Sunday 17 December 2017

Kingdom coming

Young hero O'Donoghue hoping to spark Kerry bid for title

IT'S a sure sign that we're all getting older, but also a reflection of his own stratospheric rise, that James O'Donoghue is currently the most talked-about Kerry forward as the Kingdom gear up for their annual pilgrimage to Croke Park.

This is the county that bequeathed us Colm Cooper, Declan and Darran O'Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy and Paul Galvin - to name five - over the past decade and a bit.

But the clock inexorably ticks, generations come and generations go. Galvin has retired. The Gooch's exit is thankfully a more transient thing, his torn cruciate last February ruling him out for the year and spawning a multitude of Kerry championship post-mortems long before a ball had been kicked.

Declan O'Sullivan, his namesake Darran and Donaghy are all still part of the green-and-gold machine but only one of this decorated trio (Declan) started against Cork in the Munster final.


True, the elder O'Sullivan was back approaching his regal best at centre-forward but even he, ultimately, was left to operate in the shadows of an O'Donoghue masterclass. Ten points - a scarcely believable eight from play. Even allowing for the caveat of Cork's AWOL defence, this was execution on an epic scale.

The hero of the hour, though, eschews any such grandiose explanations.

"It's got to be up there because I haven't played that many games," he reflects, asked if it ranks as his best Kerry display. "Cork had to come out of the traps against us in the second half ... they left space at the back, we managed to punish them. There was no mad science behind it. It was just a bit of luck on the day and it probably won't happen again."

Still, big performances from the Legion man are fast becoming the stuff of Killarney legend. Last summer, he was the inside assassin feeding off the visionary flourishes of Cooper on the '40'. Such was their success that both men - Gooch with his eighth, O'Donoghue with his first - ended the year as All Stars.

Now, in the latter's injury-enforced absence, there's an even bigger weight of responsibility on O'Donoghue's shoulders. Missing the Munster semi-final against Clare, with an AC shoulder injury, was hardly ideal preparation for a Pairc Ui Chaoimh showdown with the old enemy ... but come the game itself, he played with the confident swagger of a multiple All Star.

He has been part of the Kerry set-up for several years - and was an unused sub in the 2011 All-Ireland defeat to Dublin - before last season's quantum leap forward. It begs the question, just how daunting was it to first enter a dressing-room populated by so many forward icons?

"I'll put it this way: the boys were at such a high level that when you were coming through at 19 or 20, you're not there and you have to try and facilitate them more than maybe you'd like to," he explains.

"They've done it all, won everything and you're trying to get up to that level while still being successful.

"Maybe it's better to be just thrown in at the deep end and (be told) 'You've got to go and win us this game, see what you can do.'

"Jack (O'Connor) gave me my chance and he gave a lot of my age group a chance to perform. It was hard to get on that team because they were so good and they wanted to win the All-Ireland. You're not going to risk and throw in a 20-year-old when you have proven, brilliant players on the field. It's up to the player on the bench to step up and earn a place and that's it, basically."

Kerry's last two outings against Cork reflect the fickleness of sport - and those who support it. Back in early April, Eamonn Fitzmaurice's side concluded their Division One campaign with a ten-point humiliation (2-18 to 1-11) in front of their own Tralee fans. "We can't allow displays like that to happen," the manager admitted afterwards.

"There was a lot of people pretty despondent in Kerry," O'Donoghue confirms, "but I personally had that game forgotten within an hour.

"It was a once-off. We were safe in the league; we were going nowhere. Cork were going brilliant at the time and I think that they wanted to bury (us) and put down a stamp for the championship game.

"We didn't step up to the plate or perform at all. That was the disappointing thing, but I think it was very much a personal response to that game.


"Fellas had to go home and think about themselves rather than the team performance. You had to go home and think about your own performance and what you did wrong, what your preparation was and do you really want it?

Sometimes you need that to ask questions."

Still, the recent memory of that mauling helped fuel much of the local pessimism ahead of the Munster final.

"Kerry people are so forthcoming with their opinions," says O'Donoghue. "You ask if they're going to the game and they'll say, 'Nah, sure why would I go down to see them get bate?'

"That does stir something inside you ... you're kind of questioning are you a true Kerry player and do you deserve to be wearing that shirt?"

He adds: "There was a lot of negativity about Kerry for a while. People were thinking we were not going to offer anything in the championship and that can be tough to deal with.

"When we lined out against Cork we had a lot of questions to answer and I think that's the best way to go into a game.

"When you have questions to answer you have extra impetus. I think that we used that well."

The four-week break from Pairc Ui Chaoimh on July 6 to Croke Park this Sunday is not the ideal scenario as he contemplates Kerry's next big challenge - Galway in the last-eight.

"It can be tricky with three and four-week gaps," he admits. "The thicker and faster the games would be better for players, that's for sure."

He's not complaining, mind. Croker in August - and September, he hopes - is where O'Donoghue wants to be. This is where true Kerry players prove themselves.

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