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How Kerry rejuvenated former Footballer of the Year with 'link man' role in attack

James O’Donoghue enjoyed a return to form for the Kingdom against Dublin.

Updated Jan 27th 2020, 9:30 PM

james-odonoghue-and-niall-scully Kerry’s James O’Donoghue and Niall Scully of Dublin. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

THERE WERE PLENTY of positives for Kerry supporters to glean from their 1-19 apiece draw with Dublin at the weekend.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the game was the sight of a sharp and fit-looking James O’Donoghue in full flight once again.

O’Donoghue’s talent is undeniable but a spate of injuries have badly disrupted his recent campaigns. He is still only 29, yet many have doubted his ability to rediscover his best form in the green and gold.

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His performance over the 50 minutes he spent on the field on Saturday hinted that O’Donoghue may finally be rediscovering his best form.

In Peter Keane, he’s playing under a manager that he’s extremely familiar with.

Keane was in charge of O’Donoghue’s club Killarney Legion when he first burst onto the scene and cemented a starting place in the Kerry attack. 

It was refreshing to see O’Donoghue in the Kingdom’s starting forward line for a league game in January. More often than not, he spent January rehabbing one injury or another.

So often since his stunning Footballer of the Year campaign in 2014, injury has prevented the Legion man from doing what he does best. 

He was almost unstoppable during that summer five and a half years ago, when Kerry won the All-Ireland despite the absence of the injured Colm Cooper for the entire season.

Shoulder, calf and hamstring problems have wrecked some of O’Donoghue’s prime years in the intervening period. Geaney became their primary scorer in attack and in recent seasons, David Clifford and Sean O’Shea have arrived on the scene. 

He has shown flashes of that old brilliance at various stages over the last few years, yet other times he’s looked devoid of confidence.

As with any forward, confidence will come if they’ve been training regularly and enjoying a sustained run in the team. Much of O’Donoghue’s struggles can be put down to the various niggles he’s battled over the years. 

How well he does in 2020 will come down to his ability to remain off the physio table. The Dublin game was a decent start. He looked extremely sharp, gave his marker Eoin Murchan a torrid time and kicked three high quality points.

Shortly before throw-in, O’Donoghue, Geaney and David Clifford gathered together in the middle of the field for a quick word.

1 Geaney, Clifford and O'Donoghue in conversation before the Dublin game. Source: RTE

Most counties don’t have one forward of their class, Kerry are blessed to have three. Keane designed an attacking system to get the best out of that talented trio.

Clifford and Tommy Walsh played closest to goal. 

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Wing-forwards Gavin O’Brien and Stephen O’Brien were the worker bees. Their brief was to drop back behind the ball and help out the defence, but also to get forward and join the attack.

O’Donoghue acted as a link man between the full- and half-forward lines, buzzing around the middle channel and handling a sight of ball. 

4.1

He touched the ball just twice inside the 21m line and the vast majority of his 17 possessions came down the middle channel where he can do the most damage, instead of trying to beat defenders for pace down the wings.

3.1

Eight times, O’Donoghue picked up the ball in the zone between the 45 and ‘D’. A ball-player of his ability has a number of options in that area: he can play a pass inside, run at his defender or slip it to a runner.

At centre-forward, Geaney played further outfield and acted as the team’s de-facto playmaker. He was more than happy to roam deep for possession and use his kick-passing ability to move the ball from back to front quickly.

At one stage near the end of the opening period, he received a kick-pass from his goalkeeper on his own 21m line. 

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Kerry generally left three forwards up – Clifford, Walsh and O’Donoghue (who played at the top of the triangle). 

6

The game wasn’t two minutes old when Geaney forced a turnover inside his own half and picked out the run of O’Donoghue towards the flank. 

With a ball-winner like Walsh on the inside line, Kerry looked to hit him with angled ball. Whenever the former Sydney Swans man had the ball in hand, the Kingdom forwards peeled towards him looking to set-up a shot at the posts. 

O’Donoghue opened his account in the 15th minute with a textbook score. Walsh came out to win a ball and O’Donoghue pushed in to become their furthest man forward. He received a handpass from Paul Murphy, jinked inside Murchan and curled over the bar. 

6.2

As the link man, O’Donoghue frequently found himself dangerous positions when they counter-attacked. His second point in the 21st minute is a prime example. Shane Enright won a turnover in midfield and quickly fed O’Donoghue, who was unmarked on the Dublin 65.

8.2

The number 13 played a handpass into Walsh and took the return before pointing on his right foot.

For his third point, Clifford went deep fed O’Donoghue’s run towards the flank. The latter played a neat one-two with Walsh and received the return in a position he loves to shoot – just to the right of the ‘D’ while coming onto his favourite left foot. 

10.1

The ball sailed between the posts. Five minutes later, he set-up Clifford for a point. A wide followed for O’Donoghue in first-half stoppage-time, but regardless it was as good a 35 minutes as he’s produced for Kerry in recent seasons.

He was replaced by Killian Spillane in the 50th minute. Happy with what he’d seen, Keane is clearly looking to preserve O’Donoghue’s energy levels ahead of a busy schedule where Galway and Tyrone are next on the agenda. 

He admitted as much afterwards.

“He looked sharp, he had a good first-half,” said Keane of O’Donoghue. “I suppose we were minding him a small little bit and we took him out of there on 50 minutes or that. So look, we’re happy.”

Former Kerry forward Darran O’Sullivan tweeted praise for O’Donoghue after the game, saying the forward’s performance was his “biggest positive” from the night.

Keane echoed that sentiment after the game, bemoaning the injury O’Donoghue picked up early on in their Muinster campaign last year.

“Well take James last year, James had a few injuries earlier on in the league and we were doing our best to get him back,” said Keane.

“He played very well against Clare in the opening round of the championship. About 40 or 45 minutes (in) the hamstring went on him and it effectively ruined his year.

“Whereas up to that he had been going very, very well in the April, May period heading into that game. So that was a big setback for him because we were expecting a big year out of him last year.

“And he has done very well in the last few weeks. He had the benefit too of not killing himself last year because of the injury, went in fresh to the O’Donoghue Cup which Legion won after so many years and that was a big thing for him.

“And he’s carried and taken that through.”

Long may it continue.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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