Lilies' autumn steel forged in white heat of championship
Kildare's belief in their team and management has been amply rewarded, says Dermot Crowe
I N Kildare's first championship season under Kieran McGeeney, their final match featured ten of the players enlisted to face Down today. McGeeney imposed his own style of direction but saw no need to radically overhaul the existing cast.
Some newcomers have arrived, invariably, and been warmly applauded. Eoghan O'Flaherty has made a major impression in recent matches and Peter Kelly set up residence at right corner-back, greatly helping to stabilise a line of defence decimated by Louth. Most of the rest, however, were there already, and a good many preceded McGeeney's appointment.
Having lost his first championship match to Wicklow, McGeeney has had to be patient and, like many of his contemporaries in management today, stick to his principles in the face of some potentially demoralising results. Each year has brought a test of that conviction. They were in an ideal position to win last year's Leinster final at half-time but Dublin took over and bossed the second half. Kildare were still a team learning hard lessons, eminently capable of bottling it.
The Leinster Championship defeat by Louth on June 5 has been re-evaluated in light of Louth's later form and a possible physical or mental (or both) mistiming of Kildare's preparations. They had just three weeks to sort it out before the qualifiers where the full-back line took priority. Hugh McGrillen, Gary White and Emmet Bolton began the Louth match, in that numerical order, and played as if they had only been introduced a few hours before. Bolton was wheeled off in the first half; White, one of the promising underage players of recent years, had a major ordeal trying to stifle Shane Lennon; and McGrillen seemed no less traumatised.
By the first round of the qualifiers against Antrim in Newbridge, the repairs had been carried out. Kelly, from Two Mile House where he plays in the middle of the field, adapted immediately and has been an ever-present since, marking some of the game's best forwards. McGrillen moved to full-back and Bolton out to the wing where he is more comfortable, while Andrew McLoughlin, a robust and experienced campaigner, took over the left corner. McLoughlin had replaced Bolton in the Louth match.
Since then the trio have remained in situ, forming the most consistent line on the pitch. Having been responsible for a princely portion of the 1-22 conceded in the defeat by Louth, the full-back line began to erect much more forbidding defences. Antrim forced Kildare to extra-time, and then a replay, scoring 0-15, but from there on Kildare found their feet. In the replay a week later, they allowed Antrim just 0-9, scoring 1-15.
Leitrim came to Newbridge a week later and had the better start but still managed just 0-6. Derry, having scored an early 1-2, managed just seven more points at Celtic Park and Monaghan's 1-11 was boosted by a late run of consolation scores when Kildare had the game won.
Meath, like Leitrim, Derry and Monaghan before them, had an ideal start in the All-Ireland quarter-final, racing into a six-point lead, yet they still couldn't get past 1-12. Since the Louth defeat, no team has managed more than a 15-point total against Kildare, something McGeeney, as a former defensive linchpin himself, will take pride in.
Davy Dalton was a selector under former manager John Crofton and two thirds of the same players passed through his hands. They haven't pulled any rabbits from a hat. To Dalton, Kildare's current form is the product of good persistent management and a natural maturing process. "The experience they have gained in the last couple of years, all that will stand to them. You can coach till the cows come home but if you don't play the games you won't improve."
In their time, over two seasons, Dermot Earley was constantly injured and others were still developing. Pádraig O'Neill is cited by Dalton as an example of a player who has filled out and become a much more influential and confident footballer. He rates this team "as good a Kildare team as I have seen".
What has changed them from a team struggling with consistency to one with a clear line of form? "I suppose confidence; they seem to be after getting mentally strong; they are playing with abandonment, they are not afraid, they play without fear," says Dalton. "Maybe the Louth game, it being the first round, they were caught, and even the Antrim game the same thing nearly happened but once they got going, they seemed mentally very strong. They are going for everything.
"There is a big bond there. James Kavanagh is playing out of his skin. Eamonn Callaghan did not play particularly well against Meath but was man of the match the day before. John Doyle has been kicking a lot more scores from play and is knocking the ball around. End of the day you can have the best individual footballers in the world, but the pressure they are putting teams under, their workrate, is a big factor. There were a couple of incidents against Meath in the second half where their backs were under so much pressure coming out with the ball they kicked it to a Kildare player. They are in a good place in their heads at the moment."
Nigel Crawford faced the full force of Kildare's renewed intensity four weeks ago. "By and large they were what we expected. We knew they could hit you in waves and get momentum and get periods where they could play very well and get scores. I think Kildare over the last three years since Kieran McGeeney has come in have become one of the more consistent teams at the business end of the championship.
"I think in years gone by Kildare were a team that could play very well but could also be quite poor on any given day. Whereas now, they have become a consistently strong team. He seems to have brought such a good structure to the football, they seem very professional in their approach and obviously there is that northern influence from Armagh.
"Looking back on the game, I have not watched it, but talking to people who did, they punished any mistakes we made, any time we handed the ball over. We would be on the attack and all of a sudden a loose pass and they'd take the ball and move at pace and get it down into the danger area. Now they also have found their scoring boots. Kavanagh and Doyle can put up a big score."
The records back up Crawford's claim. While Kildare have tightened up at the back, their scoring has increased notably in recent matches. They scored 2-17 in Derry and repeated that score in Croke Park against Meath. Only a plethora of wides, including some freakish wild shooting from Doyle, kept the winning score against Monaghan to 1-15.
Crawford doesn't see a major gap in fitness between Kildare and other teams. "I think most teams are in and around as strong and fit as each other but it's how you channel that fitness and they seem to be getting the most out of that. When we would break down, a (Kildare) corner-back would be well able to move up 40 yards whereas other teams would be a bit conservative and lay it off. They are all running. After the Louth defeat and even in the first year with that Wicklow defeat they could have turned against him (McGeeney) but they seemed to have faith. And you need the bit of luck as well."
Tommy Freeman's Monaghan had the help of the insights offered by former Kildare selector Paul Grimley. "When Kildare started getting on top of us, we had no answer. They were far superior than us. You saw them kicking points from all angles. We had expected a very tough match and that was the way it turned out. We knew under McGeeney the intensity they took to their game and the physical presence -- that's just his influence rubbing off; he was a very committed player, he would die for the game.
Sos Dowling, having played in the position with Kildare, appreciates the value of good corner-backs to a team's stability. "Peter Kelly is probably the find of the season so far and if he can keep going like this he will get an All-Star." But the project initiated by McGeeney, which has Kildare looking as sleek and driven as they are today, didn't begin in the three weeks after the Louth defeat. The results are the product of three years' labour.
"I think they all set out a plan," says Dowling, "and after getting to two All-Ireland quarter-finals, that experience is standing to them this Sunday. They are a good bunch of honest lads and they gel well together."
He rates the current forwards as better than what Kildare had in 1998 when they last reached the All-Ireland final. But he is reluctant to be too absolute about the team just yet, remembering 12 years ago. "You may only get one chance and you should take it. We didn't."