EARLY August 2011 and I’m in the house when the phone hums with a message.
It’s from Jack O’Connor.
I’m there, What?! The last day in Croke Park against Limerick was a prick of a game. Over after 20 minutes. One of those ones where the game just goes dead, boys start soloing up the field, taking too much of it. In the second half there was barely a ball kicked into me; who’s going to kick high ball in when you’re up ten points?
‘Late for the warm-up.’ Yeah, by maybe 20 seconds, putting on my runners — after coming straight from the physio.
And as for the golf. The Irish Open was in Killarney last week.
My buddie Mark Murphy, a pro on the challenge tour, got an invite to play in it.
Jack didn’t want us walking around, wasting energy. But Mark had got me tickets. I wanted to see him play.
It wasn’t like I drove to f**kin’ Timbuktu to see it.
I don’t even respond to the text.
Next day, another one.
This time I reply.
Another one back from Jack. This time more reconciliatory.
And in many ways that little exchange after the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final sort of summed up our relationship his second time around. There was still a fondness and respect for each other but this time there was a doubt.
And while we’d nearly always give each other the benefit of that doubt, it just wasn’t quite the same as what we once had.
When I got that text from Jack about my place being in jeopardy, I felt he was over-reacting. I wasn’t going that bad. I’d played well in the Munster final win against Cork. You couldn’t read anything into the quarter-final.
Then I struggled in the semi-final against Mayo. Kicked a good point under the Hogan into the Hill in the first half when we needed a score, but in general play Ger Cafferkey cleaned me. Still, I wasn’t going to let that stop me speaking up if I felt there was something that would help the team. A few weeks before the final against Dublin, Jack called a meeting and opened it up to the floor for suggestions about how to improve our preparation.
“Throw everything on the table, lads. Hit me. We’re all big boys.”
So right away I spoke up about something I’d often thought about. In training we’d pick two teams and just play away without any reference to a score or to what time was left. To me that was a big part of the reason we’d lost to Down the year before — well, that and me missing two sitters. With ten minutes to go, we were six points behind and didn’t know what we were supposed to do. I remember being out on the field, We should have practised for this. We were trying to get it back all at once and just lumping ball in and then they’d break it away and come out with the ball again. If we’d planned for that scenario, we could maybe have looked to work the ball through the lines, chip over a few points, make them feel edgy, then look to hit them for the goal.
It was something that always bothered me about football.
“Oh great session tonight, lads, we’re playing great stuff!!”
How do you know it’s great football when there’s no clock, no score and no consequence for a bad decision?
How well are we playing when we’re behind? How well are we playing when we’re ahead?
In the basketball, we were doing that at sixteen with Joey Boylan and the Irish team. Right, you’re eight down with 2:30 to go. What do you do?
Press. To the sidelines. No need to shoot three-pointers straightaway and allow our opponents to stretch the lead to ten, twelve points.
Then we’d run that scenario five times, so you could draw on that experience when the situation arose. That was preparation.
So I suggest the same to Jack. “Look, Jack, the football is great and all but we don’t know what the score is, what’s left on the clock. We should, like, have different scenarios.”
Well, once that word came out of my mouth, Jack jumped back as if he’d stepped off a footpath and a car had suddenly flown past.
“Huh! Huh! I’ll give you a scenario, Donaghy! There were four balls kicked in between yourself and Cafferkey the last day and you won f*** all of them! There’s a scenario for you now!”
A part of me now laughs thinking back at his response but at the time it was tense. Marc Ó Sé sensed that and jumped in.
“Ah, hold on a minute, Jack, we’re just trying to get right for the final…”
And then it moved on to the usual. Forwards getting in before training to sharpen up their shooting. That sort of thing.
Jack would still pick me for the final — at wing forward. I hadn’t played there since 2005. I’d say he was thinking, “Well, where do we put him? We kind of have to have him on. If we drop him, that’s one up for the Dubs.”
Of all the All-Ireland finals I’ve played in, that 2011 performance is the one I’m most proud of. Jack probably put me out on the wing so I could get a few early touches and feel my way into the game, but I just tore into it from the start. Making sure I got on as much ball as possible. Catching kickouts. Chasing James McCarthy back up the pitch. I troubled them then when I went inside. I kicked my best-ever point for Kerry, the one under the Cusack to level it entering injury time… But f***it, we still lost. It still sickens me. With eight minutes to go we had a four-point lead. In a low-scoring game, it felt like a comfortable lead. But two things happened. Joe McQuillan missed a double-hop on their 21 that Bryan Sheehan would have tapped over, and then showed yellow to Ger Brennan for a tackle on Declan that was a blatant red card.
Dublin were kept in it when they shouldn’t have been. And, fair play to them, they came along and took it and have hardly let it go since.
MAY, 2012 and I’m in the town square in Munich among thousands of other Chelsea fans for the Champions League final when the phone buzzes again. F***it. It’s Jack.
We’d a bit of a row last night. After training I told him I was going to the game; my friend Gerry Rochford had somehow got me tickets.
“Jesus, I don’t know about that, Kieran,” said Jack. “The first round against Tipp is next week.”
