The Kieran Shannon Interview: Kieran Donaghy - A star undimmed

Kieran Donaghy’s Kerry career may not have had the fairytale finish he would have wished for but he insists that regrets are few and far between after a 15-year intercounty career in the green and gold, writes Kieran Shannon.

Fitzgerald Stadium was home, it’s where I kicked my last ball/After hugging my brothers, the tears they did fall ‘Kerry I Thank You’ 

— Kieran Donaghy’s retirement poem

When you’ve been around as long as Kieran Donaghy, you can just sense things before they even happen. The first half against Kildare hadn’t gone well for him or for Kerry.

The first ball played into his orbit, he was sure he was fouled. A free would have settled everything and everyone down, especially him, but the referee said play away, and then the next few balls failed to stick in his or any teammate’s hands.

The rest of the half he spent making 30-yard runs, just trying to get on some ball; not the best idea when you’re 35 and have a younger, faster defender on you.

In the second half he’d have to remain a good deal more patient, stay inside. If he got the chance to play in the second half. He had his doubts, his fears, though he’d scored a fine point. So he retreated to the medical room, mostly so Ger Keane could loosen a calf that had been stood on, but partly to make it that bit harder for management to take him off.

I was nearly hiding in there,” he says smiling, “my face down on the table and all. But then I heard the feet coming around the corner.

They belonged to Maurice Fitzgerald, team selector. The curly finger came in the form of a gentle rub of the head, prompting Donaghy to look up. 

“We’re going with James (O’Donoghue), Kieran.”

Donaghy couldn’t argue. If he was a member of management, which someday he hopes to be, he’d probably have made the same change himself.

O’Donoghue would go on to play one of the best halves of football he’s had in years, exhibiting some of the same dash he exuded so memorably alongside Donaghy in the late summer of 2014.

But as Kerry powered past Kildare, word filtered back to their bench that Monaghan were similarly pulling away from Galway, making the action unfolding in front of them largely academic.

Donaghy’s own mind began to drift. He was still looking down on the same pitch, only he was seeing plays from the past, not the present.

The kickout he pulled down out of the clouds in his first Munster final in 2006. The spots where he and Anthony Lynch were sent off in the very same game. The scud missile he caught from Darran O’Sullivan against Longford on the edge of the square. The winning point over by the O’Connor Terrace he kicked in the 2007 Munster final. The palmed goal against Tyrone in 2012. Wrestling with Rory O’Carroll on the ground in his first game as Kerry captain…

I was going over it all. Because Killarney is our home pitch. It’s where I trained for 15 years.

He was snapped out of his little diversion down memory lane when Hilary rose from her seat in the Ard Chomhairle to bring little Lola Rose and Indie down to the steps beside the subs and the subbed. Intuitively she knew the significance of the moment and her husband, recognising it too, joined them on the steps, his daughters playfully sitting on his knees.

At the final whistle Hilary pecked him on the cheek and took the kids by the hand; daddy now had to go down onto the field to get to the dressing room.

But then daddy got surrounded by a flood of supporters, and instead of resisting their requests for selfies and autographs, he made the calculation that he was better staying out there on the field than “a dressing room that was going to be depressing anyway”.

Three-quarters of an hour later, he was still out there, the last man standing. He would have stayed even longer only Niall ‘Bottie’ O’Callaghan, the team’s genial, loyal kitman, prompted him back in.

Éamonn wants everyone inside. He has a few words to say.

Donaghy had a fair idea what they would be. Again, just a veteran’s instinct.

That didn’t make it any easier hearing what he had to say; in Donaghy’s eyes, Fitzmaurice is still the best candidate to fill the same vacancy he opened up.

County chairman Tim Murphy said a few words, squad captain Fionn Fitzgerald too. And then that was it.

Players started to filter out of the dressing room, showered and changed, only to stop by the left corner along the way and embrace their old teammate still donning that number 14 jersey.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh, they must have done this with everyone else earlier on.’ But then as more and more lads came over, I realised, ‘No, they’re doing it because they know I’m not going to be here again.’

“It caught me by surprise. Because sometimes I can be harsh on lads, demanding. And I’ve often thought, ‘Do these fellas sometimes get sick of me barking on about the same stuff?’ Because it’s not easy.

