(Family) court of King James

HE still spins around Killarney on his bike at 55, looking as fresh as paint, uncreased by the stresses of life and Kerry’s roller-coaster ride to Croke Park.

(Family) court of King James

“How much do I play the father thing with him?” Diarmaid O’Donoghue asks himself. “Well, he’s just completely driven with this thing on Sunday, but after that, like he’s 24, it would be nice if he dipped back into the real world. Got a job or something.”

No-one’s quite sure where Kerry’s lightning rod James O’Donoghue got this flat-line temperament or when he developed it. His mother and father insist it’s not from them. His grandfathers were publicans (Dan Lenihan’s on College Street), politicians and union reps, trades not noted for their monastic silence.

But Diarmaid’s youngest of two sons lands to Kerry training on a bike (well, he did at one stage), he winks at the All Star cameras and also the keepers he keeps whizzing pressure penalties past.

He won’t take handy points when there’s three points on offer. Oh, how his father knows that, but at this stage, he purses his lips.

The youth of today, eh?

“I went up to Legion training one day when James was about 17, and he was walloping the shit out of a ball, driving it 40 yards over the bar, and (Kerry legend) Johnny Culloty was standing watching him, tearing his hair out: ‘tip it over the bar, boy will you?’

“We came out of the Mayo (replay) game and I was talking to (Johnny Culloty’s son) Seanie. ‘Why won’t he just tip the ball over the bar instead of getting blocked down (by Keith Higgins) three times?’

And Seanie smiled: ‘Diarmaid, how long have we been telling him that? Sure, 20,000 Kerry fellas there today were probably telling him that too.’”

You could try to make a case for arrogance, but anyone who knows James O’Donoghue or his family knows they’re nothing of the sort. “I wanted to say it to him afterwards,” winces Diarmaid, “but I just wouldn’t be telling him now. He’d know. He probably was thinking I was that much (with his thumb and forefinger almost touching) away from getting in there for a goal in the first half.....’”

They sat together in the stand at the Gaelic Grounds, feeling every flow and ebb. Alongside Rita, son Tom and Diarmaid, Ogie Moran and Ann, parents of David, and Mikey Keane, uncle of Barry John. Moran and O’Donoghue proved Kerry’s star turns on a mesmerising Saturday evening. Kerry heroes in the making.

And on the road home to Killarney, Diarmaid started thinking of Ogie, what a gentleman he was, and the things he was saying in the stand in Limerick.

And the things he said to Diarmaid 30 years before.

Denis ‘Ogie’ Moran rounded the corner in his motor, with Barry Walsh of Ballylongford, both sick at the thought. Neither speaking. Word was out. Dwyer had a killer session in store. This was Micko’s training ground party trick. Wires-to-wires and interval laps ‘til lads wouldn’t know which side of their mouth the vomit was coming out. It was 1976, and Kerry were All-Ireland champions. On the slow road to training, three lads appeared, gearbags slung low. Where ye heading?

“I was 17 at the time,” Diarmaid O’Donoghue says, “my brother Donal, Jimmy Reen and his brother were heading to play a game at the Fossa Carnival. The two boys were heroes to us but I could see the dread on their faces. They asked would we take their gear and go Kerry training. They’d head for the carnival. Three years later, I knew what a Dwyer training session was.”

The dimly-lit second tier of Kerry’s storied football successes is about the ones who were there but weren’t there. The Lost Generation, as those who pick holes in eight All-Irelands out of 12 seasons, like to call them. Those who sprung up each spring for the League, looking for their own piece of the Golden Years. Diarmaid O’Donoghue was one such. At any other time in Kerry, and anytime at all in a different county, he’d have been a lockdown wing-forward for years. Instead the Legion man made one championship start for Kerry. As captain. In centenary year. All set up for the fairytale.

“Those training sessions? Well the lads were like thoroughbreds. Ger Power and Mike Sheehy, their speed, agility was staggering. They found it hard, but I found the extreme training very difficult. And I was fit! They were a united bunch and I found it very hard to break in, to get into their system. Even in backs and forwards, you felt great just to be part of that. Imagine going in with Spillane, Egan, Mikey and being told, ‘go in there and be part of that forward line’. Paudie Lynch marking you. To be part of that for even 20 minutes. It was great, but you had to perform. You had to make it happen.

“It was a hard gig, but I’d no regrets or ill-feeling. Look at Ger O’Driscoll, Vincent O’Connor, Pat Sheehan, the Walshs, Bernard Sullivan from Dingle, did they break in? They were all fabulous players.”

O’Donoghue was the star turn himself when a Dr Crokes-Legion amalgamation won the Kerry football championship in 1983. After that he got a consistent run in the NFL that took him and Timmy Dowd of John Mitchels all the way to the final in Limerick against Galway.

