The big interview: Kieran Donaghy is still a man for all seasons

He may be turning 39 the first day of March but Kieran Donaghy's will to win - be it with the footballers of Austin Stacks or playing basketball with Tralee Warriors - is as powerful now as it has ever been. With a Munster club final aganst the Barrs on Sunday and a National Cup decider next Saturday, there is no time for standing still.
The big interview: Kieran Donaghy is still a man for all seasons

SAFE HANDS: Austin Stacks star Kieran Donaghy celebrates with his daughter Lola Rose after the Kerry SFC semi-final win over St Brendan’s at Austin Stack Park. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

He's still tearing around the place like a young fella. Dashing from this game to another and this sport to another and risking limb, whatever about life, diving and sliding for loose balls, be they a Molten or an O’Neill’s. He may be turning 39 the first day of March, having come into the world the same week ‘Billie Jean’ went top of the pops here and everywhere else, but it’s almost as if his age incentives rather than impedes him. So, as long as he can, he will.

The Halloween weekend typified him. All week as well as keeping the day job as a national sales director ticking over, he’d spent his mornings and afternoons running and coaching a basketball camp for over 200 kids with his Garvey’s Warriors teammate Fergal O’Sullivan, then his evenings alternating between the Tralee Sports Complex and Austin Stacks’ home base that is Connolly Park, preparing and plotting for two do-or-die encounters. On the Saturday night Stacks were down to play back-to-back county champions East Kerry in the first round of the county championship. Then just after lunchtime on the Sunday the Warriors had a home first-round National Cup game against Ballincollig, a side who were — and remain – unbeaten in the Superleague. Lose — as most suspected he would — and for all he’d won with the Warriors and the Stacks in recent years — Champions Trophies and Superleagues, county leagues and club championships — the prizes he and they truly craved — the National Cup, the county championship — would be gone for another year, and in all likelihood his last chance to get his hands back on them gone forever. Win and all kind of things could open up.

On the Saturday night, the Stacks handled their business against East Kerry. Wasn’t easy, especially with team manager and Donaghy’s great buddy Wayne Quillinan having to isolate all that week, but somehow they managed to keep David Clifford scoreless from play while Donaghy led as he always does, kicking a massive point from range in a low-scoring affair and fielding ball from kickouts and back around his own square in the closing, frantic minutes.

Kieran Donaghy of Austin Stacks celebrates with manager Wayne Quillinan. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Kieran Donaghy of Austin Stacks celebrates with manager Wayne Quillinan. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Almost anyone else his age would have been barely fit to move the next day after the exertions of the night before. But in the case of the man himself, he says he was “like [I was as] a kid going to play in the Castleisland Christmas blitz”. After the football game he’d gone straight home, put on his Skins compression recovery gear and chilled out with Hilary. In the morning she’d arranged it that he could sleep in until 10.30 — quite the favour and achievement given there’s three girls below the age of seven in the house — and had made him some of his favourite pancakes.

“Walking into the Complex, I was just buzzing. Because it killed me and it still kills me not playing the league games. I used to actually get too worked up at them; I’d be there 90 minutes early, being around the dressing room, passing the ball around with them. Now I go down there with [his eldest] Lola Rose maybe half-an-hour before the start, just like a regular fan, and get her some jellies and sit down and watch the game with her on my lap. But with the Ballincollig game I was free to play. I couldn’t wait to play. Knockout basketball against a top team: I just loved everything about it.”

So he didn’t hold back. Didn’t matter that Stacks were out again the following week. It’s not in his nature to hold back. That week heading to Warriors training he’d hopped in the car, having just told Hilary that he was going to keep the head down having missed so many recent sessions, only to find himself 20 minutes into the practice challenging and barking at one of the team’s professional players.

