‘I’m not easy to like on the pitch but I’m a bit of a softie underneath it all’
KIERAN DONAGHY IS a player you’d love to have on your team, but hate to play against. Aggressive, brash, physically imposing and an in-your-face approach. A win at all costs mentality. A divisive figure, you either worship him or can’t stand him; there’s no real in-between, as he admits himself.
“If you look at me on the pitch, I’m easy not to like,” he says. “I know that like, it’s the way I play. Definitely up in Dublin I wouldn’t be number one, public enemy number one is what I’d be.”
But beyond the on-field persona, there’s much to like, and admire, about the Kerry footballer. Still formidable in size, Donaghy is best described as a gentle giant. He’s softly-spoken, intelligent and, believe it or not, level-headed.
In recent media appearances to promote his autobiography, Donaghy has spoken about his future, the black card, Philly McMahon and GAA pensions. His book, after all, is about his GAA career.
But what of Kieran Donaghy the person? He’s known as one of the most recognisable Kerry footballers of recent time, winner of six Munster titles, four All-Irelands, three league crowns and three All Star awards. But what of the young lad from Tralee who came through a difficult childhood and the tragic death of his father?
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
We read of his rags to riches story into football stardom and the incredible success he’s enjoyed during a sparkling career, but perhaps the most revealing aspect of it is the personality behind the facade.
“I’m no saint on the pitch but that’s the way I play,” he tells The42. “I play on the edge and do what I have to do to win a game but people don’t know the other side of me. They probably think I’m referencing Joe Brolly in my book’s title (What do you think of that?) but I’m not.
“If I wanted to reference Joe Brolly properly I would have called it ‘What do you think of that, Joe Brolly?’ but I’m asking the reader that question.
“Read it and tell me what you think of me. If you still hate me that’s fine but I think people will get a better understanding of why I play the way I play and what drives me as a player.
“I’m a bit of a softie underneath it all. That’s me, I was predominately raised by two women and they brought me up the right way and to respect my elders and when I cross the white line yeah I turn into this guy who’s trying to win for Kerry or Austin Stacks or Munster or for Ireland.”
As he’s entered the twilight of his career, that competitive streak has remained but perspective has been gained. It was once all about winning and the cut-throat environment that such a mindset engendered. Losing simply wasn’t an option.
“I would have cut your hand off to win,” he admits. But now football is not all about winning. He still loves it, no doubt, but there’s more to it than that; the friendships, the team-mates, the life lessons and the journey.
“I came to the realisation in doing this book and the way last year finished up is that of course you want to win the All-Ireland, it’s the ultimate goal,” he explains.
“Every other year when I didn’t win the All-Ireland I was completely in a hole for a few weeks after, feeling all sorry for myself and getting all down about it but when I did this book I came to realise that I’m very lucky to be on the journey.
“To have 12 years as a Kerry senior footballer, to contest eight All-Ireland finals, to win four of them. To be on a county like Kerry and deliver for them on the big stage and then there’s the flip side of that, be on a county like Kerry and not deliver on the big stage.
“There has been days I’ve let Kerry, there’s been days I’ve let myself and my family down with my performances but that’s just with what comes with it but then there are times I’ve given them huge pride and I’ve given myself pride in what I’ve been able to do on the big days for Kerry.
“The trust the management teams, my respective management teams of Jack, Pat and Eamonn have shown me. I’ll always be thankful for them, it’s been unbelievable and I think I’ve come to realise that it’s more than just about a result or medal or winning an All-Ireland.
“I’ve come to a point where I’m thinking you know what ‘it’s been a great journey, it has been a hell of a ride and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and wouldn’t change a thing.”
Whether that ride is over just yet remains to be seen. Donaghy has insisted his decision on whether or not to continue his inter-county career into 2017 won’t be made until the New Year.
Until then, his focus is on his first love – basketball.
Donaghy returned to playing senior basketball for Tralee Warriors last year and helped his side return to the Super League top tier for this season. It has given him a new lease of life.
“It probably is my first love,” he reveals. “I’d consider myself a natural basketball player, much more natural on a basketball court than I am on a football pitch. It’s the sport I was better at when I was younger and probably still better at today.
