Inter-county managers like to have every last detail relating to their team planned and prepared as best they can. Kildare’s Cian O’Neill is a self-confessed ‘data geek’ and someone who prides himself on the small details, so you can be sure that he steps through every part of gameday in his head in the lead-up to a match.
It is hard to imagine heading into the recent Leinster quarter-final against Carlow that he envisaged his post-match interview including phrases such as ‘outworked’, ‘outfought’, ‘outplayed’, and, to cap it all, ‘catastrophic’ to describe his team’s performance.
His honesty in the aftermath deserves credit but the reality is he could not have dressed up the result and performance any other way.
It has been well documented that Kildare entered that game on the back of a losing streak that stretches back to July’s qualifier defeat to Armagh. The 12-game run of misery adds to the pressure of today’s qualifier in Owenbeg against Derry.
The first squad gathering in the aftermath of the Carlow performance will have a crucial bearing on how Kildare play today. For a squad stripped of any confidence, they now have two choices.
Was the message in the meeting one of acceptance that they have hit rock bottom and that they must feed off the embarrassment? And that this clash offers them the opportunity to prove their many detractors wrong or does everyone involved just want the year to end, move on, and then start the clearout process for the 2019 season?
Dealing with the fallout from the Carlow defeat probably represents the biggest challenge of O’Neill’s coaching career to date.
Could he pull together the players, and even his backroom team, to ensure a positive reaction in the qualifiers?
When you have a poor performance — or a run of such performances — sometimes you can overanalyse the issues. While you will have multiple areas that need to improve, it will not be possible to implement change across the board in a short timeframe.
You nearly need to get away from the detail and strip it back to the fundamentals of a team. In a nutshell, does every player understand his role and what is expected of them?
rom seeing Kildare this year you get the feeling they are still unsure about themselves tactically. When they have the ball and are attacking — are they a running team? Are they a kicking team? Flipping it around, what is their ideal defensive structure when they don’t have possession?
When you look through the Kildare teamsheet you can see there is quality but which players are showing it? The core group of Eoin Doyle, Kevin Feely, Paul Cribben, Paddy Brophy, and Daniel Flynn are enough to build a framework around but I wonder have any of those players improved on where they were two years ago?
Niall Kelly is another huge talent. When he burst on to the inter-county scene he looked set to be a creative centre-forward who could pull the strings and make an attack tick. In more recent times he is being selected in the full-forward line but, like many of his teammates, seems unsure what is expected of him. I can see merit in naming him as a corner forward to allow him a free role in the attack where he would look to drift into pockets that may be left by half forwards chasing back or showing for kickouts. But more and more it seems that games are passing him by.
Kildare hit 12 wides and missed a penalty against Carlow, the majority of the misses coming in the first half. Not only did every one of these missed opportunities erode another piece of their own confidence in the Kildare camp, you can be sure it energised their opponents.
This emphasises how critical Kildare’s shot selection will be today. They must not force efforts from distance or under pressure where the conversion percentage is low. They might have to show more patience at times to work the opening and it will be crucial that they work together to achieve that.
The inside line needs to give a mix of coming on the loop — Eanna O’Connor proved with Moorefield that he is excellent at this — or showing hard for the ball in front and then they will need their power runners like Cribben, Feely, or Brophy looking to take the ball at pace off the shoulder. The willingness to make those support runs and give that option will also keep the Derry defence honest and limit them from focusing solely on the ball carrier.
At the other end, discipline will be key. Paul Broderick — who is one of the best free-takers in the country — scored nine frees for Carlow so Kildare must ensure they reduce the number of scoreable frees significantly.
All aspects of their performance will be underpinned by what their effort levels are. You would have to expect a reaction but I suppose that will depend on whether rock bottom was two weeks ago or yet to come.
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