GAA: Is there still a kick in Kerry's James O’Donoghue?
It’s going on seven years since Kerry’s James O’Donoghue was the country’s best footballer. A litany of frustrating injuries since have robbed him of his trademark swagger and football fans of one of the game’s top talents. But those who know say reports of his demise are somewhat exaggerated. Can O’Donoghue, at 30, play a significant role in Kerry’s resurrection this season – and if so, what sort of role, asks Tony Leen?
Anyone waiting for the big reveal in the perplexing case of 'Whatever Happened Kerry’s James O’Donoghue' is going to feel short-changed. The best footballer in the country from 2014 hasn’t so much flatlined since as flickered like a faulty spotlight across the football landscape.
Thirty one next month, the man who had the country’s top inter-county defenders on toast has been blighted physically and tortured mentally by a remarkable rash of injuries that crested in 2015 with operations on both shoulders. Thereafter his recovery has been frustratingly retarded by problems everywhere from the oblique muscles in his back down to strains and tears of the lower limbs. There were games where he lasted only a few minutes. The last time O’Donoghue played with Kerry was on February 1, 2020 in a rip-roaring Allianz League win over Pauric Joyce’s Galway in Tralee. The highlight of the first half was an O’Donoghue point, wriggling free and pointing from an angle off his supposedly weaker right side in the 21st minute.
He looked a man reborn that Saturday evening, razor sharp on ball, but an interval announcement over the tannoy drew an audible, collective groan from the main stand: ‘Half-time substitution for Kerry, James O’Donoghue is replaced by Tommy Walsh’.
Afterwards the manager Peter Keane was asked for the reason.
“He (James) is fine. We decided to have one in the first half and one in the second half. A swap with Tommy.”
So he’s not injured, Peter?
“No, he’s fine."
O’Donoghue hasn’t been seen since.
In control: O’Donoghue looked back to his best in last year’s League win over Galway in Tralee, but frustratingly was replaced at half time with an unspecified injury problem. He hasn’t been seen in green and gold since.
Reports of his demise as a player have been plentiful but inaccurate. Less than a fortnight ago, someone straying into the Legion club in the Derreen area of Killarney would have spotted O’Donoghue, 19 O’Neills footballs in tow, practicing those darting runs east-west and kicking scores off left and right as he geared himself and his eye in for the 2021 season.
There are many inside Kerry and beyond it who have almost forgotten the ‘ruthless assassin’, as former Kerry selector Diarmuid Murphy called him. Others discuss him in Kerry’s rear view mirror but there’s a cohort of believers who insist – admittedly with the caveat that gets an overdue run without injury – that he can contribute in a meaningful way to the Kingdom’s resurrection this season.
That there is still a kick in James O’Donoghue.
“Unquestionably,” says his club manager Stephen Stack. “I am taking off my Legion hat here and I acknowledge that the inside line is very competitive with Kerry but if he can stay free of injury, forget a role off the bench - he would put it up to anyone in the Kerry squad to compete for a starting position. If he can avoid those cursed injuries I would still have huge belief in him and in terms of what he can bring.”
Kerry supporters love James O’Donoghue the way they love all their stellar cast of inside forwards –O’Donoghue is the middle child of Killarney’s Holy Trinity, with Gooch and Clifford on either side - but they are drawn to him for other reasons: that frisson of excitement when he wins clean possession and stands up his opponent. The knowledge that, left or right, O’Donoghue now has the deck stacked in his favour. Fans know - or at least they once did - the consequences of that moment for the defender.
They love too his divil-may-care attitude, that free-and-easy nature that is invariably upbeat, even in the toughest times.
Goal machine: Turning Mayo’s Brendan Harrison inside and out in the 2019 Super 8 clash in Killarney, one of the few occasions O’Donoghue lined up alongside fellow scoresmiths, Paul Geaney and David Clifford.
“I’m a time waster, procrastinator, commentator, footballer. Possibly in that order,” he write in his short-lived blog. “I am a virgin blogger looking for some light entertainment. A take the mick style page about the goings on in a young mans head and an alternative take on sport and its characters. Does that add up to a blog? God no. We’ll see how it goes. Very light-hearted, take nothing seriously. It’s probably a lie.”
