The Kieran Donaghy interview: Still drawn back to the cauldron

“Am I good enough to wear number 14 for Kerry next year? That’s what I have to prove.” Kieran Donaghy thought he was finished in a Kerry jersey. The pain of defeat by Mayo bit deep but he has always found a way of twisting pain to his own ends. And he has always loved to prove people wrong.

The Kieran Donaghy interview: Still drawn back to the cauldron

Within half an hour of what seemed like the final act of Kieran Donaghy’s inter-county career — a frustrated swipe to the face of Aidan O’Shea that incurred his first straight red card in 10 years — Kerry and Mayo supporters who made the skip across to the other side of Jones’ Road for Jury’s Croke Park would have encountered a surprising sight by the counter of the courtyard bar.

There, waiting to be served among the throng like everyone else, was the strikingly familiar, tall figure of Donaghy, along with his fellow Tralee titan and friend, David Moran, the two of them still in their tracksuits.

For years, the hotel has been a brief post-match base for Kerry: the spot where the team bus makes its way over while the players do battle in the big bowl, and where they eat after that battle is won, lost, or drawn. This particular occasion though represented something of a break from routine. Instead of waiting for the rest of their teammates and for some grub before getting something to drink, Donaghy and Moran just dumped their bags on the bus and headed straight to the bar.

“I was there in the dressing room, saying, ‘Right, do I sit here now, wallowing and feeling sorry for myself, or do I just get f****ing on with it?’ And I just said, ‘I’m getting on with it.’ So I had a quick shower and then went across the road like nothing happened. Threw my bag onto the bus. Said hello to the Kerry people, said hello to the Mayo people, [they] took some photos, then went back outside to [his friend] Jerry Rochford and sat down in the corner with my brother, sister, and Mom.”

Although he was trying to process the mayhem that had just occurred across the road and was very much assuming that he had played there for the last time, his instinct to suck it up and just get on with it was pure Donaghy.

Three months later on a weekday Tralee morning and you find him still getting on with things, with lots of things on the go. When you arrive into the hotel restaurant, Joe O’Connor is rising from his seat in the corner booth, his meeting with Donaghy about to conclude.

The former Clare and current Limerick hurling trainer is now also the head of athletic development for Kerry football and he and Donaghy have just plotted a way to how his preparations for Kerry 2018 can start to dovetail with Donaghy’s more immediate commitments to the Garvey’s Tralee Warriors, like the shooting session he just got in at 7.30am in the local complex with the team’s American, Trae Pemberton.

Turns out that mad Saturday last August wasn’t his last day in a Kerry dressing room.

He knows what some people think, possibly yourself. That he’s pushing it now, trying to squeeze yet another season out of a body that turns 35 next March. He certainly knows what his mom Deirdre thinks, or at least what she thought when he floated the idea to her of staying on for one more year.

“My mother asked me was I having a midlife crisis! Those were her words. ‘Are you actually having a midlife crisis?! You told the family two years in a row that this could be the last day above in Croke Park. That we wouldn’t have to put up with any more abuse from the stands. You’re playing the basketball, you’re travelling all over the place with work, you have two kids now at home… And you’re really thinking of going back with Kerry?!’

“And I was like, Mom, I am, because I am enjoying the basketball, I am enjoying being up the walls with work, I love being a dad to the two girls, and you know what, I love playing for Kerry.’”

This year reaffirmed just how much. It was very nearly the perfect year for him. At the start of January the Warriors would go on a remarkable streak, winning 12 of their last 13 games to make the Champions Trophy finals weekend, and then win that tournament up in Letterkenny, first edging cup winners Swords Thunder by two points in the semi-final, then the next day squeezing out league champions Templeogue in even more dramatic circumstances.

As usual, Donaghy was central to it at all. With 10 seconds to go, he made a stunning baseline move to tie the game.

Then with 10 seconds left in overtime and his team trailing by three points, he leapt up to claim an offensive rebound and immediately fired the ball back out to Pemberton who drilled his shot from the corner. Except Donaghy went one better than being Chris Bosh to Pemberton’s Ray Allen. Bosh and Allen only tied the game with that famous clutch play for the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA finals. Donaghy was fouled while storming to the boards in case Pemberton missed. Two free throws. He nailed the first. The winner and hero once more.

It left Donaghy overwhelmed. “I was going around with a lump in my throat, half-wanting to whoop around and celebrate, and half-wanting to cry somewhere by myself.”

