Shane Connolly was one of the better goalkeepers in the last few championship seasons, but when Kildare got cleaned out in their league clash with Dublin at Croke Park in March, his time was up. It mattered little Kildare’s outfield players never really contested any of his kickouts in the second half, Connolly has paid a high price for not being able to vary his game to stem the Dublin dominance around the middle.
Six days later against Mayo, Kildare had U21 goalkeeper Mark Donnellan as number one choice and while Connolly retains the respect of management, Donnellan kickouts are more varied and more accurate. League lessons have been informing championship selections.
At the time Kieran McGeeney explained: “Shane’s a great keeper. He wasn’t doing anything wrong goalkeeping wise, he is great under the high ball, great shot stopper, he’s just maybe lost a bit of confidence on his kick outs. ”
There are, of course, more than just the man kicking involved in a kick out and Kildare have been working very hard in recent challenge games and training sessions at securing possession from their own kick-outs.
It is an aspect of their game they can’t afford to get wrong tomorrow. The two Flynns, Darryl and Daniel offer a presence under a dropping ball but of the six players on either side of them, only Paul Cribbin offers a genuine outlet for one of Donnellan’s kickouts.
What then can we expect of Kildare tomorrow? We will probably get an awful lot of short jabbed kickouts from them with players having to carry the ball through the tackles in order to get it into the hands of someone who can score. Having Tomás O’Connor inside does offer some scope for direct instant ball but Kildare’s best chance of winning will be in a low scoring game where free-takers are called on more often than usual.
This might seem strange in the case of a team who scored more goals than any other in Division 1 this year but, realistically, Kildare need to make a scrap of it as Dublin are unlikely to deviate from their expansive game at this stage. Thus Kildare are going to have to create the conditions to ensure Dublin are taken out of their comfort zone for the first time this year, but, more importantly, they are going to have to find a way of masking what is now an inescapable reality — their shocking returns in front of goal.
Whether they like it or not, it is almost axiomatic at this stage that Kildare will struggle to convert possession into scores. A cursory glance at their stats from the league campaign offers grim reading. They scored 10 times from 25 chances against Kerry, 10 times from 36 chances against Tyrone, 13 from 37 against Down and 13 from 33 in that semi-final against Tyrone.
Much like the Clare hurlers, Kildare’s enthusiasm and fitness will generate huge amounts of possession but, sooner or later, the good teams will sense that lack of ruthlessness in them and pick them off with ease.
The concerns that Kildare followers have after their championship opener against Offaly a few weeks back are all readily addressable. Mick Foley is unlikely to concede as much as he did to Niall McNamee and besides, Paddy Andrews, despite a good league and a decent showing against Westmeath, has yet to find his feet in an intensive championship match.
The 1-2 conceded late against Offaly will have served Kildare well in the build up in the sense that it offers them a glimpse of how ordinary they are without an extraordinary level of intensity. And whatever giddiness and inexperience the likes of Daniel Flynn, Paul Cribbin, Niall Kelly and Paddy Brophy bring to the show, they have counterparts on the Dublin side in Jonny Cooper, Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion.
The one great advantage that Dublin have had since Jim Gavin took over is their ability to sustain the high tempo they like playing because all of the subs they introduce from 50 minutes onward tend to be the gazelle or greyhound types.
So if you’re an opposition half forward who has given an hour chasing James McCarthy or Jack McCaffrey, how do you fancy more of the same in Nicky Devereaux? Or how about being a corner back and seeing Cormac Costelloe trot towards you after an hour with Bernard Brogan? Or maybe Kevin McManamon for Paul Mannion- a different type of challenge but is it any less daunting because of that? Or Kevin O Brien for Darren Daly? It was noteworthy that neither man of the match in the 2011 final, Kevin Nolan, nor captain that day, Bryan Cullen, were introduced as subs at the start of the month against Westmeath. It must be reassuring nonetheless for Dublin to know that the calibre of player they have on the sideline is superior to almost all others out there.
And yet, because he gave almost an entire career as an underdog and because he has managed to introduce many of the qualities that characterised his own game, Kieran McGeeney will relish this latest battle with Dublin more than most. A win against the most flamboyant team left in championship football would be the most eloquent rebuttal of all to those within the county and without who still question his tactical ability.
Jason Ryan, a man with a history of getting under Dublin’s skin with lesser teams, will offer something in this regard too. And that’s what makes Kildare different and dangerous this time.
Kildare will need to score almost every chance they create, stop every Dublin attack at source, hope referee Joe McQuillan doesn’t notice and get all of the luck that has eluded them in recent years to get to grips with Dublin coming down the stretch. Even at that, it’s hard to see anything but a Dublin win.