Ciaran Kilkenny playing with a smile on his face
By John Harrington
Dublin attacker Ciaran Kilkenny is preparing for Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC Final against Mayo with a smile on his face.
The 24-year-old has achieved a lot in the game in a short period of time, but he’s acutely aware that playing for your county is a finite experience.
That’s why he’s determined to enjoy everything about this All-Ireland Final – both the build-up and the match itself – and to win as much as he can in a Dublin jersey in the coming years.
“You have a limited opportunity to represent your county, to play for Dublin,” said Kilkenny.
“Even your club, you have a limited time-span to represent your club and your county and I suppose it only feels like yesterday when I was starting my first game for Dublin against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final when they beat us, that was five years ago.
“I was only 18, 19 at the time, I am now 24, it feels like it just went like a click of the fingers.
“So, you just have to appreciate it, appreciate as much as you can and just be thankful for the people who got you there in the first place, people in the club, your mentors, your parents, just be so grateful to them.
“And just enjoy it as much as you can, embrace it all, embrace the preparation, the build-up to this game with a smile because in a couple of years’ time, I won’t be able to play any football anymore, I will be too old.”
It briefly looked like Kilkenny might never experience what it would be like to win an All-Ireland senior title with Dublin when he decided to join AFL side Hawthorn in late 2012.
Then 19, Kilkenny had already broken into the Dublin senior team, making his first start in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo when he scored three points from play.
But after just a few short months in Australia he decided to return home because he realised that the chance of winning All-Ireland football titles meant more to him than a career in professional sport.
He’s since collected three Celtic Crosses, so his decision to return home has been thoroughly vindicated.
"I was happy with the decision I made at the time because I knew the friends I had involved with the team, knew there was a special team there, a great culture and, obviously, the club was in the back of my mind as well,” said Kilkenny.
"I was very happy with the decision I made. Luckily enough, we've performed decent over the past couple of years so I'm happy with that.”
Kilkenny has played a huge part in Dublin’s success in that time and is now arguably the most important player in their free-scoring attack.
He’s the main who makes them tick thanks to his ability to get on the ball and use it wisely.
In the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone he had over 60 possessions and his patient use of possession was key to Dublin eventually puling the Tyrone blanket defence apart.
“Just, you are just so in that bubble, it is the heat of the battle, you are in Croke Park, the adrenalin is going, the energy is going,” said Kilkenny.
“I love that feeling of going out there and giving it your all and going play by play. Any given time that I was on the ball, I just had to make the right decision for the team, get the man in the better position so he can make the right decision after that.
“When you are playing against a defensive team as well, their whole attacking impetus is counter-attacking as well, so it is important that you make the right decision and are very patient on the ball.
“That buzz and adrenalin, of working really hard and being in the heat of battle, you can’t beat that, the adrenalin buzz and that is why you play, to experience that moment.
“We have discussed it as players. When you are in the heat of that battle, you can see lads, their veins are pumping, the energy is pumping out of them and their heart is racing and that is where you are challenged.
“Because they are the really, really important moments and that is all you can prepare for is that."
His experience of losing to Mayo on his full debut in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final as well as the many close matches they’ve had in recent years means Kilkenny is all too aware of the threat the Connacht side will pose to Dublin’s bid for a third All-Ireland in a row on Sunday.
“I suppose ourselves and Mayo, there has only been a hop of the ball between us the last few years. 2015, 2016, there actually wasn’t, we drew both games and the next day, there was a hop of the ball between the two teams.
“We know the challenge that is ahead of us, they are a great team, very physical team, great tackling team. They have so many different styles of playing, great runners coming from deep, they have great mental resilience, they have played nine games coming into this game.
“We know it is a massive challenge and there won’t be much between both teams. All we can do is prepare as best that we can and embrace it and look forward to it. And really looking forward to it.”