I see a lot of them in there now and they’re trying to make it or they’re struggling with injury and they can’t get right, then they get right and then they get injured again. But it proved to me that they must have been appreciative of what I brought and the career that I had.

Soon the place was empty, save for himself and Darran O’Sullivan. Once more the poignancy wasn’t lost on Donaghy. The pair of them had been the first to enter that dressing room for championship, way back in 2005. Now they were going to be the last to leave.

O’Sullivan had his back to Donaghy, putting on his socks and shoes, an arrangement which suited Donaghy fine, not wanting his old comrade to spot the tears in his eyes.

Then their eyes met.

No way was O’Sullivan going to let his old friend walk alone, with the day that was in it, though they let it go unspoken just what day it was. So O’Sullivan waited for Donaghy to shower and change, then, when he was ready, the pair of them walked out together.

See you later tonight with the lads. Sound. You The Man.

Back when he was a teen, Donaghy used to knock around with the Smith brothers, Brendan and Finbarr. They had a PlayStation and Donaghy would regularly go over to their place and play Pro Evolution Soccer with them until all hours, Donaghy plaguing them for one more game.

Look, if I lose this, I’ll go home! Look, win or lose, I’ll go home! And invariably cycling back in the dark, Donaghy would be buzzing, having won the Go-Home game.

The same pattern and habit continued throughout his football career. Win the 2014 All-Ireland; ah, we’ll have one more crack. Lose the 2015 final; Jesus, we can’t leave it like that. The same after 2016; we’ve to give it one more rattle. And 2017, when it could all have ended with a slap to Aidan O’Shea.

Now as he trooped out of Fitzgerald Stadium, there was no more Go-Home game. Yet oddly it felt right. Odd but right.

I was happy in a way. It was nice not to finish beaten in a game in Croke Park when you’re coming out and you’re an awful long way from home. I went out with a win, in the championship, in Killarney, in front of a big crowd.

What better place to have your last Go-Home game than at your home?

God, it was special, the Green and Gold on my backI did my job well, in the air I’d attackTo the jersey, I love you, I wore you with prideDidn’t win them all but so hard I tried

The other month Kieran Donaghy was down in Cork on a job for PST Sport when he and his pal Roy Horgan, the golfer, walked into a café in Douglas only to see Colm O’Neill and Donncha O’Connor right inside the door.

For years that would have been the cue for a stilted, tense interaction. But now, coming only days after the two Cork forwards had announced their inter-county retirement, Donaghy was able to go straight over with a smile and his hand out and shoot the breeze.

There was no flakiness, no bullshit, just respect,” he recalls over a mid-morning breakfast.

“Of course I hated them when I played against them; sure they’d have hated me as well. But now I was able to go straight up to them and say, ‘Well done. Well done. Great careers, lads.’ Because they did have great careers. By hook or by crook they got their All-Ireland medal. And I was delighted I was able to meet them in person to convey that, instead of just tweeting about two lads I barely had a word with.”

Now Donaghy is happy to join them among the ranks of the retired.

Naturally, he still had people urging him to stay on that bit longer. “My uncle was cutting the grass the other day and he comes up to me. ‘You’re not retiring, are you? Jesus Christ, there’s another year in you!’ I said, ‘Brian, if I was 50, you’d be telling me that!’” No. It’s time.

KS: Are you glad you stayed on for 2018?

KD: Delighted. Loved it. Memories that I would never have gotten if I didn’t do it. Coming back in Clones when we were dead and buried…

KS: A bit like Maurice in 2001: Kerry didn’t go on to win that All-Ireland but he’ll always have [that sideline kick in] Thurles, you’ll always have [that knockdown for David Clifford in] Clones?

KD: A bit like that, yeah. And just going and playing a championship game up there. I’ve been watching championship games in Clones since I was 10 years of age. So to be up there in the middle of a championship game, sure it’s what it’s supposed to be all about!

What championship is supposed to be all about! Playing in a place with 20,000 people on top of you and the buzz and the energy that brings. Not above in Croke Park with 20,000. That’s not championship!

They should just keep Croke Park now for [All-Ireland] semi-finals. Like it was back in the day. Say Kerry and Tyrone win their provinces next year. That [Super 8 game] would be far better off in Healy Park or Fitzgerald Stadium than in Croke Park.

