HomeFootballCiarán Murphy: Kieran Donaghy and Armagh benefit from blurring GAA’s unwritten rules;...

Ciarán Murphy: Kieran Donaghy and Armagh benefit from blurring GAA’s unwritten rules; and they’re not the only ones

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I got a message from a GAA-agnostic friend of mine last weekend, who was staying in one of Ireland’s more recognisable hotel/resort complexes for a night. He’s the sort of fella who would text me wondering why the entire Armagh football team and backroom staff would come down to have a hotel breakfast, all dressed entirely the same.

When on duty, and frequently when they’re off duty, GAA players wear GAA gear, and this is just a fact of life. But this is actually a very good question indeed. Did they all really need to dress the same … for breakfast?

The extent to which GAA teams and counties are bound by orthodoxy was further underlined when he sent me a message a couple of hours later to say that a bus covered engine-to-boot in Galway GAA livery had also pulled up outside the hotel.

He didn’t spot any maroon-clad footballers around the place, just the bus, so maybe it was a coincidence. But there are only so many places and so many locations that are equipped to accommodate these teams for weekends away, and a possible double-booking like that was, if not inevitable, then hardly surprising.

In any case, what really caught my attention was that of all the footballers this friend of mine had seen, Kieran Donaghy was the only one he recognised. There are Armagh figures in the Kerry backroom team, and a couple of Kerry people in the Armagh set-up, but Donaghy is a different matter. He is one of the most instantly recognisable footballers of this century.

And the fact that one of the key moments in his entire Kerry career, the quarter-final goal in 2006, happened against the team he is now involved with adds another layer to it all.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody stares pointedly at Galway manager Henry Shefflin while shaking hands after their encounter in 2022. Photograph: Inpho

The rules, as we have been forced to ponder over the last few days, are rather arbitrary when it comes to this sort of thing. Mickey Harte going to Derry was an abomination – a betrayal of everything the GAA holds dear. Dublin’s Brian Mullins managing Derry, on the other hand, was not a problem.

Galway and Mayo have had a far more high-profile rivalry than Derry and Tyrone over the course of the last 100 years, but when the late and sadly-missed John O’Mahony led Galway to two All-Ireland titles in three years, Mayo people could barely muster a complaint. They had hired and then lost O’Mahony themselves, and as such had to bear some responsibility.

Kerry folk have managed intercounty teams of all stripes for years, but Mick O’Dwyer’s semi-final win with Kildare in 1998 remains the only time that one of their own has beaten them in championship football. The Kerry gospel may be spread far and wide, but the understanding is that they should uplift the weaker members of the herd, not strengthen one of the big hitters.

Henry Shefflin is gone from Galway now, but the memory of Brian Cody’s long, deathless stare at him during that handshake in Pearse Stadium in 2022 will linger. It’s the same principle. If Henry wants to manage Laois or Carlow, he goes with their best wishes. If he wants to manage a team with aspirations of beating Kilkenny – well, that’s a different matter.

But the Shefflin example is pertinent in another way. Donaghy is not, with the greatest respect, Pat O’Shea, Mark Fitzgerald or John Evans. He was a genuine Kerry legend as a player. He was the missing cog in the wheel that elevated them in 2006, and he was the difference again in 2014.

This weekend is noteworthy because of the massively high profile of all four managers, all of whom are the definition of George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man. Jack O’Connor, Kieran McGeeney and Pádraic Joyce are as obdurate and hard-nosed a trio as you could wish to find.

From left to right: Armagh’s Kieran McGeeney, Kerry’s Jack O’Connor, Galway’s Pádraic Joyce, Donegal’s Jim McGuinness

Jim McGuinness has talked endlessly about the importance of Donegal-ness to his team – establishing and growing a bond with the people of the county, representing them correctly, putting their best foot forward for them. But the Pied Piper rhetoric belies the hard edge and long memory we all know he possesses.

None of them are newbies. At a shade over 4½ years in charge, Joyce is the least-experienced member of the quartet (taking into account McGuinness and O’Connor’s previous stints in charge of their team). They are all, of course, managing their native county.

If we may say with a fair degree of certainty that O’Dwyer and Kevin Heffernan were the first intercounty managers or coaches in the modern sense of the word, then Joyce is aiming to become the first Galway man to manage a team to an All-Ireland football title. It would be churlish for any Galway person to underestimate the impact of an outside man, on this of all weeks.

Donaghy has been lauded for bringing a sense of lightness to an Armagh backroom team that is relentlessly driven. Anyone who’s ever spent any time with him knows that he has a positivity that’s hard to conceal. If that positivity and self-assurance are in him at least in part because of where he’s from, it will be to Armagh’s benefit this weekend.

Like Cian O’Neill in Galway, the external voice can have an outsize influence.

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