‘Star’ back in the ascendant as Kingdom line up behind new leader

The transformation in Kieran Donaghy’s footballing fortunes has been remarkable

Kieran Donaghy: This time last year the conventional wisdom suggested he was all but done and dusted. Now he’s captain of the All-Ireland champions.  Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Kieran Donaghy: This time last year the conventional wisdom suggested he was all but done and dusted. Now he’s captain of the All-Ireland champions. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Around lunchtime on the day of last September’s All-Ireland football final, a rumour travelled via the Croke Park bush telegraph that Kieran Donaghy was “out”. The precise nature of the Tralee man’s ailment doesn’t really matter at this stage –there was probably some class of a groin strain involved. The groin remains the favourite fallback when it comes to reporting phantom injuries in that it is vague but loosely medical-sounding.

Word had come – mysteriously, magically – from the Kerry dressing room itself. The diagnosis was final. The big man would most certainly not be suiting up for the occasion. He was, as The Follower used to lament whenever a touch of flu or a dicky ankle threatened a man’s fitness, “hors de combat”.

The effect on the Kingdom clans gathering around the great stadium wasn’t far from the atmosphere in downtown Dallas in late November of 1963.

The more often that Kerry teams appear in All-Ireland finals – and the more often they win the thing – the more spooked and superstitious the army of supporters become. As clued in as any species for 364 days of the year, Kerry folks are the most credulous creatures on earth on the third Sunday in September.

They believe in magic, black and white.

The Donaghy news was interpreted as the clearest sign that this was not to be Kerry’s day. They were going to be hard pushed to contend with Donegal to begin with; without Donaghy, the only reason to actually go ahead with the match at all was out of politeness. They shook their heads in resignation and murmured apologies to Donegal companions. Sorry we won’t be able to give ye a better game.

Bandy pegs

For a lad that was “out”, he was making a decidedly good pretence of being in. Up in the press box, Donegal men studied the big forward through field glasses. He was limping, there, surely? But, then, didn’t he always have that kind of side-to-side gimp about his stride? It was all the basketball: it gives you bandy pegs. The auld wooden floors are severe on the joints.

As the afternoon would demonstrate, Donaghy was not only fully fit, he was in the most mischievous form of his life. The rumour was important only because it illuminated just how central and critical Donaghy had become to Kerry’s football summer in the space of three weeks.

Those of us who attended the Galway-Kerry quarter final on the August bank holiday weekend would have noticed Donaghy’s name among the Kerry substitutes and probably marvelled at how the game has a habit of moving on, remorselessly and with no consideration for reputation. That match was significant in that the early injury to Bryan Sheehan gave David Moran a chance to stake his claim and he thrived in what was a strangely open, free-scoring game. He never looked back.

But Donaghy stayed in the shadows. “Star”, the nickname by which all of Kerry refers to him, had begun to sound like an affectionate remembrance of the player he used to be. Donaghy would later reveal that the day had been a huge struggle for him personally and that he had spoken with Eamon Fitzmaurice afterwards about his disappointment at not getting a run.

That conversation may be at the core of how Kerry won All-Ireland #37. One of the most impressive elements of Fitzmaurice’s tenure is how he has dealt with his former team-mates and friends. He accepted the retirement of his friend – and in-law Paul Galvin – stoically and without sounding any alarmist notes. He took Tomás Ó Sé’s retirement in the same vein.

Fitzmaurice’s imperturbability set an important tone. These were major losses but not the end of the world. It underlined the governing truth which keeps Kerry players hungry: the tradition is always bigger than the individual. That’s what kept Donaghy packing his bag for training and never bitching and never bringing the mood down even when he was fighting all kinds of internal demons and voices.

Yes, it can be argued that there was an element of nothing-to-lose about his appearance in the dying minutes of that drawn semi-final against Mayo. And without question, the gifted goal in the second half of the All-Ireland final against Donegal was a freak of chance.

But Donaghy’s overall influence on last year’s football championship works as a companion piece to the transformative effect he had on the 2006 championship when Jack O’Connor reinvented him as a wrecking ball of a full forward with the sweetest hands in the game.

Muscle memory

When Kerry battled for supremacy with Tyrone throughout the 2000s, Donaghy was always one of the most vociferous and mouthy defenders of the faith: a born yapper in street life, he could trash talk with the best of them on the pitch and was never afraid to use his stature to boss the opposition.

There was always something of the big kid about Donaghy: you only have to look at his face to see that there isn’t an ounce of malice in him. He brought a wonderfully unique set of talents to the game: the height, the ability to post-up full backs just as he posted up bigger, stronger Americans when playing Superleague basketball, his supreme confidence as a goal finisher and those lightning hands which helped players like Colm Cooper and Darran O’Sullivan profit.

His revival in last year’s All-Ireland continued through the autumn as he fronted Austin Stacks’ return to championship prominence. The club run means that the man who seemed set to remain a bit-part player not so long ago will be the Kerry captain this year.

The turnaround offers heartening proof for all players that it doesn’t have to be all over by the time you are 30. And it offers abiding – and ominous –proof that in Kerry football, you make your own luck. They keep on showing up until they are no longer asked or no longer can.

This time last year, the conventional wisdom was that Kieran Donaghy was all but done and dusted.

And look at him now. Ready to lead his charges against Dublin tomorrow.

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