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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 13 December, 2018
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'You've a handful here, boy'- Donaghy's warning to a Longford defender before the Star was born

Longford defender Barry Gilleran recalls marking Kieran Donaghy in 2006 when he made his breakthrough for Kerry.

LONGFORD FANS ENJOYED a long hot summer in 2006.

A general of the action as players compete for the ball Longford and Dublin battling it out in 2006. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Their championship campaign got off to an encouraging start with a narrow two-point defeat to Dublin in Pearse Park which saw them bow out of the Leinster competition.

They hadn’t quite established their name as qualifier specialists yet but their run through the back door certainly helped send them on their way to acquiring that status in later years.

It began with a successful trip to Waterford followed by victory at home against Tipperary and a pivotal win over Derry.

At that time, defender Barry Gilleran was in his debut season with the Longford seniors while still playing with the U21 team who contested the Leinster final against Laois that year.

He was an unused sub for the Dublin, Waterford, and Tipp games but was introduced in the first half of the Derry clash where he impressed then-manager Luke Dempsey enough to get promoted to the starting team for the subsequent clash against Kerry.

“I think I remember it was in the Independent and that’s how I found out that I was starting,” Gilleran tells The42. “It’s not like these days where they send out false teams.”

This was the last stop in the qualifiers before Longford could take their place in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

It was historic times for the Shannonside county as they descended on Killarney full of hope that a result was possible.

Kieran Donaghy celebrates his goal Kieran Donaghy. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Meanwhile, Dempsey’s charges were preparing for the possibility of a midfielder by the name of Kieran Donaghy starting at full-forward.

“We reckoned we could do something especially after the Derry win,” Gilleran says.

“There wasn’t much heard about Kieran Donaghy. He was a midfielder at that stage.

“He was named at full-forward and I remember the Friday night before the game, the lads put me in at full-back and said they were going to throw in a load of high balls and contest them to break them away or do whatever.”

***

Jack O'Connor Jack O'Connor in 2006. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The whole mantra for the week is Donaghy. Either he works or we sink.” – Jack O’Connor, ‘Keys To The Kingdom’

Down south, Kerry were struggling to catch fire in 2006. A Munster final replay defeat to provincial rivals Cork condemned them to the unfamiliar scenic route of the qualifiers.

They were decidedly off-colour and as the then-Kerry boss O’Connor alluded to in his autobiography, Donaghy was the last card they could play to try to rescue their season.

Similar to Longford, the Kerry team were also testing out the long-ball strategy at training, with Donaghy impressing at the edge of the square for a few balls while being marshaled by the experienced defender Marc O’Sé.

It was a momentous occasion for Longford fans who made the long journey to Killarney, and unsurprisingly, throw-in was delayed as Fitzgerald Stadium started to fill up. 

“You could certainly feel the atmosphere,” Gilleran recalls, “and I think the game was delayed for 15 minutes and we were kind of all ready to go at that stage. I remember I was in the dressing-room and I was very on edge.

One of the lads came up to me and told me to relax but that didn’t happen. You’re nervous. You’re going out to play Kerry and it’s not everyday that happens.”

The pressure on Donaghy’s shoulders was palpable ahead of throw-in as despondent Kerry fans wondered what remained of their season.

Kieran Donaghy and Barry Gilleran Donaghy and Gilleran in 2006. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

But Gilleran can remember the Austin Stack’s man approaching him without any worries.

“I remember it well. It sticks out like a sore thumb,” he says.

I remember he came down and the first thing he said in a staunch Kerry accent was, ‘You’ve a handful here, boy.’ That’s exactly what he said and that’s exactly what I got unfortunately.”

Speaking on Off The Ball earlier this week, Jack O’Connor recalled how Kerry had failed to score a goal in the four games preceding that Longford fixture.

Donaghy changed all that. After he put on the 14 shirt, Kerry rattled in 11 goals throughout the rest of the season which culminated in All-Ireland triumph for O’Connor’s side.

And it all started with a super display against Longford in which Donaghy excelled in his role as the target man. Kerry had three goals on the scoreboard in the early stages of the first half and Donaghy played a role in all of them.

Gilleran felt he was ‘fingertips’ away from the balls that were being delivered in, but even with the little amount of space he was conceding, Donaghy was unmarkable.

Kieran Donaghy celebrates scoring Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I definitely didn’t mark anything like it before. For the first ball he stood and competed with me and used his strength and height. He was just a very clever footballer. For the second one he kind of lost me and I can’t really remember the third one.

I think after the first two, my head was nearly buried under the ground. He just had a great mind for the game.

“He knows how it’s to be played and I suppose the basketball helps him too with having such good hands. He’s an intelligent footballer at the same time.”

Donaghy was proving too much for Gilleran to handle and it didn’t take long for the curly finger to beckon him over to the sideline and bring his afternoon to an early conclusion.

Despite the bad start, Longford managed to put up a good contest for the remainder of the game with those three early goals proving to be the difference as the final scoreline read Kerry 4-11 Longford 1-11. 