If he is deadly serious about his football, the rest of life he approaches with a sense of Que sera, sera. The future's not ours to see.
“While some might be losing faith (in him), what they never lose is their desire to see exciting talent at its best, and that’s the sense I get about James in Kerry,” explains Stack, a two-time All-Ireland winner himself. “People are filled with hope there might be another kick in him. Kerry people would love to see him in that space again. There’s more excitement still about what he might bring than there is resignation about his ability to stay fit.”
The Pain Game: O’Donoghue’s 2015 campaign was pock-marked with shoulder issues, both left and right, necessitating surgery at year’s end. However the problems spilled over into the following campaign.
There’s no scan or science that pinpoints the moment, post-2014, when the accumulative effect of injuries began to drain the power from O’Donoghue’s legs and the confidence that his body would support him. But the dramatic 2018 All-Ireland qualifier in Clones against Monaghan is worth of discussion in that context.
That heaving afternoon, when David Clifford briefly resuscitated Kerry’s summer, was as even as a builder’s level as it seeped into its 75th minute. Kerry had found a championship pulse through the alchemy of Kieran Donaghy and Clifford; now they were in danger of snatching a season-changing victory in Monaghan. Clifford, roaming midfield, found Micheal Burns who fed Anthony Maher, the Duagh man necklacing the ball onto James O’Donoghue. Here it was: O’Donoghue primed in a part of the pitch that felt as comfortable to him as his old sofa at home. Bearing down on Ryan Wylie from the right flank could only mean one thing, no matter how adept Wylie was reputed to be in such mano a mano moments. O’Donoghue would punch in Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s get-out-of-jail card and render as a footnote the nightmare loss to Galway a week earlier. The only question: would he drive past the defender on the outside and clip it over with his right, or power inside Wylie and put an exclamation mark on the escape with that trusty left?
“We were driving down the road that evening, reflecting on that,” says Diarmuid Murphy, someone involved in ten All-Ireland finals as player and selector. “Did he not fancy taking it on his right side? Did he not back himself to beat the defender inside? Before he would have blown past Wylie but it looked like he didn’t back himself – or didn’t back his body – to beat the defender.”
Instead, James O’Donoghue was shepherded away from goal by the Monaghan defender and the recycled ball ended with a shot-to-nothing from David Moran. A week later Kerry were out of the championship and Fitzmaurice had resigned.
It was sobering confirmation that the shark who terrorised Dublin, Cork, Mayo and Galway in 2013 and 2014 was no longer that player. That the physical and psychological ravages of injury after injury had blunted his sharpness and, more tellingly, his self-belief. Part of what made O’Donoghue the country’s best footballer seven seasons ago was the swagger that came with being The Man.
“That’s the disappointment from a Kerry supporter’s point of view,” Murphy explains, “that the tantalising prospect of a fit-again, firing O’Donoghue remains elusive.
“Insofar as it means anything, I’d love to see him back and playing because he’s a smashing lad, a pleasure to work with, and a real good, positive fella around the team room. You couldn’t but want to see him do well.”
Distress: An innocuous enough 2015 challenge with Kildare keeper Mark Donnellan dislocated O’Donoghue’s right shoulder. It was popped back into place before he left the Croke Park pitch.
Adam Moynihan is a Legion club colleague of O’Donoghue and sports editor of the ‘Killarney Advertiser’. He articulates the protective zeal which greets questions about James O’ in the player’s home town.
“When inter-county season rolls around, you are hoping he can get a run of games and there were glimpses in the Galway game in Tralee last year, when he was excellent - but again he picked some problem in that match. That general Kerry sense of frustration is magnified within his own club because no one wants to see James succeed more than we do.
“It’s always special when your club mate is doing things like James did in 2014, that was a very special time for Legion to have the best player in the country. Everyone knows the talent is there is spades. Is he ever going to get a break? We wish he’d get one good year to have a proper run at it, because if he could get fit and stay fit, he still has it. He’s a special talent and the romantic in any sports fan wants to see that type of player prosper.”
On paper, the inside line of David Clifford, Paul Geaney and O’Donoghue has stardust sprinkled all over it, but the trio have been limited to five starts together, and three of those were in Clifford’s breakout season in 2018. The last time they played together was the 2019 Super 8 win over Mayo in Killarney, when they harvested 1-10 between them. O’Donoghue’s contribution was 0-1.
