When Ciarán Kilkenny turned his back on Hawthorn and life in the AFL there was a natural inclination to rummage through the impressive statement he released at the time and purr over his love of home and hearth,
The Castleknock man detailed his grá for club and the county, for the national games that he had been playing all his life, and he wrapped up the open letter with a line ‘as Gaeilge’ that translated into an adage about far away hills not always being greener.
Given less airplay was a throwaway remark shortly after his return from Australia when he explained that the AFL was “not free-flowing enough” for him. Too stop-start, he said. It seems fitting then that he now plays such a central role in maintaining Dublin’s tempo.
Everyone remembers Jack O’Shea’s observation before the 2013 championship — retracted soon after — that Kilkenny was a junior footballer who was too static. O’Shea estimated that the youngster, still 19 at the time, had lost the ball 20 times or more that spring.
Over four years on and there can’t be a player in the game less likely to cough up the ball to a man in the wrong colours. This despite the fact that his are the most prominent letters running through Dublin’s stick of rock, game after game.
It is an influence that is only growing.
In 2013 there was widespread amazement that a man just turned 20 could get his hands on the ball 35 times during their Leinster Championship meeting against Meath. Last year against Donegal and he was touching the leather on 53 occasions.
When Dublin took on Tyrone in last month’s All-Ireland semi-final, Kilkenny pawed the ‘Size 5’ a ridiculous 62 times. That’s as many as he managed in the two games against Kildare and Meath during his first full season four years previously.
“Any given time that I was on the ball, I just had to make the right decision for the team, get the man in the better position so he can make the right decision after that,” he said of that conducting role against Mickey Harte’s side.
“When you are playing against a defensive team as well, their whole attacking impetus is counter-attacking as well, so it is important that you make the right decision and are very patient on the ball.”
Scientists have come to believe that there are times when a species can make unexplained evolutionary leaps almost overnight. Dublin’s transformation from gung-ho freestylers to considered pass masters has been almost as dramatic.
Kilkenny, speaking earlier this summer, said it was “crazy” how quickly the game’s tactics and overall strategy have moved on from 2014, not to mention the alterations he has noticed since his championship debut against Mayo in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.
This more cerebral approach was evident in the piecemeal destruction of Tyrone when Dublin sullied their bib with just two wides. Compare that to the eve of the 2013 final when selector Declan Darcy was bemoaning their profligacy in the semi-final win over Kerry.
It had been a trend all summer.
“There were occasions the last day when there were fellas moving forward and taking pot-shots when there were people in better positions. We wouldn’t be happy with it,” Darcy said. “We’re focused in training on doing that but, in the white heat of battle, some lads react differently.” They scored 3-18 that day against Kerry, by the way.
It’s only two summers since Jim McGuinness was suggesting that Jim Gavin’s side was still struggling to break down established defences and Darcy spoke some weeks later about the changes he had noticed in the ranks of those countering them.
Gone were the days of even two years before when teams were willing to go toe-to-toe in relatively free-flowing games. Darcy knew then that it would fall to the players to solve the puzzles presented on the field rather than the management.
“If you give them information… they can actually, most of the time, deal with that,” he explained 12 months ago. “That’s leadership and players take ownership. Every game is different and it evolves completely differently. We give them that ownership to change the cause themselves.”
Tyrone understand that now. Pivotal to it all was Kilkenny who is as adept at linking play as bursting through gaps. Someone who can track back and tackle, win frees, make assists and a two-footed attacker who has claimed 1-43 across four summers with his county.
And to think that there are those who question him. People who criticise his tendency to play the lateral fist pass as if it was a stain on his reputation as a player rather than a deliberate policy in a game where so much of what we once took for granted is no more.
Mayo will offer a very different canvas than a static and naive Tyrone for his work on Sunday and it may or may not be worth noting that Kilkenny has yet to score in any of the four All-Ireland finals in which he has played.
“As a player, you want to be playing against the best,” he said. “You want to be playing against different challenges. It is what you are put up against and you just have to relish and embrace that challenge. It’s what football is all about.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.