It was the result that many Longford fans feared might happen but there were heartwarming scenes after the full-time whistle as the supporters remained in the stadium to applaud their heroes for giving them a great summer of football to enjoy.

There was disappointment for Gilleran on a personal level but he enjoyed the experience too.

Luke Dempsey and Liam Keenan 15/7/2006 Manager Luke Dempsey and Liam Keenan celebrating the win over Derry. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I came on after 15 minutes against Derry and I was taken off after 15 minutes against Kerry. Unfortunately the Star was born that day.

“When Kieran Donaghy is 6’6″, it’s very hard to do anything about that.

I think he nearly finished my career before it started but I held on to go for another 12 years non-stop so I kind of bounced back well after that and met him again in 2009.

“The team wins and the team loses. You lose together and win together. I was just part of the group. I remember I swapped jerseys I think with Darran O’Sullivan. We saw the crowd and went round to talk to a few of them.

“It was very enjoyable and we did give them a good summer and a long summer for a change for Longford. It was enjoyable to give the supporters a day out.

The team stayed down in Killarney for the rest of the weekend. I suppose going out for a few pints was the best way of getting over it anyway.”

***

Kieran Donaghy Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The following night when I’m watching the Sunday Game with Hillary, she says how tough that must have been for him, his whole family and what seemed like the whole of Longford down to watch him; it was the biggest game of his life up to that point, just as it was for me. And as she says it, I have this sense of sympathy for the man. – Kieran Donaghy, ‘What Do you Think Of That?’

Gilleran describes himself as a laid-back individual and while that game against Kerry was a dark day in his inter-county career, he didn’t agonise over it for too long.

He rejoined the Longford fold the following season and stayed for some of the National League before he was advised to return to his club Longford Slashers for the rest of the season. 

As he reflects on it now, he concedes that the roasting from Donaghy might have impacted more on his confidence than he realised at the time, but again, he didn’t want to dwell on it.

By 2009, he was firmly back in the Longford team and as it transpired, they were paired with Kerry in the All-Ireland qualifiers again that year; this time it was a home fixture for Gilleran’s side.

Ironically, Kerry were suffering from the yips again that year and were stuttering along after crashing out of the Munster championship.

Donaghy didn’t say much to Gilleran when they met at the edge of the square this time around as the sides played out a tight contest on a wet evening in Pearse Park.

Barry Gilleran and Kieran Donaghy The pair meet again in 2009. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Gilleran gave a better account of himself against Donaghy at the second time of asking, but the Kerry giant had to withdraw from the contest due to injury.

“I’d love to say Kieran Donaghy was taken off as a substitute but unfortunately it was an innocuous enough kind of tackle. I think I landed on his foot and his metatarsal was damaged.

It was accidental and I wrote him a letter that time just to apologise and to rule out any malice that he might have thought was in it. I just wanted to wish him the best for the rest of the season.

“Back then there was no Twitter or Facebook so it wasn’t as easy to get him as it is now.”

He continued:

“I suppose in 2006 the Star was born and there was four balls kicked into him and he won every one of them. I was inches off him, it wasn’t as if I was miles away but it was just one of those days.

“In 2009 I suppose I kept him scoreless and played well that day and the team played well. But they had the Gooch and other boys to do the damage for them. But I felt happy with my performance coming off the pitch.”

***

Barry Gilleran dejected Gilleran after Longford's defeat to Dublin earlier this year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

After 12 years on the inter-county panel, Gilleran doesn’t know if he will be back again with the squad in 2019 under Padraic Davis who was ratified as the new Longford manager earlier this week.

Donaghy has just announced his retirement from inter-county football, but Gilleran will mull things over during the Christmas break.

Longford enjoyed a solid season in 2018 with victory over Meath in the Leinster championship their biggest highlight of the campaign as they booked a spot in the provincial semi-finals.

It was their first championship win over the Royals since 1982 and their first time in the last four of Leinster in 30 years.

They lost out heavily to Dublin in the semi-final in what Gilleran describes as a ‘don’t know what you call it kind of a day’, before making their championship exit after a defeat to Kildare.

The healthcare assistant doesn’t care too much for talk of second-tier competitions as he sees it as denying players the ‘opportunity of playing against the best’, something which he always relished.

Vinny Corey with Barry Gilleran and Dermot Brady Gilleran in action against Monaghan in 2016. Source: Presseye/Andrew Paton/INPHO

Days like the one they enjoyed against Meath or that famous qualifier win over Monaghan in 2016 make it all worthwhile, even if there isn’t much silverware to go with it.

Starting Donaghy against Longford was a last-ditch gamble for Kerry that reaped huge rewards in 2006 and he got the better of other full-backs later that season, including the normally impenetrable Francie Bellew of Armagh.

His string of performances earned him an All-Star that year as well as the Footballer of The Year award.

Gilleran got a trimming from one of the best forwards in the game in his debut season with Longford, but it made him a better player for the rest of his long career.

“You always think about the next ball and the next game. That was my focus. It’s obviously come up in conversation ever since and it’s always been there but if these things don’t happen you don’t learn.

“You have to take solace from that.”

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