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At just the tender age of 26, Ciaran Kilkenny must be struggling to find space for all the medals he has won in his career to date.
Five All-Ireland senior football championships, five Leinster senior football championships, four national football league titles, an All-Ireland U21 football championship, a Leinster U21 football championship, a Leinster minor football championship, a Leinster minor hurling championship and three All-Stars (2015, 2016 and 2018).
The Castleknock man scored a goal in his side’s big win over Cork on Saturday as he excelled in a playmaking role and it would be no surprise to see him bag more honours come September as Jim Gavin’s men look hell-bent on achieving a historic five-in-a-row.
But Kilkenny’s path to the pinnacle of the sport hasn’t been straightforward. There were setbacks, battles and challenges along the way and the manner in which the former dual-star overcame those sets a shining example to any young player who has dreams of making it to the very top.
In 2011, Kilkenny won both the Leinster football and hurling minor championships with Dublin but he suffered heartbreak at the All Ireland final stage as he was on the losing side in both finals as his county succumbed to losses to Tipperary in football and Galway in hurling.
Such a major disappointment would damage the confidence of most players but Kilkenny recalls what his teammate Jack McCaffrey said after their minor football loss.
“I always remember after the football final seeing Jack (McCaffrey) in the dressing-rooms saying ‘We’re really hurting now but let this drive us on to be back here again and hopefully be contesting for titles’,” Kilkenny told RTE.
The 26-year-old clearly took that advice on board as in 2012 he won an U21 All-Ireland with Dublin before making his senior debut under Pat Gilroy later that summer which included a start against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final where he kicked three points.
With a strong underage career in both hurling and football behind him, Kilkenny strived to broaden his horizons and take on new challenges and that came with the announcement that he signed a deal with AFL side Hawthorn.
Although he only spent a few months in Melbourne, the then 19-year-old’s decision to move to the other side of the world away from friends and family must be commended. Ultimately, it was the lure of home and Dublin GAA which brought him back to Ireland but his decision to take risks and get out of his comfort zone is something which should be encouraged in all young players.
Back in Ireland, Kilkenny’s success continued as he played a prominent role in Dublin’s senior All-Ireland triumph in 2013 but disaster struck on a cold March night the following year when he ruptured his ACL in a league clash with Kildare at Croke Park.
In what was believed to be an innocuous injury at the time, Kilkenny received the worst news after meeting a surgeon at the Santry Sports Clinic.
“It was a shock and because I wasn’t prepared, I kind of had been very positive before I got the news,” Kilkenny told GAA.ie.
“I had been fairly certain that it wasn’t a cruciate so when I found out that it was, I was kind of in auto-pilot for two or three minutes as he told me, as I processed the whole fact that I would not be playing at all for the year.”
Up until that point in his career, Kilkenny was pretty busy when it came to his GAA commitments. He played across both codes and across multiple age-grades simultaneously. So when he realised he would be out of action for up to a year, he soon saw it as an opportunity to develop himself further with the added time he would have at his disposable.
He broadened his horizons by volunteering in Zambia while he also spent time focussing on improving other aspects of his physique in addition to generating a renewed understanding of the game through coaching teams in his college, St Pat’s Drumcondra.
A year on, Kilkenny made his return in another league game but the hard work that he put in during that difficult time on the sidelines increased his ability as a player. He went on that summer to help Dublin to another All-Ireland title in addition to securing himself a first-ever All-Star award.
As they say, the rest is history, Kilkenny went on to clinch three further All-Ireland titles and a further two All-Star awards but there is no doubt that the challenges which the 26-year-old faced in his younger years made him the player that he is today and is a shining example to any player who is looking to make it to the very top.
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