KS: You’ve said that in 2014, when you weren’t getting game-time, that you didn’t want anyone to have the impression or memory of you as this sulky veteran. How difficult was it to carry yourself this summer when it was obvious in Munster that you weren’t going to be a main man the way that you were even the previous summer?

KD: Well the goal I wrote down at the start of the year was to start at number 14 for the Munster final. That didn’t happen, [though] it happened in 2017. But I started at 14 for the do-or-die game in Clones, which to me was better. And then obviously the game against Kildare. And to retire, to play my last game with Kerry, with 14 on my back, is a huge thing for me. Because I always said I’d retire when I couldn’t help them anymore. And I don’t think I can help them enough anymore. Not at my age with the teams they’re trying to beat and the styles that those teams are playing.

KS: In what way?

KD: I’ll be 36 next year. I’ve too many miles on the clock to go again. Don’t get me wrong, I could still come on with 10 minutes to go in a tight game and win a ball that could win the game. But I’m not going to put everything on hold just for that. Like, I can’t go over to London for a meeting with Tottenham Hotspur for PST. It’s not like Spurs are going to say, ‘Oh, you’re training with Kerry? Don’t worry about it — we’ll do it on Thursday morning! Does that suit you?!’ You might get away with that here. Not over there!

KS: And when you say the way opposing teams would be playing, that you no longer would be best equipped to cope with it?

KD: I’m not silly. I know I’d be a target for teams to run at. Because they’d see this guy 6’5 and 16 stone and 36 years old and go, ‘Let’s run him so he’s not a factor at the other end of the pitch.’

And I would be afraid that I’d cost Kerry something by not tracking back and the ball ending up in the back of the net. People mightn’t see that I was the guy who didn’t track back but I’d know it, and more importantly, my teammates would know it. I don’t want to be in that position.

KS: You remain the last goalscorer in an All-Ireland final won by someone other than Dublin. 2014 could be perceived as the perfect time for you to have bowed out. Are you glad you stayed on for the last four years? They seem to have enhanced your legacy rather than dilute it, or have they? 2015 was a frustrating year…

KD: But how frustrating was it, really? OK we lost an All-Ireland final, it was a bollocks, I didn’t start, I should have started, it was a mistake, but mistakes happen, we all make them. I got to fuckin‘ captain Kerry! Kieran Donaghy, the basketballer with the baseball cap strolling into Charlie Nelligan’s training sessions as a 17-year-old, going on to lead the seniors around the parade in an All-Ireland semi-final?!

Thank God we won the All-Ireland in ’14. I look at [Bernard] Brogan now, he’s 34. We hockeyed them the first few years of his career. He had no success; yeah, they won Leinsters, but they had no All-Ireland, they hadn’t even played in one. Next thing he got one in ’11. He’s had all the success at the end of his career.

I had most of the success at the start of my career. We were a Packie McConnell stud away from winning our own four in a row. My first six years on the panel, we played six finals, won four of them. I always say I was there in 2004 — because I should have been;

I trained with them all summer, right up to the final, until I went in and tried out for my suit and was told, ‘Oh, your name’s not on the list at all.’ I wasn’t even dropped by the management! I was dropped by Sean Hussey Suits!

So I’ve seen all ends of it. I’ve been the unused sub, I’ve been the impact sub, I’ve been the main man, I’ve been the fall guy, I’ve been the redemption man, I’ve been the impact sub and the unused sub and the starter all over again… For me, life is about experiences. And if I could go back now to my 17-year-old self I’d be just saying, ‘Enjoy it. Just enjoy the ride.’ And I really started to enjoy it the last four years.

Because what happened to me in ’14 settled in my head what I was to Kerry football in my time in the jersey. I could have been just a guy lucky to be on a very good team who happened to have a few good finals and then did little or nothing for the last ten years of his career. That All-Ireland and the way we won that All-Ireland and my role in it kind of copper-fastened my spot in Kerry football.

So after that I was kind of playing with house money. Yeah, we got beaten in a final, then beaten in two semi-finals and then there was this year obviously, so there was no success, but…

KS: You really enjoyed 2016, back out playing around midfield, up until the [All Ireland] semi-final…

KD: Loved it. Loved that battle with Dublin. It was a massive pity myself and Darran had to go off that day. It was a level game when I went off. And Darran would bring the fight to you all day as well.

