“The James O’Donoghue of three and four years ago would just turn around and kick that ball over the bar with his left foot. He’s not playing with the confidence you’d expect. If he was, he’d have chipped that ball over the bar,” said Oisín McConville, 22 minutes into Kerry’s Super 8 rout of Mayo.
What prompted this remark from the Armagh All-Ireland winner, on RTÉ co-commentary duty that sweltering Sunday in Killarney, was that O’Donoghue, upon receiving the ball from Stephen O’Brien and having moved two to three metres clear of Keith Higgins, chose not to take aim at the Lewis Road End posts.
Instead, he sought to shimmy past the Mayo defender. Higgins held him up, O’Donoghue slipped and was eventually penalised for over-carrying. It was O’Donoghue’s ninth possession of the game and pretty much summed up the difficult afternoon he was having.
The 29-year-old had earlier failed to trap a David Moran pass; kicked possession to Mayo’s Chris Barrett on 18 minutes; dropped a point attempt into the hands of David Clarke, and saw the same player tip his goal drive over the bar.
He’d finish the half by running out over the ball and it was to prove his last involvement as a hamstring injury, incurred at some point in the opening 35 minutes, meant he did not reappear for the second half.
McConville’s summation that “things just haven’t gone for him” was applicable not only to O’Donoghue’s fortunes on that day, but the season he was attempting to relaunch, and, indeed, every difficult year he’s been forced to endure since winning Footballer of the Year in 2014.
The wheel turned against him two months after Kerry last lifted Sam Maguire, ligament damage to his right shoulder necessitating surgery. That ruled him out for the entirety of Kerry’s 2015 league campaign. He returned for the Munster championship but injured the same shoulder when colliding with Kildare goalkeeper Mark Donnellan in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
The inside forward got back for the penultimate and concluding afternoons of the championship, but when his left shoulder popped out during Legion’s defeat to South Kerry in the County SFC final replay that November, surgery was again required.
Further rehabilitation ensued, another league missed.
He started just one game of the 2016 championship - playing 100 minutes, in total, that summer. And while his shoulders were no longer an issue, a slew of subsequent setbacks — from problems with his ankle to a strained calf to repeated hamstring injuries — means the James O’Donoghue of 2019 bears little resemblance to the James O’Donoghue of five years ago.
He’s not been seen in the green and gold since the win over Mayo in mid-July but is expected to be included in the matchday 26 against Dublin following Peter Keane’s confirmation that he returned to training the week of the Tyrone semi-final.
But what can management hope for from a forward who’s been marked absent for four of their six games en route to the final and has spent just 88 minutes on the pitch this summer?
His game-time during the league was even less, his three appearances off the bench at the tail end of spring totalling 67 minutes.
He hasn’t started and finished a game for Kerry since the opening round of last year’s Super 8s.
As for his contribution on the scoresheet, his championship figures from 2015 through to this summer come nowhere near the 4-24 he kicked across four games when at the height of his powers in 2014. The closest he managed was when racking up 0-23 (0-13 frees) across six games in 2017.
Four-time All-Ireland-winning Kerry forward Seán O’Sullivan believes O’Donoghue will be used in a half-forward role if introduced for the closing 10 minutes on Sunday.
“There is no getting away from the fact that he has lost that burning pace and ability to win the ball close to goal and take his man on. It just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. That is purely down to the rigours his body has gone through from all the injuries he’s had to deal with. I don’t think to throw him in around the goal would be what management have in mind for him on Sunday, if they have anything in mind for him at all.”
O’Sullivan adds: “Against Monaghan in the Super 8s last year, and just after Clifford’s late goal, Kerry got possession to James in the corner and faced him up one-on-one with a Monaghan defender. The James O’Donoghue of four or five years ago would have burnt him and either scored or won a free. But he just didn’t have it. And that was him coming on as a sub and being relatively fresh.
“I think James’ role the next day, if he is to play any part, would be as a creator and a guy who would get on the ball out around the centre-forward space in the last 10 minutes when the game might be a little loose and thread it through to a Geaney, Clifford, or Seán O’Shea, if he had been pushed inside at that stage.
“I just don’t think James has it in the body any more to burn a Jonny Cooper or Mick Fitzsimons or Philly McMahon.”
O’Sullivan reckons there’s a strong chance the two-time All-Star may not even be sprung. “Can he mentally and physically trust himself to come on and do something for us? If it is for a short space of time on the field, then maybe. But in terms of James coming on at half-time or if Kerry were to throw a complete wildcard and start him, I’d feel it would be a real, real risk because he has been let down so many times by his own body.
“It kills me to say it but injury has taken away the best years of his career. It is a pity because he didn’t get Footballer of the Year for nothing, he has bags of ability and talent.
“As a manager, Peter [Keane] has to be realistic. He’ll be looking at it and saying, ‘this guy has only come back to full training in the last few weeks’ and are you throwing a guy in to get you something who has very limited time under his belt.
“It pains me to say it, but if Kerry are throwing James O’Donoghue in with 15 minutes to go, I think we’ll be chasing the game.”