Colm O'Rourke: Possession can be nine-tenths of the law for McGeeney's men
Kildare's ability to secure ball in the vital areas can see them past an improving Down team this afternoon, writes Colm O'Rourke
L ast week was dominated by those dreaded cruciate ligament injuries. Henry Shefflin has one, so too Dermot Earley and Ambrose Rogers.
The interest in these injuries is nearly as big as the games themselves. Prince Henry shows up at training on Wednesday night and a reputed 8,000 arrived to see how his old war wound held up. Maybe he could start a travelling show, he would be far more popular than the circus.
What it does show is the enormous respect, and indeed affection, he commands in his home place and there is no bigger compliment than being a hero among your own. Ambrose Rogers is a bit young yet to carry such a reputation, but he is a really good player and a substantial loss to Down today if he is not able to play a part.
The only rival to Shefflin is Dermot Earley, a proper footballer and a proper man. He has had to carry a big weight this year in every way but he has never shirked it, never played to the gallery and has never been anything but honest in his approach. If he is absent, he is a huge loss to Kildare, but the respect that is shown to him will drive every other Kildare player to give more than they might even think they have in them. Such figures who inspire themselves and others to great deeds are hard to come by.
For that reason, no expense is being spared to have all three fit for action. There was a time when an injured player might get some sort of relic to rub on the affected area, or a drop of holy water from Knock or Lourdes; now they head for Ger Hartmann and if he can't work a miracle, then they must grin and bear it. If Dermot Earley is able to make an appearance today, then the roar will surely disrupt the racing in The Curragh. But there is a balance between inspiration and desperation, and that call will have to be made by Kieran McGeeney.
There is a view of today's game which suggests Down will be hot out of the traps and will need to get a good bit in front before Kildare start reeling them in. Maybe it will play out like that but Kildare will be very intent on improving their first-quarter performance and would much prefer to be in front at half-time rather than the position they found themselves in quite often this year.
There is always a danger too that because of the way earlier games have gone, Kildare players will see no lead too big to overhaul and get lulled into a false sense of security insofar as they might think that no matter what goes wrong early on, they will always put it right. That is usually the day you lose.
In 1991, Meath had got to the All- Ireland final after overcoming big deficits in many of the games, including the semi-final against Roscommon. I think both players and supporters had a subconscious feeling that no matter what happened in games, the fifth cavalry would always arrive in the nick of time. In the final, it did not work out like that. Down went 11 points up and you don't come back from that, even if we had it down to two at the end. The point here is that Kildare must start better this time or they may not come back. The clock can become your greatest enemy.
The traditional view of Down is that they become better players in Croke Park. It did not seem like that in the league final against Armagh back in April, but there is no doubt they have improved a lot since that defeat and since losing to Tyrone, when they were destroyed in the second half. It may be very dangerous to put too much emphasis on the win over Kerry in the quarter-final. Of course it was a great achievement, but it was a Kerry team riven by absences and unfocused on the threat at hand until it was too late. The early Down blitz was similar to what they did to Tyrone, but this time they had the composure to hold on, bolstered by good substitutes Peter Fitzpatrick, Conor Maginn and Ronan Murtagh.
A feature of both managers is the way they have used their bench shrewdly. Indeed, James McCartan and Kieran McGeeney represent a new wave of young managers who are comfortable and confident in the way they run their teams -- and they make the right decisions most of the time.
If Down have good subs then Kildare have more than light infantry. Mick Foley, Ronan Sweeney and Hugh Lynch would be first choices on most county sides. It is obvious Kildare really believe in the 20-man game and it doesn't really matter that much who starts. Down are maybe slightly more rigid in their formation but again an off-form player does not survive.
The matchwinners for Kildare are John Doyle, James Kavanagh and Alan Smith. On the Down side, the three best are probably Daniel Hughes, Benny Coulter and, most of all, Martin Clarke. Down put a huge amount of ball through Clarke, which can also be a very big disadvantage. A lot of it then goes in the direction of his brother John, who is full-forward, and Kildare probably won't worry too much if Marty Clarke is getting ball out the field.
The defensive system of both sides will ensure the forwards are always outnumbered by at least one; if the ball coming in is slow, then both sides will funnel back about 12 men. Breaking out of defence then puts a huge premium on fitness and there is unlikely to be an advantage to either side here. Kildare have shown that they are able to keep up a relentless pace from start to finish. Against Tyrone, Down completely wilted in the second half but blaming it on fitness would probably be quite wrong. My own opinion was that Tyrone were very nearly as good as ever this year and would put most teams to the sword.
Even with a sweeper on both sides, this is still likely to be a good open game. Neither side is around long enough to avoid making plenty of mistakes. Down need goals and Benny Coulter will be hunting for one even if it has not been a great season for him.
Kildare have a major advantage in that they dominate possession around the middle third in nearly every game; a big problem has been the amount of handpassing which has meant painfully slow build-ups at times. It might serve their interests better to keep Johnny Doyle closer to goals and kick in a few high balls. They can still cause a bit of consternation, especially as Kildare forwards are good in the air.
I expect this to be a very entertaining game. Down served notice of intent when they demolished Sligo and then crushed Kerry. There can be some holes picked in that form, but at the very least it shows a team rapidly improving. Kildare seem to have developed a mental balance in that they play the same way whether in front or behind. The few weeks' break must be a big benefit too after playing six weeks in a row.
In the belief that Kildare are going to win a lot more ball than Down in the vital areas of the pitch, I expect a red and white final. Kildare to win.