KS: Then 2017…

KD: Nominated for an All Star. Which I would have thought at the start of that year there was no way that was possible.

KS: You didn’t play the league that year, played basketball instead. Did the basketball compromise the football over the last few years?

KD: No. It didn’t compromise it at all. If anything it helped. I’m very lucky I had a manager who said ‘Go away and play the basketball.’ And that I had teammates who were accepting of it — to my knowledge. Maybe some of them weren’t happy. I could understand it being a real thing for someone: A fella being away for four months. But nobody ever said it to me.

When you’re 33, 34, you want to keep it as fresh as possible. I was enjoying training three nights a week with the basketball, getting fit, being in the gym with the Kerry boys and them seeing I was doing my stuff.

So they knew I was in shape. And I wasn’t coming back in stinking the place out for a month. Every year I slotted in straight away. There was no one who could say, ‘God, your man’s all over the shop! This is a joke! Why he’s back?’

KS: When you look back on it, the year came down to one game. Galway.

KD: It was that one game. And that game has cost us before. Above in Croke Park on a drab shitty day with 20,000 in the crowd.

KS: You spoke in your book about the champion racehorse finding it hard to get up for the Dingle Races, whereas his ears are pricked for Cheltenham, just like yours would be for a Munster final against Cork. Did the Galway game feel more like the Dingle Races than Cheltenham for Kerry, even though it was in Croke Park?

KD: Probably. It had to be! It wasn’t do-or-die. So bad and all as it was being caught by Down in 2010, that was a knockout game, whereas that was off the table against Galway. We were playing great football in Munster, but like Munster…

KS: That was another thing you wrote about in the book in 2016. How Cork used to always test and steel ye for Croke Park but that litmus test was becoming no annual certainty.

KD: It’s definitely hurt us, the way they have gone. Because for years we were in Munster, playing against the second/third-best team in the country. We’d be in Killarney or in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the shit would be in the fire late on and that would stand to you when you got to Croke Park. But you know what? You can’t talk about Galway and you can’t talk about the shit atmosphere in Croke Park and you can’t talk about Cork. All I should be talking about is Kerry. And we didn’t do it when we needed to do it.

KS: It’s been well-documented, your thoughts and anguish when you weren’t brought on against Galway in the 2014 quarter-final. What was racing through your mind sitting out against them again in 2018, especially with Kerry struggling?

KD: I suppose that had a big bearing on this decision. Look, when you have a full-forward line of James, Paul [Geaney], and Clifford, you want to start them.

Even when I came back, I’d say Éamonn had it in his head, ‘If we’re losing late on he’ll be a great option to have, and he’ll be great to have around the place.’ And I think he wanted to give the three lads inside every chance to really click. They were good against Clare and good against Cork but I think he was waiting for them to really take off. But against Galway it wasn’t working.

It was like Tyrone in 2015 when he took me off at half-time. Or the Dublin game in ’15 when he should have brought me on at half-time. And I should probably have been fired on at half-time against Galway. But I can see where he was coming from. And we’re all learning all the time. I’d say if he had his time back again he’d have moved one of them out to the half-forward line, and brought on… not even me. Maybe I was a bit selfish in my thinking just there. Maybe Barry John [Keane] would have been the best guy at halftime against Galway with me coming on with 15

minutes to go. But we did nothing. So going away from that, I was thinking, ‘The way I feel now, it’s not fuckin‘ worth it. The pain and the self-doubt; Jesus Christ, I wasn’t even good enough to be brought on.’

Éamonn came up to me straight after the game, said they were going to put me on, only backs got injured and that. But in my head, I was, ‘Yeah, but I should have been on before that.’

KS: But then he went with you from the start the next day against Monaghan.

KD: He did, which was massive. And even more, he kept me on when he’d have had every reason to take me off. So I was still there when it came to that scenario that I hate but that I’ve been in numerous times in my career: The junior B county league game on a Friday night when the team is losing and they call the biggest,

fattest fella they have up to full forward and rain balls in on top of him — and then they say he’s useless after he doesn’t catch any of them!

KS: Is there still a place for a Kieran Donaghy type of player in inter-county football now?