“It’s definitely a sport which today is an enjoyable sport to play and almost pressure-free for me. I’ve been lucky enough to win and achieve all my goals in basketball and the reason I’m back playing was to bring the Super League back to Tralee and all the good young players for Tralee, try and be a good mentor for them for two or three years before the body just doesn’t allow me to play basketball at the highest level anymore.
“I’m delighted that it’s going so well. I’m really enjoying it. We beat an excellent Swords Thunder team from Dublin in a cup game at the weekend. We had a 1,000 people at it, we had to turn people away.
“The atmosphere, they’re turning off the lights and doing players intros. We’re trying to jazz it up as much as we can. The reaction we’re getting on Facebook from parents and kids who were at the game, they’ve been blown away by it. If the rest of the league could nearly copy us down in Tralee and get that atmosphere at all the games in the National Basketball League and it got supported by basketball people in general, who watch all the NBA.
“Go down and watch your local guys play. Go watch your Templeogues, your Swords, your DCU Saints. Go watch those guys play, the young Irish players and the talent levels are very high in the league. There are excellent Irish players and of course every team has a very good American. I’d encourage people to get out and watch it.
Donaghy’s return to basketball coincided with his return to form for Kerry. He featured in 11 league and championship games this year for Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side.
After a frustrating couple of years with injury, 2016 was a good one for the forward as he returned to peak form and enjoyed an extended period in the starting XV until Kerry were dumped out at the semi-final stage by Dublin.
“I don’t think it did me any harm,” he says when asked whether basketball has helped his football career.
Donaghy with his daughter Lola-Rose.
Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
“I played for the first time in seven years last year and I went on to play 11 games in a row for Kerry in both league and championship and played quite well in most of them and covered a lot of ground. It definitely did me well, I was in great physical condition, I was very fit after the basketball.
“I was doing basketball and I was training with Damien Ray and the Kerry backroom team when it came to fitness. I came in a very good position with a good base and was able to attack it from where I wanted to attack it.
“A lot of the skills are transferable but I think the biggest one and most important one is the decision making. In a basketball game you can touch the ball 130-150 times, sometimes more.
“You’re touching it every time you go down the court, you’re touching it in defence, touching it every time you grab a rebound and you can make decisions constantly. You could make up to 200 decisions where as in football, in the 2014 final, I was nominated for man of the match and I touched the ball 11 times but I made nine or 10 good decisions with that and that comes from the basketball, learning how to make the right decisions all the time.
“There’s obviously the hands and vision, in basketball you have to use your peripheral vision to see what’s around you and I felt I probably used that to the best of my ability on a football pitch for Kerry.”
Whether you like him or not, Donaghy leaves an impression.
On his whistle-stop media tour, he popped into our Dublin office last Monday to complete a full morning of interviews. The same questions, the same answers. Over and over again; it’s the modern way.
Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO
So when he’s asked about basketball, and something other than football and whether he’ll be around next year, he speaks passionately. He deflects the attention away from himself and uses the opportunity to promote the sport, still very much a minority one in Ireland, and to endorse the product he’s very much part of.
“I run a basketball camp every year at Halloween in Tralee,” he continues. “I’m delighted to be part of that and delighted to be helping bringing that back to Tralee. Now I can say to my kids in my camp, which I couldn’t say the last three of four years, that’s there’s something to aim for with the Super League.
“When I was a young lad going to Dungarvan for a basketball camp, we had an American coach who told us to sleep with the ball. I went home every night for I’d say about six or seven months until I got too annoyed where I was rolling over onto a basketball every night and I threw it out. I listened to the coach and I slept with the ball every night to get my hands used to the ball and that’s what he was saying, I can tell kids now to do stuff and they can do it with an aim.
“Signing autographs for kids after the game, young guys on the Warriors team who wouldn’t be used to it signing autographs and seeing their face doing that, seeing kids looking up at these guys, now they have an aim and a goal to chase and we didn’t have that in Tralee for the last seven or eight years.
“It’s back, it’s fantastic and it’s definitely given be a new lease of life.”
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