“He’d thrown his head and hands in the air when one of his teammates had got trapped in the corner and I pulled him on it. ‘You can’t turn the other way when the play is still alive! He needs you! You’re 6’8”, just run towards him and call for it.’ He argued that he had been open and it should have got the ball but I stopped him right there. ‘Listen, you can try and rationalise it all you like but it’s not going to cut it with me — that reaction is no good to anyone.’ And in fairness, he nodded, ‘Yeah, you’re right, you’re right.’ But like, there I was after promising Hilary I wasn’t going to open my mouth all night…”

It was the same mindset on game day itself. Whatever it takes, even if it’s going to hurt. In the closing seconds of the first half, Ballincollig’s Irish international Adrian O’Sullivan stole the ball at midcourt and looked to have an open floor only for Donaghy to dash back and slide along the hardwood to prevent O’Sullivan’s final dribble coming back up to him. It was an inspiring play, one of the game’s defining moments. Tralee were 13 up at the time but in Donaghy’s eyes they still couldn’t concede any give-me layups. “To me that was a momentum play; if they’d got a basket there it would have given them a nice lift going into their dressing room.”

That play, however, meant Donaghy couldn’t go into his; instead he spent the entire intermission in a side room on a physio table, having damaged the tendon in his hamstring. The consequent treatment meant he was still able to hobble out and contribute in the second half and the next week he was able to line out in the county quarter-final for the Stacks but it was now an injury that needed serious minding.

Even when he’d finally recovered from it, there was a presumption in several quarters that he was finished with the basketball until the Stacks’ own odyssey was over, that he couldn’t again risk getting injured playing hoops. Yet last Saturday there he was out on the floor of the Neptune Stadium, playing 20 critical minutes in a nailbiting National Cup semi-final against Éanna from Dublin, just a week out from a Munster club football final.

Kieran Donaghy in action for the Tralee Warriors. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Kieran Donaghy in action for the Tralee Warriors. Picture: Domnick Walsh

“It was a hard one for me,” he concedes. “Obviously I was taking a risk, only a week out from a Munster final, and I was worried about how the Stacks fellas might look at it. Even Hilary was saying, ‘God, if you get hurt…’

“But in the end I weighed it up and just trusted my own instincts. And something I kept going back to was why I helped start this team [the Warriors] six years ago: it was for the Cup. So kids in Tralee could see in the flesh or on TV a Tralee team playing on the big stage.

“The first basketball game I was ever at was Tigers semi-final in ’89 against Roadspeed in Neptune, going up in Seánie Burrow’s car. I still vividly remember watching on a small portable TV John Teahan and Vinnie Murphy and the boys in ’95 going up against [North Mon’s] Lennie McMillian in the final. I was hooked after that. That’s why the likes of me and Terry O’Brien, John Dowling, Mark Bernsen, Pa Carey and Jimmy Diggins sat down around a table and started really delving into the possibility of the local rivalling clubs to come and work together: it was what the town needed, the buzz of a Saturday night home game in the Complex, a run in the cup. And the truth is it hadn’t worked, or at least the second part hadn’t. For all the great nights we had in the Complex and for all the other trophies we’d won, the Cup has a magic to it and we’d kept falling short of getting to the final.”

He — his availability — proved to be the difference between winning and losing. Though he only scored the one basket, it happened to be the go-ahead score with just 1:37 to go. He no longer has to try and net 10 to 16 points a game like he used to — and put in the work and shots away from the lights to do that. What he can still do is a job. “Be an energy guy, get rebounds, play a good level of defence. If I’m lucky I might hit an open three or make a couple of put-back layups.” Last Saturday he did it to almost perfection, the master of the intangibles.

After the game he encountered grown men cry, men who thought they’d never live to see Tralee going back to Tallaght where the Tigers and Donaghy won a couple of Cups in the late noughties. One of those men was Seánie Burrows, the same man who brought Donaghy to that Cup semi-final in Neptune 33 years ago.

“I remember after that game he brought us to the chipper around the corner from the Stadium and I had never seen a bag of chips as big in my life; I was eating them the whole way home in the car. It was Seánie who taught me how to shoot the ball when I was about 11. He came up to me the last day with a tear in his eye and we hugged.

