McGeeney's new boys help Lilies blossom
Published 06/03/2013 | 05:00
Outside church yards, at crossroads and in shopping centres last weekend, the Kildare GAA faithful shook tins, collecting badly needed finance for their troubled coffers.
It was a fundraising gamble that could have backfired but was also an opportunity to road test the general Kildare public's attitude to the brand. They were pleasantly surprised by the reaction it received.
Kildare's timing was good. Over the previous three weekends, the senior team had beaten the last three All-Ireland champions in an O'Byrne Cup final (Dublin) and the first two rounds of the league (Donegal and Cork).
The people could see tangible evidence of progression in recent weeks and perhaps dug deeper than they might ordinarily have.
Last Sunday, that sequence of success over recent All-Ireland champions continued when they edged out Kerry to consolidate joint-top spot in Division 1 alongside Dublin.
It is Kieran McGeeney's best league start in six years of management, helping to smooth any doubt that may have lingered in the wake of their heavy All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Cork last August.
At the altitude of a higher division they have been comfortable in picking off some of the best teams around.
Winning league games is not something Kildare have always obsessed themselves about so early in the season but this year it is a priority in such exalted company, fuelling a bank of confidence that they can draw down later in the year.
Their goals return has improved markedly, with two in each of their three league games; last year in 14 matches between league and championship they raised green flags in just five.
McGeeney has deployed just 22 players in the three games, compared to 29 by Kerry.
From early in the season there has been a sense that McGeeney has been taking a different view on the type of player he wants, his acknowledgement that he made specific mistakes in key games last year a clear indication of a different thought process on certain players in 2013.
Established players like Ronan Sweeney and Rob Kelly have had to bide their time in reserve as the team takes a different shape.
Daryl Flynn and Dermot Earley continue to rehabilitate from injury, but already a clear pattern of the personnel most likely to feature is emerging.
Only seven defenders have started in the three league matches, while Tomas O'Connor and Seanie Johnston are beginning to form the partnership up front that threatened so much on the training ground last year.
The impetus from the flourish of youth has been significant, with the performances of Daniel Flynn, Niall Kelly and Paddy Brophy in particular a real cause for optimism.
The benefit of keeping close connections between the senior and U-21 teams over the last few years is being reaped. Tonight in Navan, Kildare will get an even closer vision of the future when their U-21 team steps out for the first time in the Leinster championship with quiet confidence that they can challenge hot favourites Dublin.
From midfield up, the Kildare U-21s could potentially fill every position with players who have figured regularly on McGeeney's squad over the last two seasons.
Flynn, Brophy and Kelly have already made their mark this season, Padraig Fogarty served notice of his talent last April in the Division 2 final against Tyrone, while Fionn Dowling, Thomas Moolick and Sean Hurley have featured in either 2011 or 2012.
Paul Cribbin's return from Australia has not yet precipitated a senior call-up but that too seems an inevitability. But the litmus test for the advancements Kildare have made this season comes on Sunday.
Beating Dublin in successive years in the O'Byrne Cup in tighter, heavier pitches like Newbridge and Parnell Park is one thing – to do it on a fast track like Croke Park against a team that Mayo manager James Horan last weekend described as "electric" represents a significant step up in what they have achieved so far.
With a probable provincial semi-final against Dublin in late June likely to determine the Leinster title, the importance of banking another victory now can not be over-estimated.
Earlier this year McGeeney hinted that the change in approach and the work being done may not produce dividends for the end-of-year audit.
That may still be the case, but right now the habit of winning is helping to purge all doubts.