Tuesday 30 May 2017

Lilywhites' wide boys refuse to lose sight of their ultimate target

Kieran McGeeney is moulding a team to be reckoned with, writes Marie Crowe

Ten years have passed since Pat Spillane said that no one kicks more wides than Kildare. Since then they have failed to win anything significant and the same criticism is still being levelled at them.

Managers have been and gone -- Mick O'Dwyer, Pádraig Nolan, John Crofton and now Kieran McGeeney, but the nucleus of the team hasn't changed that much of late. James Kavanagh, Ronan Sweeney, Andrew McLoughlin, Mick Foley and of course Johnny Doyle still make up the core of the team and that doesn't look set to change any time soon.

Karl O'Dwyer was there in 1998 when it all began for Kildare, his father Mick was in charge and Kildare hadn't won a Leinster title in 32 years despite having a good group of players and a solid set-up.

Brian Lacey and Tadhg Fennin were involved around that time too and while back then a Leinster title was equated with success, that's changed now and nothing less than an All-Ireland title will satisfy the county.

"McGeeney didn't come down to Kildare to win a Leinster title, he came to win an All-Ireland," says Karl O'Dwyer.

"If they get over Dublin today, I don't think they will be far away, but I think they are lacking one or two players. Teams like Cork, Kerry and Dublin have those one or two really class players who will make a difference. Kildare have a good side but I don't think are good enough yet to win an All-Ireland."

Lacey and Fennin disagree. Both believe the time is right for Kildare to finally make the breakthrough and it's McGeeney who's going to drive them over the line. He has brought physicality, belief and attitude, but above all that he has given them the tools they require to go the extra mile. When a team's needs are catered for, it's much easier to buy into what a manager is saying.

Over the last few years the players have raised over €160,000 from several fundraising events and spent a portion of the money on new weights and equipment. They turned the old press conference centre in The K Club into their own gym, they did all the work on the room themselves.

The squad have everything they need at their fingertips, from the gym to gear, training programmes, physio access, all their requirements are met. But in return they are expected to train hard, sometimes it's seven days a week, four football sessions along with three other sessions split between gym, speed and core work.

Although Kildare in Mick O'Dwyer's time were in a league of their own when it came to fitness and training, the levels required now to compete at the top have risen dramatically and it's easy to understand why.

Inter-county players won't say no, they are prepared to do whatever is asked of them if it means they get closer to winning.

Lacey, Fennin and O'Dwyer can relate to that, although they weren't expected to do the extreme training that teams do nowadays. If they thought during their playing days that doing something new or advanced would have brought them one step closer to winning Sam Maguire, they wouldn't have had to be asked twice.

"Lads playing inter-county will do everything in their power to win, it's all about getting an edge," said Fennin.

"We'd have done whatever was asked of us, but it's a new level now and I'm only gone from the scene a few years. There will probably come a time when the GAA will put a limit on the number of hours a team can train in any given week.

"A lot of the current team are not working for different reasons so it's the guy with the mortgage, two kids and a 39-hour week who's under pressure. But you won't find too many guys like that playing inter-county football anymore."

Karl O'Dwyer has two Leinster titles and an All Star to his credit, he feels that keeping the players training at that level without achieving success is a testament to McGeeney. But if he wants to sustain it Kildare need to win something.

In 2008, McGeeney's first year in charge, Kildare lost to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The following year they were defeated at the same stage by Tyrone. After they failed to progress two years running, McGeeney called on the services of sports psychologist Hugh Campbell, who helped strengthen Kildare in an area where they were once criticised.

Then last year they lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Down; that's not a bad return from McGeeney's three years, it's progress, but what if success doesn't come? Tipperary native Brian Lacey isn't too worried -- McGeeney will be given more time, two more years at least.

"A change of manager won't take them any further," says Lacey.

"It is very hard to motivate yourself when you keep losing, you either eventually say I've had enough or you go out and you make it happen, the hunger doesn't go away and it definitely won't leave this Kildare team any time soon."

Looking at Johnny Doyle, it's obvious that there is truth in that statement. He has played 52 championship matches for Kildare and his performances have yet to falter. Even now that he has moved to midfield, he just keeps getting better.

His new position has raised debate around the country as to where he is best suited to play. In Kildare's opening two championship matches, Doyle was arguably Kildare's best player, and coupled with the fact that he has always played midfield for his club, there is no questioning his ability to play there.

However, in his championship career for Kildare he has racked up 6-217 and as a forward is held in the same regard as some of the best players in the country.

Brian Lacey marked him for many years at training and knows what he is capable of.

"Johnny Doyle is a weapon wherever you use him," said Lacey. "He can run, but he is a good fielder of the ball too, and in the modern game there are lots of short kickouts, especially when it comes to Dublin. Stephen Cluxton will always kick to the wings so you are better off with Johnny who can go across."

After years of playing beside Doyle, Fennin too knows the benefits of having him in the side. He recalls the space that can be made when he is in the forwards, the opposing backs are always on their guard and on some occasions two of them will take charge of him giving his team-mates that extra bit of room needed. And along with this, not having him in the forwards has been linked to Kildare's high wide count.

However, Fennin isn't worried about the wides, he believes there will be a big improvement as the championship progresses. In fact, neither are O'Dwyer and Lacey. As long as Kildare are winning matches the trio are happy, but Kildare have kicked 35 wides in their last two matches so it's an issue that's impossible to ignore.

"We had the same problem when we were playing," recalled O'Dwyer. "In 2000, we played Louth and kicked 12 wides, then we played Offaly in a drawn game and we kicked 14 wides and they were going on about it and then in the replay against Offaly we kicked 15 wides.

"The great thing is that Kildare are creating the chances and I think very few are landing in the goalie's hands, which is the ultimate sin. At the end of the day it's all about the scoreboard. If you kick 20 points and win the game it doesn't really matter how many you missed," adds O'Dwyer

"From watching the last day I found that five or six of those chances were taken by fellas who were in the wrong positions to kick for scores, they should have worked the ball. A lot of the fellas were kicking for scores from their weaker side, where the ball should have been moved around to a better position.

"I think a word into a few players' ears wouldn't go astray either, they need to take better options. They are creating loads of chances and that's a good thing and one of these days things will go right for them and the wides won't be an issue," added O'Dwyer.

Kildare may not be perfect, but they are a team and McGeeney can be credited for transforming a group of individuals into a collective unit. They are on a journey with their leader and the next step is to beat Dublin today, then win a Leinster title and maybe an All-Ireland. If they don't achieve those goals, then not much will change and they will try again next year, and keep trying, because now at least they know they can do it.

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