A year earlier, the club hadn’t even existed, just a figment of Donaghy’s imagination and his vision of bringing two rival clubs together to bring Superleague basketball back to the town and enthral its youngsters, just like the Tralee Tigers wowed him two decades earlier. The only Warrior who had ever played Superleague before was Donaghy — and the last time had been back in 2008. Guys like Fergal and Darren O’Sullivan had spent their whole lives playing scratch golf in the summer and then some intermediate basketball for the winter. Now here they were in 2017, playing in front of full houses back home in Tralee and beating the crop of Dublin and the country, lifting the Champions Trophy above in Donegal.

The next morning they woke up a bit rough from the previous night’s escapades but still giddy and buzzing from it all. They brought the cup around Tralee and the schools, but just as they were starting into another session above in the Castle Bar, Donaghy’s plans changed. Éamonn Fitzmaurice was on the phone. Even though Kerry had won through to the league final without Donaghy, the manager wanted him to come in for training on the Wednesday.

Donaghy says he felt “18 all over again” heading into Fitzgerald Stadium that night, uncertain of his form or standing. The only lads who would have seen him in months would have been the Tralee crew in the gym. The only football he had kicked in months had been in his S&C workouts with Damien Ryall above on the pitch in John Mitchell’s, just to help ease his legs back. But once he was back in with the rest of the Kerry boys, it was as if he’d never been away, picking off right where he had been the previous August, when Fitzmaurice went with him at full forward for the All-Ireland semi-final showdown against Dublin.

“I’m sure if I had stunk the lights out and everything hopped off me, I’m sure they’d have been asking, ‘Jesus, is he really at it at 34? Can he really offer us something?’ But every ball that was kicked into me, I caught, and they definitely knew then I could offer them something.

“I was fresher of the mind. I was coming in in April like it was November. ‘I’m back in training with Kerry and this is exciting.’ I loved attacking it on a good pitch with the sun out. Whereas if you’re back in November, by April it’s not exciting anymore.”

The following Sunday, he was on the 26 for the league final win over Dublin. Didn’t come on but that didn’t matter. By the first round of the championship, above in Ennis, he was coming on. By the Munster final he was starting. That day down in Killarney he looked sharp, slick, dangerous. So did Kerry. The dream year looked on.

“I felt it was really there for us, that we had a real chance to go on and win an All-Ireland here. But for whatever reason, things changed. Probably the second half of the Galway game was the start of it.

“It’s the old one again of playing [an All-Ireland] quarter-final, you’re up five or six points and fellas start to do a bit more than they would if the game was still level. An extra solo here, an extra hop there. At half-time fellas would have been talking about winning the second half by another four or five points and having a good buzz going down the road. But coming out of Croke Park that day the mood was a bit flat. ‘Jesus, we were shit in the second half.’ We didn’t finish out the game like potential All-Ireland winners should. A sloppiness came into our play and with it, maybe a doubt into our heads.”

After the Mayo defeat, Donaghy had to question everything about himself, but once he did, he found some answers. Had he something still to offer Kerry? Did he still want to offer something to Kerry? On both counts, the answer was yes.

“I’ve always said it, I’ll retire when I can’t help Kerry anymore. Would it be easy for me to go out now? It would be easy. After a very good year at 34, nominated for an All-Star, and have people saying ‘Jesus, he was a great bit of stuff’, ‘Wow, you should never have retired, man, you were flying.’ Rather than what I’m risking now and the ball doesn’t hop my way and things work against me and people going, ‘Ah, man, you should have gone last year.’

“But that’s fine. And if I don’t help Kerry on the pitch or I feel I can’t help Kerry on the pitch, I’ll be retired quicker than you can sit down — I’ll be gone.

“But I played well this year in the Munster final, the [All-Ireland] quarter-final and the first semi-final, they’re the big games you have to play well in. So I still feel I can do a job for Kerry. And I still enjoy it.

“I enjoy working with Éamonn. I enjoy working with Maurice [Fitzgerald]. I enjoy working with Liam Hassett. I enjoy working with Mikey [Sheehy]. I love the different things they all bring. I enjoy the pain. I enjoy the good times…”

Hold up and go back there a bit. You enjoy the pain?

“Yeah, there’s a bit of enjoyment in the pain of a big defeat. As hard as it is. Sure, you’re like a f***n’ demon for three weeks, you don’t want to talk to or look at anybody, but it shows that what you do matters.

