Sending long ball into Donaghy was entertaining even when it caused trouble for Cork

Sending long ball into Donaghy was entertaining even when it caused trouble for Cork
Kieran Donaghy, Kerry, and Eoin Cadogan, Cork, in 2012, when the Rebels last beat the Kingdom in championship. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

AROUND the time we were trawling the Kieran Donaghy retirement tributes last week a bunch of statistics were released on Dublin’s footballer of the year nominees for 2018.

It felt like another little reminder of a changing game in ways. There was always more to Donaghy than old-school target man but it’s hard to get away from the idea that his most thrilling and effective work came from some variation of long ball finding him close to goal where he then wreaked varying degrees havoc to create scores or change a game.

Think top 10 Donaghy moments of 2006-2018 and chances are at least eight of them are either a ball he’s won in the air and scored (Armagh and Mayo 2006, Cork 2007, Galway 2017) or ball he’s won and created goals (Mayo 2014, Monaghan this summer) with maybe just that All-Ireland final goal v Donegal in 2014 as the obvious outside contender.

He basically became Kieran Donaghy because Kerry were willing to kick the ball in his direction often enough to allow him become an influence and his game was all about that time the kick inside comes off, the destruction and chaos that ensued from taking a risk of kicking that ball in long. He made kicking the ball long to the forward line something worth doing again.

Kieran Donaghy holding off Derek Kavanagh in 2008. Picture: Dan Linehan
Kieran Donaghy holding off Derek Kavanagh in 2008. Picture: Dan Linehan

And now the face of the game is Ciaran Kilkenny, a supremely talented footballer with all the skills and mentality in the world but who is the very opposite of that kind of risk-taking in possession. 

Kilkenny kicked the ball 24 times in championship for Dublin and didn’t lose the ball once; he hand-passed it 145 times and lost it once (no confirmation on whether Kilkenny cycled to Portlaoise after this error); barely believable stats really which suggest an incredibly honed vision to seek out another Dublin player to move the ball to and ability to find them but which also more than hints at the fact he will not contemplate giving up control of the ball unless he’s absolutely sure.

For the most influential footballer in the country to kick-pass the ball just 24 times in seven games says something about the way opposition defences line up against Dublin of course but it also says something about how teams choose to move the ball now, where the amount of times we get to see a team kick-pass the ball from one end of the pitch to the other is becoming fairly rare.

There’s no right or wrong way here necessarily but there is an impact on style and enjoyment.

I remember being at the 2006 All-Ireland final when the ball was launched into the Mayo full-back line early on and there was this collective realisation from the crowd that Donaghy was one-v-one inside which created this massive whoosh of expectation, that something exciting was about to take place (it did, he fetched and blasted to the roof of the net and the place exploded). 

I was also at the All-Ireland semi-final v Tyrone last year where Ciaran Kilkenny did his quarterback-thing of linking the ball from one side of the field to the other, constantly appearing as an option for the man in possession to move the ball on and I know it’s intelligent and we should acknowledge the ball-skills involved but it’s difficult to generate any great feeling of warmth towards it as it sucked the pace from the game completely.

It’s not even really a discussion about liking one type of football over another so much as the plain fact that watching a game where methodical prolonged possession of the ball makes up the majority of the game isn’t anybody’s idea of a fun watch. The most exciting sight in football is the ball hopping in front of a forward that’s one-v-one with a defender but how many times does that get to happen in a common game now?

Kieran Donaghy, Kerry, and Alan O'Connor, Cork, wait for the dropping ball. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Kieran Donaghy, Kerry, and Alan O'Connor, Cork, wait for the dropping ball. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

It’s not just county games and it has its knock-on effects. At a couple of county championship games recently it was fairly obvious most of the teams were not inclined to kick the ball into their forward lines and that playing any kind of direct game wasn’t a focus in training.

Clues: Forwards isolated with no support if the ball did get kicked in, no runs being made by the inside-forward line into spaces or options for the player in possession at midfield, an overall lack of fluency in moving the ball from the halfway line onwards. At one stage even the dreaded freekick back happened, where a player won a free around midfield and instead of trying to find a forward pass (and there was genuinely loads of space to hit for any inside-forward alive to the notion), turned immediately and hit the ball back 30/40 metres to the goalie. It had no impact on the game really but it was dispiriting to see.

At one point of the league game between Tipp and Cork back in January a Tipp forward got fouled and as he popped back up he actually turned away from his attacking players, didn’t even look for a forward option and instead kicked the ball 40 metres backwards to keep possession. It impacts skill development of positions as well.

Forwards are less inclined to make runs into areas if the ball isn’t going to come.

Nemo Rangers' Alan Cronin solos through the Charlestown defence in 2001. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Nemo Rangers' Alan Cronin solos through the Charlestown defence in 2001. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A half-forward like say Alan Cronin of Nemo, who was a constant source of movement and an out-ball for any kick from his defence, is unlikely to make those runs now and it’s notable how many teams at all levels look to find runners from deep as their main source of creating chances. By the way, if you’re going to see foot-passing anywhere this year it’s likely to be in Dunmanway this weekend where all the clubs most likely to kick the ball into their forwards are in action.

But it feels like something has to be changed now, where football people need to decide what kind of game they want to develop and what exactly needs to be done about developing it.

Coaches could shift the momentum with some innovative work with forward line but with possession such a factor, it’s likely going to take rule changes to move the game back to where we want it.

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