Lilywhites give Ryan cause for optimism
Kildare 1-10 Meath 0-9
BORD NA MONA O'BYRNE CUP FINAL: With Dublin away from the public gaze for the last two weeks, their strongest Leinster rivals enjoyed valuable pre-League tuning, culminating in a lively showdown in Newbridge.
It ended with Kildare winning their fifth game in three weeks and taking their first silverware of a season which will be closely scrutinised for signs of a fresh dynamic under new manager Jason Ryan.
He watched yesterday's game from the stands, taking in a performance which unloaded lots of endeavour, a solid supply of enterprise and an impressive sense of calm when the pressure was at its most intense.
However, it did not yield as many scores as it should have, leaving Ryan with plenty to work on. Kildare averaged 3-19 per game in their previous four outings but their attack found it much more difficult to make progress this time against a gritty Meath defence. Meath's strike rate (it averaged 3-15 per game in recent weeks) dropped sharply too but then they were up against a Division 1 defence who did well in closing approach channels.
Meath manager Mick O'Dowd said: "We still had a few goal chances – there were days when we took them but not today. We're disappointed with that but overall we'd be pleased with how we've done. It (O'Byrne Cup) has been great preparation for the League. 1-10 is not a bad scoreline to be conceding against a team like Kildare."
If he felt there were plenty positives to take out of January, Ryan could count even more.
He needs them all because whereas Meath will be testing themselves in the less intense surrounds of Division 2, Kildare are in with the big boys in Division 1, starting at home to Mayo next Sunday.
Kildare are certainly high on energy, enabling them to rotate around the ball-carrier in busy clusters and sharing possession as they attempt to move forward.
That's straight from the county's handpassing manual but once again it wasn't as productive as Kildare supporters in the crowd of 2,792 would have liked.
Ryan promises that they will vary their game depending on the specific circumstances they encounter.
"We had no emphasis on handpassing today but we were up against a very well-organised Meath defence. We try to handpass the ball when that's the best option and kick the ball when that's the best option," he said.
A slick mixture of both applied to Kildare's goal, thumped to the net by midfielder Thomas Moolick in the fifth minute after quick exchanges from three of his colleagues played him in. Padraig Fogarty added a point four minutes later but Meath outscored Kildare by 0-6 to 0-2 from there to the 33rd minute.
Kildare had a close call in stoppage time when Mick Foley cleared off the goal-line before they broke downfield and drew a free which Darroch Mulhall pointed to give them a one-point lead (1-4 to 0-6) at the interval.
They won the second half by 0-6 to 0-3, resisting Meath's recovery efforts reasonably comfortably.
Mulhall, Padraig Fogarty, Paddy Brophy (despite carrying an injury) and Paul Cribbin all did well in the Kildare attack, while Sean Hurley, Thomas Moolick, Emmet Bolton, sub Ollie Lyons and Mick Foley were consistently solid in other areas.
"Our tackle count was up on last week but so too was the amount of ball we turned over. That gives us something to work on.
"You don't expect things to be perfect in January and you probably don't train for things to be perfect," said Ryan.
O'Dowd concurred, describing January as a month for experimenting.
"That's good in terms of giving lots of players a chance but it's hard to get a flow going from week to week," he said.
O'Dowd underlined his experimental mood by replacing three forwards 10 minutes into the second half. However, it didn't have the desired effect as Meath's only second-half scores came from the boot of Mickey Newman off two frees and a '45'.
Shane O'Rourke entered the action for the final quarter but with the Kildare defence growing in confidence and conviction, openings were very difficult to locate in front of goalkeeper Mark Donnellan.
Kildare have quite a few players in the repair bay at present, while Johnny Doyle's future remains uncertain. Ryan, who reckoned that Doyle was "at home babysitting" yesterday, would love to have him back.
"He just needs a little bit of time (to decide about the future). I suppose he will make his own decision in his own time. Who am I to tell Johnny Doyle what to do or what not to do?
"I've said it before and I'll say it again – he's a legend in Gaelic football. If he's available to play, we'll be delighted to see him. The door is open," said Ryan.
There's no doubt that Kildare could use his experience in an attack which needs to develop more composure. It won't be easily achieved against hard-nosed Division 1 defences but at least Kildare are heading into the League in a positive frame of mind.
"The big thing for us is that we're going into the Mayo game off a win, rather than losing today and having to dig ourselves out of a hole," said Ryan.
Meath will also have western opposition in their opening Division 2 game when Galway visit Navan next Sunday.
O'Dowd is happy that work over the last few weeks has given his squad the best possible preparation for the demanding promotion attempt.
"We played 30 players in the O'Byrne Cup and two others played with the colleges. That's 32 players who got good experience, and plenty of games so it's all systems go now for the League," he said.
And so Kildare and Meath head their separate ways for now but are no doubt conscious that if they win their Leinster quarter-finals games, they will clash in the semi-final on June 29.
Meanwhile, it's all about trying to make progress and send out a clear signal that they are good enough to make Dublin's 1/5 odds to win the Leinster title look ridiculously short.
Scorers – Kildare: D Mulhall 0-4 (2fs), T Moolick 1-0, P Cribbin 0-2, P Brophy, S Hurley, P Fogarty, C McNally 0-1 each. Meath: M Newman 0-4 (3fs, 1'45'), S Bray, E Wallace 0-2 each, D Larkin 0-1.
Kildare – M Donnellan; H McGrillen, M Foley, M O'Grady; K Murnaghan, E Bolton, P Cribbin; T Moolick, G White; S Hurley, E O'Flaherty, C McNally; P Brophy, D Mulhall, P Fogarty. Subs: O Lyons for McGrillen (50), J Gately for McNally (57), F Dowling for Mulhall (68), F Conway for O'Flaherty (71).
Meath – C McHugh; D Keogan, M Burke, C Young; P Gilsenan, E Harrington, D Dalton; C Gillespie, A Tormey; P McKeever, D McDonagh, D Larkin; E Wallace, S Bray, M Newman.
Subs: K Reilly for Gillespie (20), G Reilly for McKeever (45), D Carroll for McDonagh (45), D Bray for Wallace (45), S O'Rourke for Young (52), K O'Sullivan for Tormey (60, bc).
REF – F Kelly (Longford)