“I got a lovely text that night from Thomas Garvey, our sponsor. As anyone involved in basketball knows, it’s not easy to run a national league team. It’s expensive. You need people who will work and pull in favours from people they know and people who will support and sponsor you. Garvey’s sponsored that Tigers team back in ’89. And all these years on they’re still sponsoring a Tralee team in the Superleague. So, you’re thinking of people like him and the Gat Careys and Joe Quirkes and the late Timmy Sheehan. They’re all Kerrymen and all love their football but they also know the lift the town gets and the number of kids who take up and play basketball from the buzz of a Saturday night game in the Complex or a team heading to Tallaght.”

When Austin Stacks exited the 2020 Kerry county championship at the first hurdle after an extra-time defeat to Dr Crokes played behind closed doors, Kieran Donaghy was pretty sure that the door on him winning another Bishop Moynihan had closed as well.

“I’d gone into that [2020 season] thinking it was my last. There’d been the whole debacle against Nemo [Rangers, who hammered Stacks 2-17 to 0-5 in the Munster championship]. On the bus back from Cork I couldn’t even talk to anybody, we were so bad on the day. I thought that was the last straw. But it hadn’t sat well with me and when Wayne asked me to give it more one shot I felt I owed him after the number of big games we hadn’t performed for him. So I signed up for 2020, thinking I’d be signing out after it.”

Yet here he still is, proof of how persistence is awesome and how awesome and persistent Quillinan is. The pair had clicked pretty much from the moment they first shared a senior Stacks dressing room over 20 years ago: Donaghy as a scrawny rookie called up after featuring that summer for the Kerry minors, and the genial Quillinan a veteran utility player, good enough to play midfield when county men like William Kirby were away but not quite good to start when they returned. One Christmas Eve after the clubhouse tossed everyone out they retreated to Quillinan’s parents’ house where they proceeded to leap around their bed at three in the morning, Quillinan in a big sombrero hat. You might remember that summer of 2006 when Donaghy announced himself to the nation he was working in a local sports shop: well, Quillinan was its manager, having given him the job and then the latitude to slip away to the back office or even the golf course to escape all the footfall clamouring to see and meet Star.

Quillinan had been the manager of the Stacks when Donaghy played in his first senior county final in 2010 but had stepped away by the time they had won one in 2014, feeling the team needed a new voice and the club needed him back coaching underage to help bring through a new crop of players. That he would, enough to regenerate a senior setup he took over again in 2018. Multiple county leagues and club championships would follow but a satisfactory county championship performance had proved elusive. That’s why he went back to Donaghy at the start of 2021. There’s a county in us. There’s another year in you. The split season will help you. You’ll have time to get fit and get games into you to be ready to peak and perform when it matters.

The rest is now history. They saw off old rivals Kerins O’Rahilly’s in the first-ever Tralee Old Firm final to win only the club’s second county championship in 27 years. Donaghy fell to his knees upon the final whistle, which sounded just seconds after he’d broken away a ball to foil Strand Road’s last attack. When he finally rose to his feet, there were three parties he sought out.

The first was David Moran, Tommy Walsh, Barry John Keane, Jack Savage, former Kerry teammates and still great buddies of his. “I wanted to say hard luck to the guys because I knew the pressure they like the rest of us would have felt going into that game.”

Then, after embracing multiple teammates, he tracked down Hilary and their three little girls as well as his mum Deirdre. None of kids were around in 2014. Now they were able to share in the buzz and hoopla, like the parade the Stacks supporters — the Rockie Army — have before every big championship game. “The big thing for Lola Rose is all the stuff either side of the game. The colour and fun of the parade. The pitch invasion afterwards. She’s been saying to me all week, ‘Is there a cup with this game, Dad?’

‘Yeah, there’s a cup.’

‘Do we get to run onto the pitch after it?’

‘Only if we win, Lola Rose.’”

Then, after securing a photo with all his girls, he was looking everywhere for The Man. Quillinan has a tic of signing off chats to people within the setup that “You’re the man” but really they and Donaghy know Wayne is.

