Donaghy, a giant amongst men

To appreciate the extraordinary journey and career Kieran Donaghy underwent before announcing his inter-county retirement yesterday on the 17th anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth rewinding to where he was when those planes crashed into those towers.

Donaghy, a giant amongst men

He was in Tyrone visiting his father who had long left the family home in Tralee, accompanying him in his mobile shop as Oliver Donaghy drove around the county trying to sell from door to door everything from teabags to toilet paper.

Donaghy Snr had just popped into a house in Fintona when his son heard something on the radio about a terrorist attack but initially thought it was just a trailer for some upcoming movie.

Then his father motioned for him to come into the house and see for himself on the TV what was really happening in New York.

They’d call into a lot of houses in Oliver’s native county that week. Not so much to sell some goods but, as Donaghy would recall in his autobiography that I had the honour to co-write, so a delighted Oliver could introduce people – strangers – to his son who had played for the Kerry minors the previous Sunday week in Croke Park.

It would take another trip up to Tyrone a few years later for Donaghy to twig just how erratic his poor late father’s behaviour was, arriving at the door of neighbours’ houses unannounced at 7am, his embarrassed son again in tow.

But if Oliver’s actions were symptomatic of someone who Donaghy would later suspect was bipolar, his urge to show his son off to the locals was also a measure of just how proud he was.

What Oliver neglected to say when doing the rounds in Fintona that September of 2001 was that substitute cameo in Croke Park had been Kieran’s first-ever game in the green and gold, and as far as the young fella was concerned, was likely his last too.

He had only got the call up to the panel the Wednesday before that All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin; when they’d won Munster below in Cork that July, Donaghy had been in the terrace.

Just as it had taken him to repeat the Leaving to make his school team, it had taken until the final game of his final year as a minor to make the county panel in that grade.

They hadn’t taken him seriously because they didn’t think he took football seriously, “the townie,” as he’d describe himself in his book, “strolling in [for trials] with his baggy basketball tracksuit and lounging around the dressing room, laughing and joking with all the boys he knew”.

On that same minor team was Colm Cooper. He was always going to make it. Kieran Donaghy was never supposed to make it. But he did, and more, going on to link up with the same Cooper to form probably the best double act in football of the last 15 years – who was better? McDonnell and Clarke? Canavan-Mulligan? Brogan and Connolly? Murphy and McFadden?

Maybe some tandems were momentarily just as good, but none were better for as long – while both being a star in their own right.

It’s certainly hard to recall a more competitive footballer to take to the field, just as Rus Bradburd, who coached him with the Tralee Tigers, never came across a greater competitor on the hardwood.

Pat Price, another American who’d coach in the Irish league, brilliantly recalled Donaghy’s contribution in the 2008 league final in the UL Arena when midway through the third quarter Tralee found themselves six points and three Americans down on a star-studded Killester team.

Donaghy playing basketball for Tralee Warriors in 2016
Donaghy playing basketball for Tralee Warriors in 2016

They were down to their bare bones: just Donaghy, his old sidekick Micheal Quirke, a 38-year proud veteran in John Teahan, an American called Pete Strobl who had scored only three baskets, and a young benchwarmer called Ger Myles. And yet Tralee won.

There were stages when it could have been Donaghy, Quirke, Teahan and Podge and Rodge on the court,” Price would write. “With 40 seconds remaining, Donaghy needed to skip off the court, ducking behind an advertising placard, to vomit from exhaustion.

Six years later in the same city Donaghy would exhibit the same spirit in another epic, only this time the arena wasn’t UL but the Gaelic Grounds.

In the most gladiatorial game any arena football has known, the abiding image of that evening is Donaghy howling to the sky upon the final whistle.

“It was as if the big man was releasing three seasons of frustration,” Karl O’Kane would write. “You can analyse this one all day but in the end Kerry had Donaghy and Mayo did not.

There has never been a player to turn a game in the blink of an eye and there may never be another.

But more than his capacity to change a game or his remarkable competitiveness was the regard he was held in by his teammates.

Yesterday both Marc Ó Sé and Darran O’Sullivan tweeted yesterday: The best teammate ever. What higher compliment could a footballer get or want?

It didn’t always mean slipping a pass or slapping a high-five to or with a teammate. During our collaboration for his award-winning book What Do You Think of That?, I remember him recalling the 2015 season when he was team captain. One night he had called out a player for not tracking his man which ended up with the loose man sticking the ball in the net.

“I lost the rag with him,” Donaghy recalled. “Because I’d pointed this out three or four times beforehand. I’d tried the arm around the shoulder, the quiet word to the side, and it hadn’t worked.

So I felt the only thing left to do was to call him out in front of everyone and f*** the head off him. ‘X, how often do I have to tell you? You’ve to watch both your man and the ball! You’re just ballwatching!’

“Next thing one of his buddies sticks his head in. ‘Leave it, Donaghy! It’s not like he meant to make a mistake!’ Well, I tell you, I grabbed him by the throat and it took everything in me not to open him. He wasn’t even on our team in this game! But because it was one of his pals, he felt he could butt in and tell me where to go. So the next day, I realised ‘I’ve got to meet this man.’ So I ring him and before the next night of training, I meet him in the lobby of a hotel in Killarney.

“‘Do you thinking I’m saying that to X for my sake? Does it make me look good? It does in its f***. Does it make him look good? It does in its f***. But if we’re in an All Ireland final and he turns his head and someone gets a goal off it or sets up a goal off it, I’m not going to be there saying to myself, ‘Well you know what, I saw that happen loads of times in training, but I was right never to have opened my mouth.’

“You say he’s a quiet lad. Well, I know that, which is why I tried the soft word in his ear. But he still wasn’t listening.

We’ve to realise when our buddies need to be challenged. This is a f****n’ team and this is a grown man’s game and it’s a game that needs to be won. We can’t have fellas babying each other all the time.’

Last month after Kerry’s Super 8 win over Kildare, those two same Kerry players shed a tear while hugging Donaghy on their way out the dressing room, knowing they’d never share it with him again as teammates.

While no one saw Kieran Donaghy the superstar full forward coming, Éamonn Fitzmaurice isn’t the only one who can spot a mile away Donaghy as a future Kerry manager or coach.

With a basketball-football intelligence to match Dublin’s Jason Sherlock as well as a massive personality and great interpersonal skills, he’d be made for it, yet has the humility and wherewithal to know he’s not quite ready yet.

With some players you fear how they’ll cope with exiting the big stage, how they’ll fill such a big hole. Not Donaghy. He still has the Stacks; the Warriors that he helped found just three years ago and have already won two Superleague Champions Trophies; Hilary and the two kids; work with PST Sport.

He’ll spend the next while studying other coaches from a range of sports, sitting in on sessions, courses, reading up books, making his mistakes off Broadway.

Very likely next summer he’ll likely shake up some TV studio that needs shaking up as well with his enthusiasm and insight, a rare combination in football coverage these days.

And to think, just a little over 17 years ago, he was a young fella with his baseball cap after what he thought was another unsuccessful trial with the Kerry minors.

“The Rose of Tralee was on with a big disco in the Dome so all I wanted to do was get home, showered and go on the piss,” he’d write in his book. “I was sick of doing well in trial games and hearing no more.” No fear that we’ll be hearing more of him in the future.

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