KD: Oh there is. I’d be bringing Tommy Walsh back in if I was the manager [Donaghy is saying this before Walsh kicks 2-1 for Kerins O’Rahillys against Dr Crokes the following weekend]. You go to any game in the country, hurling or football, and when that ball goes into the square you could pause it 10 yards out from it hitting the players’ hands and everyone’s on the edge of their seat. Not everyone is on the edge of their seat when it goes into the corner or a halfback is sauntering out with it.

KS: Even the penalty Tyrone won in the [All-Ireland] final when Colm Cavanagh was fouled…

KD: Nah, the only reason the ref gave that penalty was because the game was over. If that was a two-point game, there’s no way Colm Cavanagh gets that penalty.

Because I’ve been in that situation when the game is in the melting pot. I got pulled down in ’15 by the neck. No penalty.

KS: We’re in an age now where we’ve had a team win an All Ireland shooting no second-half wide in either the semi-final or final. Taking no shot all summer outside the 45. Where everything is worked through the hands. It’s all about playing the percentages. A long ball into a big man inside — is that what a manager wants to see?

KD: You win nothing in life without taking chances. If you have a weapon inside there like a Tommy Walsh, my instruction to a team would be, ‘I want four to five high balls a half going in on top of Tommy — and when they go in, I want fellas crashing for the breaks, not just standing around [the half-forward line]. If they’re our five turnovers for the game, I’m very happy with that.’ I wouldn’t even call them turnovers!

They don’t call them turnovers in hurling!

They lamp a ball in towards Johnny Glynn or John Conlon, either they win it or it breaks and there’s danger around there, it’s great.

Then when it doesn’t come off, no one calls it a turnover because it happens so often. As I say, you’ve to take risks, because they end up being the high-percentage play anyway.

The next chapter is here,Oh I can’t waitNo ifs, no buts,only total faith…

KS: Does coaching, management interest you?

KD: It does. That’s something I’ve loved down the years: seeing things and going to managers with stuff, whether it was Éamonn or Stephen Stack or Wayne Quinlivan who’s managing us [Austin Stacks] now. I might hop ideas off them or they might hop things off me.

To be honest most of the stuff comes from my basketball background. Football is still only scratching the surface. I see Dublin now. Jim Gavin has obviously done an unbelievable job in getting them to buy into the ethos of playing as a team. But [Jason] Sherlock’s influence is all over them. The V-cuts, backdoor cuts, screens, coming off the loop — all stuff we’ve been doing since we were 13 years of age, playing basketball.

It’s why [Ciaran] Kilkenny’s so good for Dublin; when he goes across the pitch and he’s pointing, it’s almost like Sherlock’s there on the field. And I’ve basically been a point guard all my life.

I know I played mostly full forward with Kerry but in that famous game down in Limerick [the 2014 semi-final replay against Mayo], when the game was on the line late on, I went out the field and was the point guard. And I think there’s a lot more we can transfer over to football.

I think we need to challenge players more on a mental level. GAA players, even the thought of a meeting, it’s like, ‘Ah Jesus, we’ve to go into a meeting now and watch video!’

You’ve to go in and watch 10 clips. And a manager saying why he’s showing those 10 clips. It’s over in 20 minutes.

I know we’re not getting paid but there are Irish national underage basketball squads this summer doing video for over an hour. They need to know 20 offences, 20 set defences. In football it seems to be, ‘Ah that’s too much information. Information overload.’

If lads can’t take on simple information, how are they going to [progress]?

KS: Where do you think Kerry are at now?

KD: I think there’s great potential, and there’s a great opportunity. We need the James and the Pauls [Geaney] and the Cliffords to put in a serious winter and say ‘Four years is too long in Kerry to go without winning an All-Ireland.’ They need to get to that point.

And they’re lucky to be in that position: to have the challenge and chance to beat one of the best teams of all time.

KS: Whoever wins this next All-Ireland can win immortality.

KD: Exactly. Seamus Darby in reverse maybe.

KS: Hey, you’d fit the profile. Wily veteran. High ball around the square. You’d have the hip and the arse to do a Tommy Doyle on a Philly [McMahon] or [Johnny] Cooper.

KD: [Laughs] I don’t think I’d have the left peg to put it into the top corner! Although my goal against Galway last year...!

KS: Your uncle might be right! There’s another year in you yet!

KD: They’ll have that on the gravestone! ‘There’s another year in him yet!’


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