’t quite pushed on, because it was hard to get into the team. They were some of the best Kerry players ever. So you’re on the panel, but you’re not really sure where you are in terms of playing, or whatever. But yeah, we were forced into stepping it up and showing some sort of form.”

Marquee forward

O’Donoghue may now be marked as the standout marquee forward in the game, although Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly – also present at the launch – promptly dismissed the suggestion that Mayo’s main problem in trying to secure that elusive All-Ireland is the lack of a so-called marquee forward.

“If Cillian O’Connor isn’t classed as a marquee forward at this stage, I don’t know who is,” says Hennelly.

“He’s been the top scorer in the championship the past couple of years, and he’s still two years younger than me like. So it’d be a bit harsh to say he wasn’t. Then you have the likes of Andy Moran, Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Dillon, Jason Doherty. So that issue is put to bed, or should be put to bed.

“I have to try and stop shots from them as well so I know all about it! But as a bunch, I think the most important thing for us this year was that we didn’t go in with the same hand and we definitely haven’t. We’ve added players to the squad, we’re an extremely positive bunch, and we’re just excited to be back in Croke Park.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics