Wicklow win proves O'Dwyer is the master
Published 19/05/2008 | 05:00
When you have waited 124 years to achieve a landmark in sport it must rank as one of your greatest ever achievements and so it is for Wicklow footballers.
They had never won a championship game in Croke Park in all that time but this was the day when the wheel finally turned so the whole GAA world should rejoice -- with the exception of Kildare of course.
It is fitting that this historic occasion was masterminded by one of the most remarkable people ever to be involved in the GAA in the person of Mick O'Dwyer. After all the great days in Croke Park inspired by his native Kerry, Kildare and Laois, there is not much that can stir the emotions of the Waterville man, but when he jumped for joy at the final whistle yesterday, he jumped as high as a fit 72-year-old could reasonably expect.
And why not, because this is truly a remarkable achievement for O'Dwyer and I venture to say that of all the illustrious team managers we have in the GAA today, the only person who would have got Wicklow to this victory would have been O'Dwyer. After him, Alex Ferguson is only in the halfpenny place!
The foundation of Wicklow's success was laid at midfield where James Stafford and Thomas Walsh controlled the area from start to finish and while some people will claim that this was an inferior Kildare team, there can be no denying the quality of their midfielders Killian Brennan and Dermot Earley, so the Wicklow pairing were the key figures in this match. And it is just reward for former Carlow player Walsh, who was subjected to some very ignorant abuse from some GAA officials when he made his voluntary decision to switch to Wicklow last year.
Wicklow were also miles ahead as regards team preparation and tactical alertness all through this game, most particularly in their ability to direct low balls into their full-forward line Dean Odlum, Seanie Furlong and Paul Earls.
Many teams have started off with such a tactical approach but usually when the pressure comes on the outfield players forget the rules and start kicking in high balls. Wicklow's outfield players did not revert to type and right to the very end they were directing low balls to those eager inside players. That was the winning and losing of the game as over the years I have constantly observed wild kicking by Wicklow outfield players that undermined great forwards such as Kevin O'Brien in his own day.
This time it was all so different and Wicklow kept their composure and their discipline all through the game. They looked in trouble before half-time when losing a three-point advantage and with Kildare out first, one expected a Kieran McGeeney inspired rally by the Lilywhites after the break. But being a manager on the sideline is very different to being a player on the field and the former great Armagh man discovered that with a vengeance once the ball was thrown in for the second half.
Tony Hannon lofted over three frees and a '45' in the space of five minutes as Wicklow cut loose and in the opening 20 minutes of the second half Kildare only managed a single point. By that stage Wicklow had moved to 0-11 to 0-6 and we wondered if history would repeat itself by Wicklow losing their concentration and allowing more famous teams sneak in for a couple of goals to swipe the game from under their noses. It has happened so often in the past with Kildare, Laois, Meath and others that many a Wicklow fan must have been down on their knees.
Was it to be a case yet again of so near and yet so far? Not this time, as players like Dara O'Hannaidh at centre half-back and centre-forward Leighton Glynn saw to it that it was Wicklow who kept answering the questions right to the finish.
Kildare were totally unable to provide the answers. Two lousy points from play in the final 37 minutes just about sums up thier tribulations as Wicklow played with panache and even a touch of arrogance in the final minutes.
And who is to say that the much-maligned Tommy Murphy competition, which so many snooty counties turn their noses up at, did not play a key role in this result. It will be recalled that last August Wicklow featured in the Tommy Murphy Cup final with Antrim in a great game which Wicklow snatched with an extra-time goal.
This was Wicklow's second tight finish in Croke Park in a year and they showed they had mastered the art of staying cool and not repeating the mistakes of the past by blowing a good performance in the final stages.
Clearly this must rank as one the great disasters of Kildare football. It was obvious all year that a massive rebuilding task had to be undertaken by McGeeney when he set foot in Kildare last autumn and, from a couple of games I watched in the spring, there did not seem to be an abundance of new talent available to the Armagh man and his selectors.
Managers cannot work wonders when resources are limited and the weight of expectation, which always seems to put pressure on Kildare players, really hit home yesterday. Getting beaten in the championship by Wicklow is seen as the worst result of all for Kildare people.
Some of the play from many Kildare players was simply appalling, particularly the deplorable attempts at scoring, and it is hard to believe that a major football county like Kildare is not capable of getting 15 players on the field who are at least able to master the basics of Gaelic football at the level of the early rounds of the Leinster championship.
I was a bit suspicious when so few of the Kildare U-21 team which reached the recent All-Ireland final did not find places on the senior team for the Wicklow game and surely many more of them will be upgraded now for the All-Ireland qualifiers as Kieran McGeeney starts to pick up the pieces from this disastrous occasion for Kildare football.
But for Wicklow there are more immediate assignments to face up to and the startling observation that Wicklow will need to beat Laois in the next game and a Leinster semi-final after that before they can be sure of taking part in the qualifiers rather than the Tommy Murphy Cup.
This victory, on television and in Croke Park, is a massive boost for Wicklow football and for the whole ethos which has been generated by the arrival of Mick O'Dwyer. It is a huge lift for all the underage activity which is thriving in the county and was highlighted by the recent victory of Wicklow over Laois in the U-21 grade and the wiping out of Offaly in the minor championship.
Results like yesterday's are very rare in the GAA which is why Mick O'Dwyer is entitled to feel that 'he never lost it'.