McGeeney and Lilies perfect the art of recovery
WHEN, in May 2008, Kildare became the first county to lose a Leinster senior championship game to Wicklow in Croke Park, the Lilywhite heartbeat dropped as if all its blood had been drained away.
Wicklow's resurgence under Mick O'Dwyer was welcomed elsewhere, but Kildare had to deal with the painful reality that it was they who facilitated its championship launch.
It was Kieran McGeeney's first Leinster SFC game as Kildare manager (even if the match programme credited the position to Glenn Ryan) and instead of talking about the challenge which Laois would present next time out he found himself explaining how his side had lost by four points.
"The decision-making was poor. Big players didn't perform on the day," he said before moving on to his own role in the unexpected defeat.
"I'm going to have to take a look at myself in terms of what I'm asking them to do, whether there's a misunderstanding or if I'm doing the right type of training," he said.
As starting bases go, it was a remote outpost with no apparent road maps for a squad with big name flops who made poor decisions and a manager publicly querying whether he was doing things correctly.
Two years and three months later, McGeeney watched contentedly as Kildare comfortably closed out the All-Ireland quarter-final against Meath, using 11 of the 20 players who lost to Wicklow in 2008.
In between were years in which Kildare's improvement rate has been so marked that they are no longer recognisable from the side which scored nine points against Wicklow, only six of which came from open play. Nowadays, they are averaging a total of 19 points per game, 14 from open play.
Kildare have won 12 of 17 championship games since the Wicklow defeat in 2008, a record surpassed only by Kerry and Tyrone, who won the last two titles, and by Cork who beat both last year.
To broaden the context of Kildare's dramatic surge, they have won two more championship games in the last three summers than in the previous seven seasons put together.
It's the sort of turnaround which has helped create a feeling that Kildare deserve a real reward for their efforts. It didn't even yield a Leinster breakthrough so far, yet Kildare have won more championship games over the last three seasons than Dublin and Meath, who shared the provincial titles between them.
Now the drive is on for Kildare as they attempt to scale a peak which proved beyond Dublin and Meath by first reaching, and then winning, the All-Ireland final.
One of the more remarkable aspects of their turnaround has been the positive manner in which they embraced the qualifiers.
The back door looked made for the likes of Kildare who often spent their summers wondering what it would be like to get a second chance after losing in Leinster.
As a mid-to-higher ranked county, Kildare would have assumed the qualifiers would be hugely fertile territory, but, inexplicably, it took them a very long time to adapt.
In fact, they won only three qualifier games in 2001-07, a miserable return when compared with their high win-rate since then.
Another feature of Kildare's doggedness has been the manner in which they have adapted to varying circumstances in recent seasons.
The 2008 defeat by Wicklow was followed by a focused qualifier march which took them to the All-Ireland quarter-final where they lost by a goal to Cork after battling back from a 2-3 to 0-0 first-half deficit.
In the end, they were denied a game-saving chance when referee, Pat McEnaney opted against awarding a last minute penalty after Paddy Kelly's block on Dermot Earley in the Cork square bordered on the illegal.
Nobody would have known it at the time, but Kildare's spirited revival was to become a template which they would continue to work off right up to the present.
If the Wicklow performance was Kildare's 2008 black spot, failing to exploit an extra man and long periods of dominance against Dublin in the Leinster final was the 2009 downer.
Still, they were up against provincial championship specialists and despite the disappointment of squandering a great chance, their subsequent performances against Wicklow and Tyrone showed that they had mastered the art of recovery, even if they lost narrowly to the latter.
That quality was in even greater demand this year after the six-point defeat by Louth in the Leinster quarter-final.
Kildare drifted out to 80/1 for the All-Ireland, which was scarcely surprising after conceding more than any other Kildare team (except the 1997 model in extra-time against Meath) in Leinster championship history.
Once again, it called for a special brand of defiance to relaunch the season.
That it should coincide with the emotional day on which Dermot Earley Snr was buried made it all the more poignant, but it was as if his warrior spirit, characterised by the decision of Dermot Jnr to play against Antrim, empowered Kildare in a special way.
Antrim took them to a replay, but lost heavily in Casement Park as Kildare embarked on a run which has produced an All-Ireland semi-final slot for the first time in 10 years.
After displaying so much courage and ambition over the past three years, nobody could possibly dispute their right to be there, no more than they would question their capacity to deliver yet again on Sunday.
That's the new environment in which Kildare operate.