They bombed. “We both got the call early, Timmy and then me. Mortification. First-half, subbed off. You got you chance, and that was it. I was on the outside trying to break in, but I did get a lot of confidence from the League because I was scoring a lot at wing-forward. I was picked to start as captain in the Championship against Tipperary in Tralee and, actually, I didn’t do bad.

“But a week or two before, there was a couple of pitch openings, one in Annascaul and another above in Galway, so O’Dwyer split the squads between both. Dublin came down to West Kerry, I had a good game, but John Kennedy was discovered in Galway that day. They came back from the west with Kennedy. I came back from the west with doubts. He was right corner against Tipperary, and scored about six points in the second-half, a brilliant player. I kicked one — I knew the writing was on the wall.”

With O’Donoghue out, the Killarney committee had a decision on the Kerry captaincy. But, in the meantime, with Seanie Walsh gone full-back, a young buck from Gneeveguilla was making tracks around midfield.

“Ambrose (O’Donovan) came from nowhere. He’d tear the head off you, he was raw, but he was a huge success, a fabulous captain in centenary year. He was only 21, but he knew his place, he never overstepped the mark. Nonetheless, he was a presence and players responded to him, even the older lads.”

When James O’Donoghue fishes through his father’s collection of jerseys for training now, he finds too many with No’s 17 to 25. If he liked the fit of a No 19 jersey, he’d rip off the 1 first. Diarmuid appreciates the hopball.

“You’d always ask yourself now did you give it your heart and soul. I think I did. I broke my leg badly at 17, and lost that yard of pace. That crucial yard. Doing wires-to-wires with Mikey and Egan, you’d be two yards behind them. You have to have that yard as a forward. But give me anyone who would have broken into that Kerry forward line at the time? Matt Connor for sure. After that?

“I feel privileged that I was involved in that set-up. I can always say I had games with the likes of Spillane and Sheehy. Even to this day, fellas would love to have even five minutes with those fellas. Ask yourself this: of any six football forwards over the last 30 years, who else would you like to slip in for a league game with?”

HE’ll argue their corner 30 years later too. Kerry then or now? Tough call. “The rules have changed things a good bit. Back then, you won a free, it was walloped upfield and you had to win your ball. Now if you win a free, they’ll delay it, and wait for you (the forward) to make his run! That’s fantastic, I’d love that.”

A back operation finished Diarmaid’s lung-bursting Kerry runs for good, but he tipped away with Legion into his 40s. In 1990, his first son was born. A left-legger like his dad. “Mick O’Connell said to me once, ‘was I more targeted as a left footer, because you stand out more? He was right. When James was young, we’d kick, soccer-style, along the floor, left and right, left and right.”

These days Diarmaid coaches the U12’s in the Legion, a very different Legion from the one his eight-year old James began with.

“(Then chairman) Pat Moynihan, who owns the Big Red Bus in Killarney deserves a huge amount of credit. When you have one of the best clubs in the country on your doorstep (Dr Crokes), it’s not easy. We are a small club, but at that time, we weren’t giving ourselves a fighting chance either. So Pat put a proper structure in place, upskilled the coaches in the club, and, lo and behold, we started winning things. John Keane won two Féile titles with a great group of young lads and things took off again. We were off the radar for a long time, and went down to Division Three.”

And Legion didn’t have a Gooch walking into classrooms, signing up the pick of the crop for the Crokes. “We were going head-to-head with them for kids. I’d go in and then Colm Cooper goes in... who are you going to pick?”

It’s different now. Legion will have three in Kerry’s squad for tomorrow’s All-Ireland final, including their talisman, their lightning rod. “I knew we’d have to get a figurehead on the Kerry team to make us relevant to the next generation. Now we’re spoilt for choice. The profile is great, we are happy with that. Legion is a hard-working, small club. There’s no-one too big for his boots.”

Least of all the lad who can’t stop smiling. And scoring. “I don’t think there’s any arrogance about him, I’d hope not anyway. You’d struggle to get James out of bed, but then on the pitch, he’s completely driven. When he didn’t make the 25 in his first year with the Kerry minors, he was absolutely raging. But it drove him on, and the likes of Jack O’Connor and Pat Flanagan brought him on leaps and bounds in 2011.”

He’s nearly 25 now, just about the age Diarmaid O’Donoghue was when he was trying, trying so hard, to hitch himself to Mick O’Dwyer’s wonderful wagon. Desperately seeking that day in Croke Park, that All-Ireland final. “It’s what we all think about in Kerry as young lads, isn’t it?” If his son hears the stories about his father around town, he doesn’t let on. “He never says anything,” Diarmaid laughs. “I was gone before he was born. Anyway I never got that far. Maybe he’ll give me one of his jerseys.....”

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