On the May Bank Holiday weekend of 2012, Ciarán Kilkenny won his first All-Ireland title. Dublin Under-21s beat Roscommon at Tullamore 2-11 to 0-12, with Kilkenny scoring four points into the full attack line. At just 18, he was one of the youngest players in the entire competition, but nonetheless ended the year as Cadbury Hero of the Future. His senior debut for Dublin followed three months later against Laois.
A decade later, it seems like a good time to take stock. For one thing, Kilkenny has already put together one of GAA’s great careers. He has seven senior All-Irelands, five All Stars and has forgotten more Leinster and Championship titles than 99% of players have ever been able to compete. Throughout Dublin’s glory years it has been an individual rhythm section, drumbeat and heartbeat united.
On the other hand, he was never Footballer of the Year. He appeared in nine All-Ireland finals, including replays, and made the man of the match shortlist only once. It was during the 2019 replay against Kerry and while he won the award that night, his teammates and coaches point out that it was no coincidence that he finally won it on the day his intervention the most memorable was a cover block on Jack Sherwood. .
“This is what the management have been looking for for Ciarán for a long time,” said a former Dublin player. “He would have been arrested on it and arrested on it. It wasn’t just about going back, it was about coming back and really going there and doing something effective. He was delighted with himself afterwards. He wanted to talk about his block as much as anything else.
In the Dublin setup, Kilkenny has always taken a bit of handling. A brilliant player and an obviously amazing weapon to have at their disposal. But at the same time, someone who can be prone to drifting on their talent if not constantly challenged and forced to focus.
Athletically, he is unrivaled in the group, usually 10% ahead of the next best entrant in beep tests when the mood takes him. His recovery from a 2014 brace injury was so successful ahead of schedule, there was concern in the Dublin setup that his rapid progress would discourage defender Kevin O’Brien, who suffered the same brace injury. same time but recovered. at the pace of a normal human.
“The cruciate ligament injury probably came at a good time for him,” says Jason Sherlock. “In terms of refocusing and doubling up on what was important to him. His trajectory has been very positive since.
“From experience I can see a lot of opportunities for growth from challenges. Normally the challenge comes with defeats and losses and that’s part of the sport. The reality with Ciarán and these guys is that they don’t Didn’t have many losses, so they had to explore growth and resilience in other ways.Injury was one way Ciarán did that.
“These Dublin players are very selfless, they’re willing to do whatever it takes. Tactically, Ciarán has so many physical and mental attributes that he’s the type of player you could probably play in any position. “He was very adaptable. Mentally he’s a very smart footballer and a very smart human being.”
Highly intelligent footballers and highly intelligent human beings come with their own challenges. A former Dub describes Kilkenny as someone who “always has his own plan”. At times, his focus on this plan caused frustration among his teammates and coaches, who wanted him to work on something else.
“He thought he needed to improve on one thing in particular and even though it might not have been the thing management had in mind for him, he pursued it relentlessly,” the former player explains. “He doesn’t always play into the needs of the team when he has something like that in mind.”
Sherlock, who coached Kilkenny for five years with the Dublin side, doesn’t quite agree with that view. But he can see how it would form.
“With all the very talented people, they’re very focused and they have a very fixed vision and perspective, because they obviously know what works for them. With all those individuals, the challenge in a team is to make sure that they’re as collaborative as possible. You want to create that autonomy and you want to create that freedom. But you have to have some constraints and some conformity to what you expect as a team.
“It’s a challenging area for players like Ciarán. You can see why some people would feel that Ciarán would be quite individual. But that would be my explanation of why he’s seen that way.
Over the years and the demise of the Bernard Brogan generation, Kilkenny gradually became the fulcrum of the Dublin attack. This brought its own challenges, not the least of which was the fact that opposition markers began targeting him for targeted treatment. He generally handled it very well, to the point where he didn’t.
The 2017 All-Ireland Final brought a sort of reckoning. Lee Keegan completely outdid him that day, knocking Dublin’s most important player out of the biggest game of the year. Although they went through one of the greatest finals of all time as champions, the scrutiny of this match was as thorough as any when it happened.