“Has the Kerry faithful written him off?” Moynihan wonders? “There are people on the outside who feel he can’t do it anymore, and a lot of locals were unhappy to hear that talk. The overall sense is that he can still do it if he gets a run at it.”
And, possibly, a change of emphasis. A different role.
EPIC TUSSLE: Though the Mayo defender offers a different perspective, the clash between O’Donoghue and Keith Higgins in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay in Limerick was a duel for the ages.
few have had the jump-seat view of high-flying James O’Donoghue that Keith Higgins of Mayo buckled up for in that epic 2014 All-Ireland semi-final in Limerick. The definition of contradiction as the Kerry man scored 2-6 and vied with his marker Higgins for man of the match. The vote was split between the enthralled audiences of 36,256 supporters.
“As a corner back, I’d be thinking ‘my man has after scoring 2-6 here, I can’t be seen to have done well’. That has always been my view of that day,” Higgins says now. “People say it went well for me, and for sure it was a great battle, but he scored 2-6. If I’d have stopped him scoring a couple of those points, we could have won and been in an All-Ireland final. You’d nearly be embarrassed people saying that you played well.”
Higgins is being hyper-critical of himself here. 2-2 of O’Donoghue’s totaI in that dramatic replay was from penalties and frees.
“I remember before the draw game, the conversation was who’d mark him and we opted for basically a double team job in Croke Park with Tom Cunniffe sitting in front. It didn’t work and it was only when Lee was sent off that we went man for man and it worked better. At the time it was something I relished, I remember the week before the replay I said to James (Horan) ‘have you someone lined up O’Donoghue’? I was looking forward to the job of marking him. Not in a cocky way but I was looking forward to the challenge. Back then it was a bit more free-flowing, it was a personal battle. He was a very direct player, when he won the ball, he would look to go at you straight away. That made him very challenging to mark.
“Now he’s seven years and a lot of injuries older, perhaps he needs to tweak it a small bit, he mightn’t have the same pace where he can get the ball in space, and take you head on, which creates a goal chance straight away.
“Is it time for him to reinvent himself, to change his game, maybe stay a bit closer to goal to dictate where he wins the ball? Because he is still an unbelievable finisher, so when he gets the ball 20 yards out, it’s a big chance. Maybe management are looking at redefining his role, even if he came on with 20 minutes to go, as to how Kerry will play him. If they’re smart how they use him this season, he is always going to be a threat.”
Tight rein: Wherever the Kerryman roamed in Limerick seven years ago, Higgins was in close attendance, this time pressurising the Legion star on his right leg.
Higgins cites the example of his Mayo colleague Andy Moran, who at 33, scalded Kerry in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final replay. “Andy changed his game with us, where he would literally stay inside the 20-30 metre area and try to win that ball close to goal. The chances kept popping up so if James would change his game in that kind of way, he gets the ball in that arc, it’s a goal chance. The opposition are going to be paying attention to Clifford and can only track so many runs. There could be huge possibilities there for him.” Diarmuid Murphy is thinking along the same lines.
“As forwards get older, they reinvent themselves because they realise that the body won’t let them do what they once did. James has the footballing ability to do that – it’s just a question of whether the body allows him to do that. “Kerry don’t need him to be the main scoring threat, there are younger lads who can do that job. But they need a different playmaker alongside Seanie O’Shea, they might need some fella to come off the bench and contribute for the last 20 mins of a big game by bringing experience to bear.”
Of course, when a player has a recurring problem with his body breaking down, the chances of making a substantial contribution lessen. While the enforced lay-off will have felt like a restorative balm, as Stack points out, O’Donoghue has rejoined a Kerry panel working to a condensed time-frame.
Training will be quickly followed by League games and straight into Championship against Clare, all within six weeks. It’s hardly conducive to someone with a poor track record of injuries performing consistently. Kerry may need to feed O’Donoghue into the process gradually.
“I would love to see him with his body 100% right, where he is happy and drawing confidence from the fact that he is injury-free and able to give it a
right go,” Diarmuid Murphy surmises. “And there are places up for grabs in the Kerry forward line as well. Apart from the two boys (Clifford and O’Shea), all the other four positions are up for grabs. So maybe he slightly reinvents himself, maybe he’s not the ruthless assassin of old, maybe there’s that slightly more withdrawn role which could suit him.”
