Kildare half measures reap reward
REWIND back to the defining moment of Kieran McGeeney's career.
It's half-time in the 2002 All-Ireland final and Armagh are four points down. Ominously, Kerry have their tails up at Croke Park and Joe Kernan is hopping the runners-up medal he won in 1977 off the dressing-room wall, asking his side whether they were happy to be remembered as nearly men or if they wanted to step into history.
What happened next was astounding. Kerry, after kicking 0-11 in the first 35 minutes, were held to just three points in the second half, while Armagh found 1-5 of their own.
It proved that the 'championship minutes' -- the period when the game is truly down for decision -- is the real acid test of a team. Had Kerry rattled off a few points in the restart of that game, Armagh would still be waiting for their first All-Ireland title. Instead, their time had come and they were ready for it.
Last year, McGeeney's Kildare weren't ready. In both of their marquee matches in 2009, they turned a half-time winning position into a losing one. In the Leinster final defeat to Dublin, they were a point to the good at the break only to see that lead turn into a three-point loss and in the All-Ireland quarter-final clash with Tyrone a few weeks later, they repeated the trick.
The Lilywhites were leading the then reigning champions by 1-7 to 0-6 at the change of ends. By the time the clock turned on 50 minutes, they had been blitzed by six quick points which handed Mickey Harte's side the lead and, eventually, the game.
Crucially, every time they have lost they have learned and the experience of three straight All-Ireland quarter-final appearances has stood to them. Their Leinster championship defeat to Louth earlier this summer echoed their shock Croke Park defeat at the hands of Wicklow in 2008 and McGeeney was once again able to guide them through choppy waters.
This time around, Kildare have made the third quarter of games, and by extension the second half, their own. In the tricky replay assignment away to Antrim, with confidence still fragile, they landed six points in the 15 minutes after the restart to effectively wrap up the tie. Derry were given similar treatment: after going in just a point down at the break, they ended up losing by 11 points.
Next, a late goal from Monaghan meant the scoreboard showed a four-point success for the Lilywhites when, in reality, the margin was much more comfortable than that.
Leinster champions Meath suffered an eight-point swing from half-time to full-time. The second-half blitzkrieg has suddenly become Kildare's speciality.
Conversely, Kildare's opening quarters in the games against Derry, Monaghan and Meath have been less than inspired. In their last outing against the Royals, they were six points down and had yet to get off the mark after 15 minutes.
They also failed to score against Leitrim for 20 minutes and it's a trait that worries Monaghan selector Paul Grimley, who was part of the Kildare back-room team for 2008 and 2009.
"If you want to kick on, you'll really have to turn that 35-minute (performance) into 70 minutes. Their performance against Derry in the second half was majestic and their second-half performance (against Monaghan) was similar to that. Their movement off the ball and what Kieran has instilled in them over the last three years is starting to come to fruition."
Meath captain Nigel Crawford has watched Kildare develop under McGeeney and he sees a side comfortable operating at this altitude.
"It's not as if they have just arrived now after beating us. This is the result of a few years' work, of getting to quarter-finals and knowing what it takes," he said. "Against us, they pounced on any mistake we made. Any time we lost possession they moved it very quickly and had it over the bar. That's hard to play against."
The Royals looked to be cruising when Cian Ward's goal from a penalty put them 1-3 to no score ahead but Kildare recovered to go in just a point down at the break.
"We got a bit of a run on them at the start of the first half and got in front. But in fairness to Kildare, they hung in there when things weren't going for them. That wouldn't always have been a strength of theirs in the past.
"And then they hit a purple patch after half-time and took some nice scores and punished us. They were clinical."
Crawford can see no obvious weakness in the Kildare side and believes Down will have plenty to ponder, as the Lilywhites have a number of players who can pick off scores from distance.
"We looked at Kildare before we played them and it's very hard to point out any weaknesses but you can see the areas in which they have improved. One thing we noticed from the Monaghan game was their ability to kick long-range points. John Doyle, James Kavanagh and Eamonn Callaghan can all score from far out," he said.
"So they've been building gradually towards this and improving all the time. They're getting more accustomed to the big stage, that's the most important thing for them. They're in good shape."