Basketball background a boon for Cian Kiely
By John Harrington
Cork defender Cian Kiely is making a name for himself as one of the most exciting young footballers in the country, but for a long time his priority was to excel in a different sport.
Basketball was his sporting passion for much of his teenage years, and he was good at it too, winning an All-Ireland U-14 basketball medal with his club and playing on Cork and Munster U-14 and U-15 squads.
It was only once he started making Cork development squads at underage level that he had his head turned by Gaelic Football, but his progress from then on as a footballer was rapid.
2014 was a landmark year. He won Munster and All-Ireland titles with Coláiste Choilm, played for the Cork minors, and played wing-back on the Ballincollig team that won their first ever Cork Senior Football Championship.
Since then he’s won a Munster U-21 Football title and established himself as a senior inter-county footballer, but, as much as Gaelic Football is now his sporting priority, he still believes his grounding in basketball has done him a lot of good.
“Basketball is definitely something that helped me,” said Kiely at the launch of Electric Ireland’s Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championships.
“Mainly for game-awareness. Peripheral vision and thinking two steps ahead is key in basketball and huge in football now as well.
“There are plenty of inter-county players who played basketball and I think what separates them from other footballers, aside from having good foot-work or high jumps, is their vision.
“They can see left and right while looking straight ahead and they know where someone is going to be and can put the ball into them. I think that's the biggest thing that can be learned from basketball.
“I think basketball hugely complements football and if I had my way every team in the country would play basketball for pre-season and let that complement football. Because for the fundamental movement skills alone in terms of jumping, your movement, your footwork, your vision, it's fantastic.”
Dublin’s dominance in recent years backs up Kiely’s view that basketball tactics and skills can transfer well to Gaelic Football.
Dublin coach Jason Sherlock has a strong basketball background and the manner in which Dublin defend and then transition into attack when they win possession bears more than a passing similarity to the court sport.
“Teams are now playing systems where you're attacking and defending together,” said Kiely.
“Football for so long was a game where you had your forwards there and we had our backs here and we defend and you attack.
“In basketball there are five players on the court who are attacking and defending, attacking and defending, up and down, up and down. It's all about transition.
“If that's the way football is going then I don't see why football couldn't learn things from basketball.
“What the Dublin footballers are doing is working at the moment and I think people underestimate the influence that outside sports can have on your chosen sport.
“I think it would be fantastic if GAA was maybe more accepting of other sports in terms of allowing them to influence our game.”
Kiely is very much suited to the modern game where half-backs, in particular, are expected to be as comfortable attacking as they are defending.
He loves nothing more than bombing into the opposition half, and admits in his teenage years he fancied himself more as a forward than a back until his Ballincollig club coach, Tom Dorgan, had a word in his ear.
“I was playing up an age group and they'd no one for wing-back and he chanced me there,” said Kiely.
“Tom ended up being Cork minor coach then a year later I think it was and I ended up making the panel.
“He was convinced I was wing-back. In my head I still wanted to be that slick corner-forward with bright boots taking the frees and stuff, and if you ever ask him he'll tell you I'm useless at free-taking which is probably true when I look back.
“But he put me back at wing-back and I'm grateful he did because it worked out better for me. I wasn't the most consistent shooting forward, I'll let you know that. If you ever look back on school games when we won the Munster and All-Ireland when I was in fifth year in Colaiste Choilm, I was wearing number 13 and playing corner-forward.
“Inside in the corner as a left-legged free-taker. Transitioning to the next year I went from number 13 to wing-back, completely different role but it did suit me better.”
Kiely was part of the Cork team that suffered a chastening 16-point defeat to Tyrone in the fourth round of last year’s All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers.
Having previously suffered an even heavier loss to Kerry in the Munster SFC Final, the 2018 Championship was a fairly miserable one from a Cork point of view.
Kiely is well-aware that while hurling is riding high in the county there’s a lot of negativity around Gaelic Football.
But he’s still convinced the current panel is moving in the right direction and has better days ahead of it.
“Negativity is part of the game really,” he said. “Any county, regardless of what county it is, if they lose there's going to be some emphasis on them losing or negativity around things. It's kind of part of the game, maybe not a part I agree with but it's not going to be eliminated either.
“I suppose it's been said a lot in the media that last year was a team in transition.
“You had a lot of young people coming in which was definitely needed. There were a lot of people getting to know each other, getting to know the new systems.
“It's a big transition from U20s up to senior. We definitely have the right manager, coaches, everything in place.
“They're doing fantastic work. There's a lot of training and hard sessions going in. It's something that comes with time, it'll build.
“Same with anything, as you gain momentum and keep working, I think it will definitely come around and hopefully we're going in the right direction.
“I think I've learned from last year in terms of what I can and what I need to bring to the table to be a better player, which is essential to progress.
“I think I've a better idea now of what's expected of me and because of that I can adapt that with how I play and my style and hopefully bringing the two of them together will allow me to push on.”