O’Neill’s new Lilywhites will ruffle a few feathers

I decided when I sat into my car for Tullamore on Saturday that I would go and watch Kildare with a clean slate. 

I played with St Mary’s, Leixlip for a few years and indeed Kildare for a year. They have suffered some agonising defeats in the past but a bit like Mayo, they brush themselves down year after year and keep coming back for more.

To make this more real for myself and to avoid getting sucked in the emotion that goes with any championship match, I positioned myself at the corner flag of the town goal. No supporters around me, just some tiny tots and their mothers playing with the gravel and kicking plastic footballs to their heart’s content. The only distraction? I had hundreds of ants running up and down the wall that I was leaning on.

Notebook out, game on.

The Kildare defence was positioned in front of me. How did they perform in the first half? Very, very impressive. Mark Donnellan is 6’ 4’’ (at least) and commanded his backline with a baton. He was extremely vocal but very specific in his instructions to his defence, in particular his full back Line. Kildare assigned David Hyland to man-mark the Meath captain Graham Reilly, Ollie Lyons picked up Bryan McMahon and Mick O’Grady shackled Donal Lenihan.

Each Kildare defender knew their role, were aggressive, yet very disciplined. They knew when to leave their opponent to help a team-mate. Mark Donnellan had no shot to save in the first half. His back six made sure of this with several crunching tackles on the Meath forwards, in particular some great hits from their spinal players, namely O’Grady and Eoin Doyle.

Doyle played an inspirational captain’s role from centre back. He was marking a speedster in Cillian O’Sullivan who was forced to start working the wings to pick up easy ball. Did Doyle follow? No. He was happy to let him get it and wait for him to come into the scoring zone. Then with great patience and discipline, Doyle and the Kildare defence pressed and pressurised him and frustrated the life out of him. Cillian O’Sullivan had one shot on goal in either half. Result? One dropped short and one wide.

The other impressive defending technique from Doyle was dropping back to help Mick O’Grady. Donal Lenihan is an exciting forward when given quality supply. He got lots of supply — though the quality of supply was questionable in the first half — but O’Grady got a hand in most of the time and Doyle was there to mop up the breaks. Keith Cribben and Johnny Byrne were all very solid in the wing back positions. Apart from James Toher’s point after 30 seconds, they kept their men scoreless and both wing forwards were replaced by half-time.

That just leaves one more defender to mention. David Hyland. He was immense. He kept the Meath captain scoreless and ultimately got him substituted. He was in his pocket all day and never let Reilly get into his stride. Whether Graham Reilly always delivers in the ‘big’ days remains an issue for some Meath fans. It’s irrelevant to me. David Hyland was splendid on Saturday and is the quiet unassuming leader on the field that every defender loves to play with.

What was very apparent on Saturday was the patience of the Kildare players. When they won the ball at the back, their first objective (thankfully) was to move the ball quickly to the attack.

However, when they did hit some good Meath tackling, they recycled the ball, but positively.

What do I mean by positive recycling? How often do you see teams hold the ball, go lateral, backwards, out to the sweet stall, back to the goalie, out to the corner back, back to the programme seller before finally making its way to the scoring zone? Thankfully Kildare didn’t deploy this style in Tullamore.

When they hit a wall, it was one backwards pass and then a positive powerful run was made by a Lilywhite. Who were the best line-breakers on Saturday? Ollie Lyons, Keith Cribben, David Slattery, and Fergal Conway were excellent. They were like March hares in the June summer sun, sprinting and poking holes through the Meath defence. They put the ball on a plate for a lethal Kildare full-forward line.

I’m guilty of lazy analysis — blame the ants — and I only recorded Kildare’s shots on goal. They had 21 shots on goal in the first half, scoring 1-10, hitting eight wides and dropping two short. Kildare’s inside trio of Brophy, McNally and Flynn hit 1-7 of this 1-10 and all from play. They are three very quick, powerful, and accurate forwards who played with confidence and swagger that you hope for in a full forward line. They are self-sufficient ball-winners and will test many a rearguard this summer. They make intelligent runs but more importantly, they make them all day. A lot of inside forwards will make several runs sporadically throughout a game. These lads made them for 75 minutes. It is really difficult to mark this type of forward play.

In the second half, Kildare only had 11 shots on goal, as Meath injected some tough tackling, no doubt with the words of the McEntee brothers ringing in their ears. Crucially for Kildare though, the return from their 11 shots was 1-6, three wides and only dropped one short. Meath will feel slighty aggrieved in the second half as they were harshly penalised for some good tough tackling. In particular, Shane McEntee hit a perfect shoulder on David Slattery in the opening minute after the break.

I was impressed with Kildare’s midfield of Kevin Feeley and Tommy Moolick. Both looked extremely fit and lean, used the ball effectively when they had it and worked very hard off the ball to shield the Kildare defence. Feeley won the gong for most marks, claiming four great fetches. Both Moolick and Meath’s Bryan Menton claimed two each. Kevin Feeley reminds me a lot of Anthony Tohill, especially with his free-taking abilities. He can kick with both feet and covers every inch of the park. His Athy clubmate, Niall Kelly, at number 11 was quiet by his own standards. This was due to tight marking by Mickey Burke and also Kildare’s decision to play quick ball to their inside line. However, he is still the playmaker of this forward unit.

I could plainly see the great coaching being provided by Cian O’Neill, Enda Murphy, and Roly Sweeney. Enda was one of the best netminders in the country during his playing days. His influence is clearly stamped in Mark Donnellan’s performance. Mark’s kick-outs were top-notch for the majority of the game. Roly Sweeney has picked up valuable experience on the road with Niall Carew in Waterford and Sligo.

Of course, he was the fulcrum of the Moorefield and Kildare attacks over the years and the current Lilywhite attackers are buzzing with confidence at the moment. Cian has gelled all this together. He has created a very hard-working team with a definite way of playing to their strengths. The Kildare squad appear very united and are enjoying their football. He cleared the squad out at the end of last year. He has learned from the previous two League final defeats to Clare and Galway. They are quietly confident of ruffling a few feathers this summer. And I think they will.


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