Over that winter, Kilkenny was forced to come to terms with the fact that a big part of the reason Keegan did a number on him was the fact that he hadn’t prepared properly. He hadn’t realized enough how Keegan had erased Diarmuid Connolly and Seán Cavanagh from big games before. Also, where was he for Keegan’s goal?
“From a footballer’s point of view, a lot has gone his way,” Sherlock says. “But he had some tough times on the pitch, where the guys paid a lot of attention to him. Looking back, he didn’t play as well as he would have liked and that posed challenges for him.
“It was a two-pronged thing. First, how do you deal with that moment, what do you do in those games to find a way to manage the attention. But it’s also the preparation. It’s to expect that challenge and be ready for that challenge and that was something Ciarán had to work on. Obviously, you would have to see the majority of his performances in a positive light. But there were definitely challenges and opportunities for growth. in terms of preparation.
“His only fault was that things had become too easy for him,” explains a former Dublin player. “Since he was a minor star, his talent was so great that he was able to do whatever he wanted, almost at will. But he didn’t have the right plan for Keegan. He didn’t have the does the job.
Broadly, Kilkenny’s Dublin career can be broken down into three parts – the pre-crossover years, the five consecutive years and the post-Jim Gavin era. In this third section, the requirements that Dublin addresses to it now take precedence over everything that preceded it. In a locker room without Stephen Cluxton, without Michael Darragh, without Philly Mac, they need him to be the kind of leader he never had to be before.
Specifically, he must do so without Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion, his comrades on those minor and Under-21 teams a decade and more ago. McCaffrey and Mannion’s footballing loss is clearly huge and has been noted by all. But for Kilkenny, the separation from his peer group within the team must not have been easy either. He, Brian Fenton, James McCarthy and Jonny Cooper are now dressing room generals – each of the other three finds it more natural.
Still, Kilkenny has probably been Dessie Farrell’s best player over the past two and a half seasons. He started all 27 games under Farrell and only managed to score in three of them. When Gavin left at the end of 2019, Kilkenny’s league and league scoring average stood at a very respectable 1.8 points per game. Under Farrell, he took that to over 2.5 per game.
For someone who doesn’t take frees and doesn’t always play as an inside striker, this is a phenomenal comeback. No wonder he’s the only Dublin player to win an All Star in the two seasons of Farrell’s reign. Considering Dublin’s poverty for long stretches of the last year, making the 2021 All-Star squad is no small feat. Leadership is a thing of many splendors.
“It’s been a really interesting season for him,” Sherlock says. “There is now an opportunity for him to show resilience and rise to the challenge that comes with defeat. So now it’s up to the top team leaders like Ciarán and like Brian Fenton to do something they’ve never had to do before.
“Like all locker rooms, they didn’t have that responsibility when they were young. They were able to focus on themselves. So now we have to answer this question. And in a way, I’m really looking forward to it. There is so much more room for growth. There is so much more improvement in him.
Where it stands: Ciarán Kilkenny’s Dublin career in numbers
5 – All stars: Only Stephen Cluxton has more (six). John O’Leary and Brian Fenton also have five.
6 – National Leagues: Common record for a Dub, alongside Jonny Cooper, James McCarthy, Mick Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon and Cormac Costello.
7 – All Ireland: Only Cluxton, McCarthy, McMahon, Fitzsimons and Michael Darragh Macauley have more (eight).
9 – Leinster Titles: Cluxton retired with 16, so he still has a bit of a way to go.
53 – League appearances: Co-16th on Dublin’s all-time list, alongside Dessie Farrell and Brian Mullins
110 – matches in total: Tied for 25th on Dublin’s all-time list with Johnny McDonnell, the O’Tooles keeper who played for 19 years between 1919 and 1938.
7-204 – total score: Places him 13th on Dublin’s all-time list, six points behind John Timmons.
5-115 – scored in the league: Places him sixth on the Dublin list. In front of him are Dean and Barney Rock, Jimmy Keaveney, Charlie Redmond and Bernard Brogan. All five were free-takers – although Brogan is also by far the Dub’s all-time leading scorer.
– Thanks to Dubs To The Four by Gerry Callan for the help