“Well, Jack, the flight and hotel is all sorted. I won’t be drinking, I’m back on Sunday and we’re not training ’til Monday. I won’t be missing anything.”
“No, I’m not happy about this. If you go to that f***in’ match, you won’t be starting next weekend!”
Well, that kind of made up my mind for me. Whatever it is, whenever someone says I can’t do something, I want to do it.
So here he is, ringing me, to find out what I decided to do, and sure by the foreign dial tone, he already knows. I don’t even answer.
Five minutes later, Gooch, our captain that year, calls.
“Are you in Germany?”
“You’re dropped for next Sunday, you know that?”
“Erra, he’ll calm down. Sure if I didn’t tell him, he wouldn’t even know I was gone. Look, I’ve been following Chelsea since I was a kid.
“If he wants to drop me over going to see them play in a Champions League final, he can f***in’ drop me.”
I hang up the phone in a temper. I hadn’t planned on drinking, but f***it, I’m drinking now. I go into the nearest pub and have a few jugs of beer before meeting the lads. Trying to get my head around that I’ve just been dropped for the first time since I broke onto the team, yet make sure it doesn’t spoil being at one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
A little while later I’m buzzing. I’ve met up with Gerry Rochford’s friend, Denis Diggins, a Mayo man who secured us the tickets.
We join in with all the Chelsea fans, chanting to the tune of She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain:
The Bayern crowd just laughed and returned with some fire of their own. It was like that day in Cork on the doss with Martin Courtney, revelling in the opposing fans slagging each other.
But just like I got suspended for that little escapade, I had to be punished for this one as well. Jack carried through on his threat and dropped me for the Tipp game. As far as he was concerned, he had another good reason to. The night before I flew out to witness Didier Drogba put away the penalty that won the Champions League, I had been late for our trial game.
And my excuse was like that of a schoolboy’s. Only the dog didn’t eat my homework. I went one better. The dog had gone missing and I had to go searching for it.
I didn’t think it was an excuse though. Two months earlier the old man had passed away. I was now looking after his dog — or at least meant to be when that evening of the A versus B game, Buddy disappeared.
Hilary and myself were in a panic. I rang Mom to come over and help us with our search. We looked everywhere. I searched down by the town park, making sure to still give myself half an hour to get to Killarney and make training just in time. But when I sprinted back to the house, hadn’t my mother blocked my car by parking in front of the driveway. And my phone had gone dead. I couldn’t call her and couldn’t call a taxi.
Eventually Mom returned and I flew off to training as fast as I could. My brain was fried, between worrying about whether we’d find Buddy and the thought of facing Jack.
By the time I arrived into Fitzgerald Stadium, it was nearly half-time in the A versus B. When I approached Jack he couldn’t even look at me, and just flung a bib in disgust. It would be Alan O’Sullivan who’d tell me to go full forward for the Bs.
Afterwards the boys all found it hilarious why I had been late but Jack didn’t. It’s probably why he snapped over the Champions League final.
When I got home from Killarney we’d find Buddy, two doors down, soaking wet; he’d jumped over some fence, got stuck in a bunch of thorns and couldn’t get free, the poor thing.
There’d be another sort of reunion the following Sunday in Thurles. Ten minutes into the second half with the team only two points ahead, Jack swallowed some pride and called for me to get ready. So he put the arm around my shoulder and was giving me instructions when some fella in the crowd shouted out in a big Kerry drawl within earshot of both of us about the best line that could be said to Jack and me at that time.
THERE would be no fairytale end to Jack’s second spell the way there was to his first. We would still have some good days that summer; we finally got to beat Tyrone, in a qualifier in Killarney, A few weeks later though up in Croke Park, a new force in Ulster, Donegal, beat us on their way to an All-Ireland, another palmed goal of mine near the end proving to be too little too late.
Our year was over, and with it, so was Jack’s second coming. Again, that last game summed up just about where we were in his second stint over the team.
He’d me playing corner forward that summer. He didn’t want to leave me out but he didn’t want to have it all revolve around me. And while I would prefer to have been playing at fourteen, I was always going to keep fighting to the death for him and for Kerry.
Do I regret going to Munich? No. I’d do it again. I’d go looking for my dad’s dog and be late for training all over again.
But do I blame Jack for dropping me? No. Maybe he felt, “This guy’s all over the shop.”
I don’t think I was. I don’t think he was right. A couple of months earlier I had played for Kerry two days after my father had died. That showed how committed I was to Kerry. But a part of me actually likes and respects that Jack didn’t bow down to me. Making the big, hard calls was part of what made him a great manager. Bringing in Johnny Crowley for the 2004 final. Bringing in Declan ahead of Brossie for the 2006 final. Going with me in 2006.
To me he was the man who gave me my break, and, one weekend apart, stuck with me to the end. I’ve always had great time and respect for him. Always will.
Who knows, some day we might even catch a Champions League game together.
- What Do You Think of That? by Kieran Donaghy, co-written with Kieran Shannon and published by Trinity Mirror, is released this week. Donaghy will sign copies of his new book at Eason’s, Tralee on Saturday at noon.