BRENDAN O'BRIEN: A split second that changed modern day football

Kieran Donaghy scores a goal for Kerry against Armagh in 2006. Pic: Sportsfile.

Conor Gormley gave us ‘The Block’. Fifteen years later and its claim as the most iconic and influential split second in modern Gaelic football remains pretty robust.

Two minutes to go in an All-Ireland final against your neighbours and bitter rivals and the man you deny is none other than the great Stevie McDonnell. The result: Your county’s first title.

That’s damn hard to beat.

Others have had their go. Seven years ago it was ‘The Kick’, Stephen Cluxton’s injury-time winning free for Dublin against Kerry in another All-Ireland final.

Hurling has had its own offerings. Joe Canning gave us ‘The Point’ against Tipperary in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and Nickie Quaid contributed with ‘The Save’ — ‘The Interception’ maybe? — against Cork earlier this summer.

Kieran Donaghy gave us ‘The Catch’. Donaghy plucked endless balls out of the sky, many of them swallowed amid the maelstrom of midfield. It wasn’t until Jack O’Connor moved him into full-forward in the summer of 2006 that Star’s cult status was born with a moment of brilliance against Armagh.

One that resurrected a county and, with it, the hope that some of the game’s old traditions were not yet extinct.

The legend had its seed in the visit of Longford to Killarney the week before. It was then that O’Connor sent him up the field, latching on to long balls from Darran O’Sullivan and Aidan O’Mahony to feed Eoin Brosnan for two of his three liberating goals.

But it was that moment against Armagh that altered the landscape of the sport as a whole. How many people can look back on their careers and say that? Colm Cooper wrote in these pages this week about the spark Donaghy gave to a team that was in danger of suffocating 12 years ago.

Undone by Tyrone in the previous year’s All-Ireland final, Kerry looked devoid of ideas and self-confidence as a bland Munster campaign came to a close with defeat to Cork in the provincial final.

If Tyrone would continue to haunt them through to ’08 and beyond, then the spectre that was Armagh was an important bogey to banish, too. The Ulster pair had both said no to Kerry on each and every occasion in the championship since 2002. It was Donaghy’s first contribution to that conversation that changed the tone.

Research conducted at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in recent years came to the conclusion that our memories aren’t just faulty but that they change each and every time they are recalled. Watching Donaghy’s 39th-minute goal against Armagh on YouTube after the big man announced his retirement from the inter-county game this week tested that theory.

Everything we remembered of it checked out: Sean O’Sullivan’s perfectly angled ball from out near the Hogan Stand; Donaghy’s take over Francie Bellew’s head; the full-back’s slip; the empathic finish; and the roar into Paul Hearty’s face.

The symbolism of the moment veered towards overkill. The sides were even, tied at 1-7 apiece, until Donaghy shook the net. Colm O’Rourke would deem the win as one of the most vital in the Kingdom’s long and cherished history.

How right he proved to be.

Within 13 months they had claimed football’s first back-to-back since Cork’s in the late ’80s but the ripples from ‘The Catch’ washed up on shores far beyond Kerry’s. Donaghy’s arrival gave rise to a phalanx of copycats and an air of optimism, especially among traditionalists, that the dreaded defensive blanket could be burned by the old-fashioned catch-and-kick.

Most discovered not only that they had no Donaghy, but they had no Sean O’Sullivan either, and yet the image of the man from Tralee skirting the designs of Joe Kernan’s quilted covers speaks louder than ever now on the back of a summer that has confirmed for many the suspicion that the game was going to hell in a handcart.

Some corrective surgery, as we’ve said here before, is clearly needed — even if the pronouncements of ill-health are sometimes excessive — but maybe the main concern for those of us who still hold the game close to our hearts is that the rewards for such direct tactics are now deemed too scant for managers to persist with them.

Donaghy’s last great act on a football field was the ball he plucked from the Clones air and the pass he made to David Clifford off the back of it in that dramatic end game against Monaghan in the Super 8. And it escaped no one’s attention that Dublin looked uncomfortable when presented with such aerial assaults by Laois and Galway.

The problem is that such balls, like the jaw-dropping point Damien Comer scored from near the sideline against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, leave so much to chance at a time when the four-in-a-row champions have extracted so much risk from the business of winning.

So Donaghy wasn’t the game’s saviour in 2006 but he was a timely beacon of light for many. Who will carry that torch now?

- Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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