When Kerry beat Kildare by 27 points in an All-Ireland quarter-final just under two years ago, outgoing manager, Jason Ryan was adamant that Kildare were “not as poor as the performance today”,
What was missing, Ryan maintained, was “about consistency and understanding what’s required to be very, very competitive”.
Ryan also said “there’s ability in this group. It’s about working hard these days, when the going is tough.”
After a difficult first year in charge, Ryan’s successor, Cian O’Neill, one of Kildare’s proudest sons, has his team working hard, understanding what it takes to be very competitive and with two points being their biggest margin of defeat in all games since February, they have an element of consistency and depth about their game once more.
A return to Division 1
football next year, a first Leinster final appearance in eight years and clear attacking strategy, which wasn’t apparent last year, gives a sense of a Kildare team
becoming the ocean every day they tog out in 2017.
Tomorrow could be the first day in a long time looking at the Dubs in a Leinster football final in Croke Park that we won’t have to watch the game through our fingers.
There was plenty to admire in Kildare’s casual dismantling of Meath a few weeks back. Almost all of the individual duels around the pitch were won by Kildare men. David Hyland and Mick O’Grady completely blotted out their opponents. Eoin Doyle, as the defensive leader, gave them the scope to be aggressive in the tackle, as he held the middle, didn’t get sucked out by Cillian O’Sullivan and showed great presence of mind to pick up breaking ball from Hyland and O’Grady every time the ball went behind him.
Anytime the movement slowed down coming out of defence (and Dublin will surely target Kildare high up the field tomorrow), Kildare had a well-timed runner, more often than not Ollie Lyons coming at pace — just as Keith Higgins does for Mayo — to give the whole thing momentum again.
Up front, Kildare are structured so that their two most dynamic forwards, Cathal McNally and Paddy Brophy try and stay closest to the goal.
Daniel Flynn and Niall Kelly offer movement and craft outside them and Fergal Conway and David Slattery give defensive muscle, width and workrate outside them again in a 2-2-2 formation.
McNally’s case is interesting, in that he’s probably not the type of inside forward that should trouble the Dublin full-back line. He doesn’t have exceptional strength, guile or speed, but he brings bucketloads of energy and he also brings form.
He had his entire total of 1-3scored before the 18th minute against Meath and, yet, just before he was substituted on the hour, he chased down a counter-attack all the way inside his own 50 yard line and got a hand in to disrupt the movement.
Most forwards playing Dublin in Leinster stop doing these things around the hour mark, but no Kildare forward seems to consider those basic elements beneath them this year.
The reality of tomorrow’s challenge is that using the last game against Meath as a reference point is practically futile. Meath offered so little in terms of genuine resistance all around the field that Kildare could possibly be walking blindly into another maelstrom against the Dubs.
The crudity of the balls that Meath were threading into an isolated Donal Lenihan in the full forward line last month will be in stark contrast to those being put on a plate for Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan and company tomorrow.
At the other end of the field, David Slattery can hardly expect to draw three Dublin defenders, as he did in setting up the tap-in goal for Daniel Flynn the last day.
Dublin are simply too clever for that and, while Meath had numbers in the middle third that should have prevented more Kildare scores, Dublin’s players won’t be making as many lazy decisions out there and will come with a lot more aggression in the tackle.
Even a simple contrast between the clichéd Stephen Cluxton kick-out and Meath’s Paddy O’Rourke’s restarts the last day tells us all we need to know about the inescapable reality of the challenge facing the Lilywhites.
We all know how quickly Cluxton likes to get the ball away after a wide or a score and anybody who follows the game is familiar with his routine at this stage. Familiarity, however, is only half the battle, the rest is
timing. There was a period just around the first quarter last month when Meath had three kickouts in a row. For the first, Paddy O’Rourke had to retrieve a ball from the terrace behind the netting.
The following kickout took 26 seconds and was won easily by Kevin Feely. The next took 19 seconds and Kildare again secured it.
The third was delayed again by O’Rourke searching for a ball behind the goal and, though it took 20 seconds, Padraic Harnan eventually managed to scramble to win the breaking ball. Kildare will be doing well tomorrow to delay Cluxton’s kick to such an extent that he has to put it up for grabs, as O’Rourke did.
Even if they do, Cluxton is so familiar with the geography of Croke Park at this stage that it is unlikely to unsettle him.
Getting back into Croke Park will be huge for Kildare tomorrow.
Galway beat them there last April. Westmeath beat them last year and Dublin have handed some of the 2017 panel a few bad hidings at headquarters over the years.
Croke Park hasn’t had that warm feeling for Kildare for quite some time. For that to change, Kildare are going to have to play without fear.
I know Westmeath were lambasted for being naive and impractical as opposed to setting up defensively and giving themselves some chance of keeping the score down, but Kildare’s approach in the Leinster final will tell us a lot about them going into the next phase of the championship. At least another win is not beyond them — but perhaps not tomorrow.
Before any team can win a football game against this Dublin outfit, they must firstly learn how to not lose.
Kerry, with O’Neill on board, have learned the hard way in recent years that you simply can’t beat the Dubs without being on the front foot.
It might go against their better judgement and against their nature, but I believe O’Neill and his Kildare lieutenants, Ronan Sweeney and Enda Murphy, will aim to keep this as tight as possible for as long as possible.
Murphy will have goalkeeper Mark Donnellan coached to go long with his kickouts, as he knows that the new mark rule suits Feely and Tommy Moolick as much as any midfield pairing left in the championship.
Brian Fenton and James McCarthy will, of course, be having none of this and should break hard as they’ve been doing up to now, but, provided Kildare (and this is where Slattery and Conway, particularly, come in) track runs, clog up space and take responsibility for men breaking at pace, they could stay in the game longer than most.
Staying in the game longer than most could come at the expense of who or what
Kildare want to become under O’Neill. Ultimately, it matters little what Kildare do tomorrow, because a Dublin win is going to happen anyway.
What’s important is what happens after that. There are nine players on the Kildare panel who were 21 this year or last year. Players such as Ben McCormack, Paul Cribbin and Neill Flynn have returned from injury recently, Paddy Brophy from Australia.
Others, such as Mark Dempsey — full-back on last year’s county minor team beaten by Kerry — have joined the training panel, as has their best forward in the grade for the past two years, Jimmy Hyland.
The bookies and all outside the short grass county believe the script has already been written for tomorrow’s Leinster final. Whether it has or not is irrelevant.
Kildare are back in the game and hopping off the big boys.
And that’s just the start of their story.
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