“It comes down to caring. The biggest thing about Wayne is that he cares for you as a person. That’s first and foremost with him. If any of our boys are in trouble they can ring him and he will do whatever it is they need. I know of people who aren’t even playing with the team anymore and he’s helping them.”

Eventually they found each other below the main stand. Quillinan is almost as tall as Donaghy but as Donaghy himself explains when they met, “I’m a hugger. People think I’m a fighter but I’m a hugger and I’m a lifter: I lifted Paul Galvin back in the day so I was going to lift Wayne too.”

Quillinan isn’t the only special manager in his life. We haven’t even mentioned Kieran McGeeney and Armagh yet. Donaghy is a keen follower and reader of Ronan O’Gara and his journey and articles and loved how he was prepared to leave the physical and psychological comfort zone that was Ireland to progress, yet he reckons McGeeney is the only Ulster manager he’d have gone to such lengths to work with.

Armagh selector Kieran Donaghy. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Armagh selector Kieran Donaghy. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

For one he loves how direct McGeeney is. “Kieran,” he says, “will not sugarcoat anything.” One of their first-ever conversations was in 2006 when Donaghy as the sensation of the championship was belatedly called up to an International Rules squad captained by McGeeeney. Donaghy started the first test in Galway but a couple of days before the second, McGeeeney and manager Seán Boylan knocked on his hotel room door and McGeeney broke it to him that he wasn’t named on the match-day 26 but to be ready in case there had to be a late change.

They bonded further in 2011 Down Under when McGeeney was the coach in manager Anthony Tohill’s setup, and the Armagh man would have seen the levity and good vibes Donaghy with his inventive fines scheme could bring to a group.

McGeeney likewise has done everything to make Donaghy and his backroom gel exceptionally well. Instead of Donaghy staying in a sterile hotel room when he’s up in Armagh, Donaghy is put up by a close friend of McGeeney’s, Mark Fagan, who runs the Basil Sheils bar and restaurant in the lovely valleyed village of Tassagh and has a spare apartment above his garage. It’s like a home away from home. After training he’ll sit down with Mark and his wife Bernaise over a pot of tea. He nearly knows their four kids as well as his own three; even now they’ll send him on their weekly shooting charts that he’s advised them to record.

McGeeney and his backroom team also came down to Tralee last summer for a weekend that doubled up as both a social exercise — they had a barbecue in Donaghy’s back garden — as well as a review of the past season in a local hotel: the way McGeeney saw it, after Donaghy making the road so often up to them, it was only fair they reciprocated at least once. It also had the effect of Hilary getting to know why her husband was so anxious to stay on and work with such a special group.

McGeeney understands from his own experience with Na Fianna how special a club run outside your own county can be, which is why he’s given Donaghy the latitude to focus on Stacks. And so, they haven’t seen him much in the flesh in recent months, but plenty of him over zoom and the video clips he’s sent them on.

His boss at PST Sport, Colin Teahon, has also accommodated him. Armagh, instead of being a hindrance, was actually an opportunity for the business to focus on expanding in the North, with Donaghy being on the ground to help sell and build more pitches. In his previous work in the bank, he felt like a caged bird. Now he’s free to roam, to express himself, to sing his own song.

“I think it shows if you’re happy in a job, it helps in you all other aspects of life, including your sport. I wasn’t happy in the bank and I wasn’t playing good football and I wasn’t overly-happy in myself. But since moving to PST, I felt worthwhile in my job and I’ve been happier in my sport and in my own skin.

“I just love collaborating with others, having a common goal. Just trying to figure out how we can get better is the ultimate for me. And that’s why I think the coaching appeals to me. I can still have that. I don’t want to be getting up every day and just having one thing to focus on. And I always say it to kids: be true to yourself. When someone says ‘Don’t play this because you need to be fresh’, I think they’re putting too much pressure on the kid. Don’t put kids in a position where at U15 they have to be giving up a sport and then they might not make it in the sport they stuck with and in the meantime they’ve lost contact with the friends they had in the other sport. You have to be the master of your own destiny and if it feels right to do it, then it’s most likely right to do it, so do it!”

It’s working for him. Still.

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