By Niall McCoy
THE dramatic ratification of Jack O’Connor as the new Kerry boss on Monday night should bring with it a sigh of relief in Armagh.
O’Connor’s rubber-stamping, after some delegates made their feelings on the process known, means that Kieran Donaghy looks certain to remain on with Armagh for a second year. Although O’Connor has still to add to his backroom team, early links with ‘Star’ have dampened.
Donaghy was added to Kieran McGeeney’s coaching team ahead of the 2021 season as the manager freshened up his backroom team. Jim McCorry, Paddy McKeever and John Toal departed and Donaghy and Ciaran McKeever came into the set-up.
“There are loads of pieces of the jig-saw there,” Donaghy told Gaelic Life at the time.
“I’ll be with working with the management on the defensive side of the ball too, but absolutely in attack and there is buckets of quality there.
“They’ll be an exciting bunch to work with and I’ll try and put my own stamp on it. The platform is there thanks to the work Kieran has done with them to get them up through the divisions.
“I played in Division One my whole career so I’ll hopefully be able to help on the experience side of it and give an insight into how tough it is. How much you are punished when you make mistakes and how clinical you have to be when you get those chances.”
Reports from Donaghy’s first season were very positive. He had a real hands-on approach, and when they came out onto the Brewster Park pitch for their first National League game against Monaghan, he was running the majority of the drills and was taking players aside for one-on-one chats.
During games he ran the sideline sometimes, but mostly preferred to watch from higher ground in the stand. Even when surrounded by fans, the Kerry accent could be heard belting through the air as he roared instructions.
The players have been very impressed by his input too.
“He’s new to coaching but because he’s been that player – he’s been the star of the show, he’s been a bit-part player, he has been an impact sub – his biggest contribution to our forward line is that he can relate to everybody,” Stefan Campbell told the Irish News.
“He can relate to a Rian O’Neill or an Oisin O’Neill, or players who are coming through like Conor Turbitt. Kieran isn’t giving them his views just for the sake of it. He’s going into his recent history, he’s giving them examples out of his career and he’s being genuine so I think every player in the forward line can use his experience, they can pick his brain and I think it’s benefiting us as a team.”
One Armagh player told Gaelic Life that defending from the front has been one of Donaghy’s mantras, and the Kerry man’s background in basketball has formed the basis of this. Pressing is such a big thing in Gaelic games these days, and Armagh are borrowing from the basketball court in how they set up.
Overall awareness to team benefits is one of the areas Armagh are aiming to sharpen up, and their first goal against Antrim in the Ulster Championship was a good example.
Stefan Campbell was coming down the left wing and Rian O’Neill and Rory Grugan were left two on two inside. O’Neill would have seen the obvious choice to hit with a kick pass, but sensing his teammate was in a more dangerous position, the Crossmaglen man hits top speed in a decoy sprint to the wing. It took him out of the play, but also took his man away too.
Campbell’s delivery was good, as was Grugan’s handling, and the latter finished beautifully with his left foot.
The 2021 season was McGeeney’s seventh as manager – and eighth involved with the team seeing as he was head coach in 2014 under Paul Grimley.
There scoring averages in league and championship have been: 2015 – 15.27; 2016 – 13.5; 2017 – 18.77; 2018 – 17.67; 2019 – 16.58; 2020 – 17.78; 2021 – 18.17.
What is clear is that McGeeney has developed an attacking until capable of putting up huge numbers and the 2021 season saw them post their second best scoring average under his watch.
Drill down and that becomes even more impressive. In 2017, when they had their highest return, Armagh were playing Division Three football and teams at a much lower standard. Last season was Division One sides and five of their six matches in all competitions came against Ulster opponents.
In nearly all of McGeeney’s years pre-2020, the side would disappoint in Ulster before embarking on high-scoring Qualifier runs. Given that there was no backdoor in place in 2021, that was not an option this season.
It’s clear that Donaghy has added another dimension to Armagh football, and his retention will be crucial moving forward.