“And there’s a way then you can mould it, there’s a psychological twist there that you can put on it. You’re in the depths of the low, you want to retire, you’re sick of it. ‘I can’t put in the effort anymore.’ But a few weeks later you start going, ‘Well, if we could do this… Or maybe if I try to do a bit more of that next year…’ And you start thinking, ‘Right, Mayo took two games to beat us. They pushed Dublin right to the wire…’

“We’re right there. We’re not far away. And can I help us? I can. In my head anyway, I can. Whether I do or not is another thing, but in my head I can help us. So why would I retire? Because society wants me to retire? Because when you get over 30 in the GAA, they all think you should retire?

“My mother says I have nothing left to prove. ‘So if you have nothing left to prove, why are you doing it?!’ But I do have something to prove. Am I good enough to wear number 14 for Kerry next year? That’s what I have to prove. Whatever competitive thing is deep down inside me, that’s what I want to prove.

“It’s a dream to play for Kerry for every young fella who is born in this county. It’s a dream! And I’ve never taken it for granted — because I was never supposed to do it. I wasn’t The Guy. I was the guy that Jack [O’Connor] wrote about in the book, coming in with the basketball tracksuit and the baseball cap. Free spirit. Away with the fairies. ‘He’s not going to be a Kerry player. Yeah, he can catch a ball, he might do a job for us as a minor, U21, but that’ll be the height of it.’

“I know that’s what was thought about me. And so there’s still nearly a stubborn part of me again [wanting] to show, ‘You’re wrong now, lads.’”

Of course, he had to run the decision by a few people. First up was Hilary at home. Was she okay with it, with little Indy only born in September? She was.

Next was work, with PST Sport. Business is flying, with clubs all over the country and the UK looking for them to do their pitches. His boss Colin though was fine with his decision, confident that in time, he’ll pay him back.

And then there was his mom. Deirdre needed a bit more convincing. She was nearly looking forward to no longer worrying about him, about not having to hear the abuse from behind her in the stands. So he’d to tell her again. Mom, they’re just watching a game. They don’t mean what comes out of their mouth. Or if they do, you can’t do anything about it. And, Mom, this really is my last year. Promise!

The basketball is easier for her to watch. Down in the Complex, the whole town loves her son, the pied piper of Tralee who reignited its love affair with the sport. Since his recent Halloween basketball camp, he’s been inundated with photos and messages from parents of their kids out shooting in the back at night who simply won’t come back in. At half-time at the Warriors’ last home game, there were four-year-olds from the camp playing in front of the crowd. Every night is a full house. Every night is a show.

“I was insistent when we started: Lads, this has to be more than basketball. We should have smoke machines, laser lights, the spotlight and music for the team introductions. And there was a bit of resistance at the start. ‘We can’t do it. It’ll cost too much. We don’t need to do it.’ But I said, Look, if we don’t, yeah, we’ll be grand for the first year, people will come, ‘Superleague is back.’ But it’ll die a death the second year. Make it a show and it won’t just be the kids who’ll go. The mums and dads will want to go.”

The dream — the plan — is to have a women’s Superleague team representing the town or county. Before the Tigers in the 90s, there was Lee Strand in the 80s and Donaghy has seen there’s enough female interest and talent to revive that tradition.

Other traditions continue. Last Thursday week, Roscoe Patterson, who first came to town over 20 years ago, treated fellow old-timer Ricardo Leonard, young Pemberton and the team’s other European professional players to some good old Thanksgiving hospitality and his speciality, some Roscoe’s famous fried chicken.

Now that his single days are long over, Donaghy doesn’t get to drive and show them around town like he used to back in the Paddy on the Hardwood days, but he made it to Roscoe’s that night and has seen how the O’Sullivan brothers working above in the Castle Bar have made their young pros — their young friends — feel so at home around the place.

“Sure Trae and the boys will go in and make their own tea behind the bar, they’re there so much. Put on the kettle, some NBA on the telly, happy days.”

Tomorrow, after Donaghy gets back from the Belfast Classic, the Warriors take on their old rivals UCC Demons in the league, before taking them on again next Friday down in the Mardyke Arena in a do-or-die cup quarter-final. There’ll be droves of buses making their way from Tralee, but if Deirdre Donaghy happens to board one of them, she might want to close the ears again when it arrives in Cork.

As he’d write in his award-winning book — which is out now in paperback, the salesman in him points out — the Demons’ support can be fanatical, as they’d show through the years “heckling and cursing ‘f***n’ Donaghy and Quirke!’”

“They hated us!” he’d laugh.

But he thrives in that cauldron, loves it. Whatever you think about him or that, there’s no getting away from him or that.

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