Kieran Donaghy looked like he went to sleep in Dunboyne on Saturday night and woke up in Croke Park back in 2006, such was the terror he was inflicting on that Galway full-back line in the first half.
About two years ago, he was preparing for an imminent retirement from Kerry football when he took on a project to try to bring Superleague basketball back to the town of Tralee. There were three or four different small clubs all fishing out of the same small pool of players and none of them had a senior outlet competing in the top flight of Irish basketball. Somehow, Donaghy managed to pull these warring basketball factions all under the one umbrella to form a new Superleague club in the town.
This would be the broad equivalent of Donald Trump bringing peace to the Middle East.
Years of complicated animosity and silly bickering were put to one side for the good of basketball, but specifically for the good of young people in the town. You can rest assured, despite the longstanding appetite for hoops in Tralee and Kerry, and the willingness to make the effort, the Tralee Warriors basketball club would never have seen the light of day but for Donaghy’s persistence and resourcefulness.
He was like Jackie Moon from the movie Semi-Pro. He seemed to do everything except wrestle the bear. Whether that meant dealing with sponsorship, getting the jerseys and tracksuits, sorting accommodation for the Americans, organising gym memberships for the team, or getting the court lined… everything and anything, he got it done. Literally, Jackie Moon.
I watched most of their home games last season, and I thought he improved physically as the season wore on. His touch started to come back, his court vision, and decision making too. But the big thing I noticed with him, was that he slowly started to look more athletic again. His footwork and foot quickness looked sharper, and by the season’s end, he was noticeably more agile than when he started the season.
Having not touched a football or the green grass of a pitch for months, as soon as the basketball season concluded with Tralee, Donaghy waltzed over to Killarney and in one training session showed Eamon Fitzmaurice enough to book his place as the last sub on the panel for the National League final against Dublin in Croke Park. That wouldn’t have been a decision made out of sentimentn — if Donaghy was travelling, Fitzy must have thought he could do a job.
And against Cork in the Munster final and particularly during the first half against Galway last Sunday, it was obvious why Fitzmaurice wanted to get him involved straight away.
Donaghy’s movement to be able to create separation from his marker, or two markers on occasions, was brilliant. He has seemingly transferred that basketball agility onto the football pitch with him.
His contested catching over his head was just as impressive. I know it’s a fairly primitive tactic, to just lump the ball on top of the biggest guy on the pitch, but when he’s winning it, primitive can be beautiful.
The goal was probably the best individual score he has ever taken with Kerry; the catch, the awareness, the footwork, and the finish, which by my reckoning, was only the third left-legged score of his championship career.
But for all of Donaghy’s highlight-reel plays in the first half, in truth, the All-Ireland quarter-final was a pretty poor spectacle, played at a pace befitting a curtain raiser. Kerry were like the big brother with their hand extended on their little brother’s forehead while he swung wildly, but was always just too far out of reach to make any meaningful contact.
Johnny Buckley and Paul Murphy, in particular, kept Kerry rolling with their energy and ability to win ball and get up and down the field, but there is plenty for Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his management group to sink their teeth into this week, even before they find out their semi-final opponent.
Kerry were too often careless in possession, the kind of carelessness that comes with knowing deep down that you’re probably going to win the game regardless. And although it seemed comfortable for long stages in the second half, if Galway had managed to take a couple of the goal chances that were brilliantly saved by Brian Kelly, it could have put a very different reflection on proceedings and may have stirred Kerry from their semi-slumber.
As it turned out, Galway looked content enough to just play the role of gallant loser, and despite Paul Geaney or James O’Donoghue not cutting loose, Kerry’s bench brought enough fuel to keep the fire kindled.
Kevin Walsh will probably second guess his decision to start a relative novice David Walsh at full-back on Donaghy, who despite his height, was in complete experience deficit against the seasoned full-forward who had it all his own way. Of course, hindsight will forever record that it was a move that didn’t work out, but hindsight to a manager is about as useful as wearing lead boots in the ocean. They aren’t going to help you keep your head above water.
While they have defensive frailties they urgently need to strengthen over the winter, and despite a recent series of poor Croke Park performances, I still think Galway are a team moving in the right direction under Walsh, and with the experience they’ll get from playing Division One football next season, the younger players on that squad will get an accelerated education coming up against the top players week in and week out which will only benefit them come championship time.
Kerry will have to wait for the Mayo and Roscommon rematch next Monday afternoon to see who they will face in the semi-final. Both sides showed flashes of brilliance laced with complete mediocrity in the main event on Sunday. Neither team really did enough to win, and both would have been delighted to escape with a draw.
Whichever team advances, Mayo’s Ger Cafferkey or Roscommon’s John McManus better get ready for being bombarded with long high ball to the big basketballer on the edge of their square. If Donaghy throws in another performance like last weekend, the basketball clubs of Ireland will be packed for the winter with footballers seeking an alternative route to the top of the football mountain.
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