In Kerry, eaten bread is soon forgotten, and the fact Kerry hasn’t played a competitive minute since the demoralising loss to Cork last November means that management is probably looking at a clean slate of options. With the confidence that his body won’t break down, O’Donoghue – Kerry’s only footballer of the year since Paul Galvin in 2009 – can show he still has the wherewithal to pull a few strings.
Celebrations: O’Donoghue and his bro in the inside line, Kieran Donaghy, are in raptures after the latter’s decisive goal in the 2014 All-Ireland final win over Donegal.
"He was truly outstanding in 2013 and 14. Probably the best footballer in the country over those two years,” says Diarmuid Murphy. “The (Munster Championship) game in Cork, eight points from play out of ten was some show - and bear in mind coming into that Cork had thrashed us in Tralee, they were hot favourites.
He was a huge part of that 2014 success, and gave a very mature display in the final against Donegal, playing a different role, making himself a moving target. If you look at the goal Paul (Geaney) got early in that game, James pulled a few Donegal defenders out of that shape to create the space. Paul was essentially one-on-one inside. The maturity of his display that day was different to what he had done previously but he showcased his understanding and his maturity for us at that time.”
When the cards keep turning sweet, no-one wants to pull back from the table. O’Donoghue took a relatively innocuous tumble in the quarter-final rout of Kildare the following season, and had his dislocated shoulder ‘popped’ back in on the field by team physio Ed Harnett. A planned operation was deferred not only by Kerry going to the final but by Legion’s run to the Kerry county final that year, and their representation in the Munster Club Championship. It was December before James had surgery and by that stage, he had issues with both shoulders.
Though Legion bowed out tamely in the Kerry’s SFC quarter final last year, O’Donoghue remained their leader and talisman.
:He’s a huge leader in our squad, both on and off the pitch”, Stephen Stack maintains, “and he remains very serious about his football. “What impresses me about him is that he never takes his ability for granted, he is always practicing, always trying to be better. It must have been very frustrating for him over the past few years after exploding onto the scene in 2013. He has had a very unfortunate time with injuries but it has never dulled or dimmed his enthusiasm for the game – or to want to come back and fight.” Added his club manager: “Privately he must have had a lot of angst over it but he has never let that show at training. He is back into us straight away and wouldn’t be wallowing in self-pity or disappear for a few weeks. In fact, the opposite has been my experience of James. If something happened to him, the very first place he will go is back to the club which is a great sign of him.
He thinks about the game a lot. He’s very much aware that the clock is ticking.” As Kerry prepare for Saturday’s opening League game in Tralee against – ironically in this context, Galway – one of the many weather vanes will be O’Donoghue’s readiness and his role. Kerry have played six matches since the Legion man last figured, but the lockdown has levelled the pitch for him in terms of time and football lost. Killian Spillane was the form forward in Pairc Ui Chaoimh last time out, but it’s impossible to figure out a pecking order at this stage. Which could, theoretically speaking, put a fit and firing James O’Donoghue back in the reckoning. Or is that just nostalgic? “If he’s healthy do you start James, do you bring him on,” muses Stack. “One thing is certain - at his best he would put it up to anyone. Form is everything, and it’s a short season.
“The management doesn’t have the luxury of overlooking the best talent available if he stays fit. He’s only 30 and Kerry fans don’t want to be using 2014 as their James O’Donoghue reference point. I remember back in my own time, Barry O’Shea was a wonderful full back for us, he was only coming onto the scene in 1997 but he got a really bad run of injuries and it was an awful pity Kerry fans didn’t get to see more of him. What would he have been like at 28- 30 if he could have managed to avoid the injuries?”
PENSIVE: O’Donoghue is still only 30 and if he stays free of niggling injury problems, he can be a key attribute to Kerry this summer.
Andy Moran was 33 when he caused wreck against Kerry in Croke Park. “And he would never have had James’ pace, but he knew where to win the ball at that stage. If James could get that into his game, it’s all good because when you think of James O’Donoghue, you think of a finisher."
Not someone who’s finished.
Irish Examiner Longread
All photographs by Inpho/Sportsfile