Lilywhites the qualifier aces
Published 23/07/2011 | 05:00
KILDARE'S All-Ireland qualifier record against the side they face in Croke Park tonight highlights a trend that has now become such a phenomenon that it is almost a cliche.
When John Crofton took over as Lilywhites manager in late 2005, one of the things he immediately improved was their back-door record, though, as he points out himself, that wasn't too hard considering they'd only won one qualifier in the previous five years.
"My priority was trying to win a Leinster title," he stresses. "We improved slightly by winning one game in the qualifiers both years, but we didn't get any further and the second year, after beating Roscommon, we lost to Louth, who were always our bogey team."
Derry were the team who ousted them in Crofton's first year in charge on an embarrassing 1-17 to 0-11 scoreline in Celtic Park, when his side were without the injured Dermot Earley.
So, Crofton, more than most, appreciated Kildare's achievement in coming away from the Bogside with a 2-17 to 1-9 victory in last year's qualifier run.
The contrast between those two games exemplifies Kildare's improved qualifier record.
They face Derry again today with the impetus of a remarkable 11-game unbeaten qualifier streak under Kieran McGeeney's management.
So, what has made the difference?
Is it their elevated fitness levels, or superior game plans, or a new mental fortitude? Or could it be as simple as the quality of opposition they have been facing -- the qualifier draw has been kind to them since 2008.
Crofton believes it is a combination of many things and notes that this is the third time they will face teams who are coming straight off Ulster final defeats: Fermanagh in 2008, Monaghan last year and now Derry.
Like many, he also vividly recalls how close Kildare have come to losing two opening qualifiers, in Newbridge, under McGeeney.
"Cavan were two points up deep into injury-time in 2008 before James Kavanagh got that goal. Then, last year, Antrim took them to extra-time and we needed a replay.
"But you've still got to win those games. The current team and management are able to do that, they can get across the line," Crofton says, singling out one pivotal game.
"In 2008, after losing to Wicklow and just nicking that game with Cavan, they went to the Gaelic Grounds, which is never easy.
"Limerick had shocked Meath there on a big scoreline the previous week and yet Kildare came away with a win, that was a huge result."
Michael Foley, Andriu MacLochlainn, John Doyle, Ronan Sweeney, James Kavanagh, Padraig O'Neill and Tomas O'Connor all started in that 2006 loss to Derry.
Two more of that side believe that the key change in Kildare's make-up has been on the mental side.
"For a long time there was this prevalent attitude in a lot of counties that you couldn't win an All-Ireland through the qualifiers, but teams like Kerry and Tyrone showed you could, that it's every bit as viable a route," says former goalkeeper and captain Enda Murphy.
"Some teams have embraced that and, under Kieran, Kildare certainly have.
"That's why I don't understand the soundbites coming out of Derry this week, complaining about the six-day turnaround.
"The reality is that Derry have the same time to recover from their last game as Kildare. You should be able to do it if your mindset is right and, psychologically, Kildare's is right."
Tadgh Fennin agrees.
"People go on about Kildare's fitness, but the reality is that all of the really top teams are physically as fit as one another nowadays," he argues.
"Look at the Meath game last week. When it was at 12-all, it was in the balance, both teams were still motoring, and then Meath had two great chances.
"But they missed them, we kicked on and took ours and that's down to the mental steeliness that Kieran has added to the players.
"A couple of years ago, in a similar situation, someone would probably have gone off on a mad solo or tried a shot from an impossible angle, but that's gone out the window now.
"There's a game-plan there, and another one if the first one doesn't work out and the key thing is that the players have enough confidence and self-belief to stick to it and that's something that's been instilled in them by McGeeney.
"I'm not sure why we had such a terrible record in the qualifiers during my time. But I do think that winning Leinster was probably our primary goal back then and when we didn't win it, we found it hard to lift ourselves.
"Maybe subsconsciously there was an attitude of 'ah well, we didn't win Leinster, that's it for us now,' and we didn't really believe we could win an All-Ireland through the back-door route.
"Obviously, you'd ideally win it through the short road, but this Kildare team is fully prepared to go down the long road to win it, and their record over the past four years underlines that."