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All ready for a rendezvous

WHAT does a manager say when a new National League season dawns and his team duly sleepwalks to an 11-point defeat -- at home! -- against newly promoted opposition?

Some bosses will tear plaster from the dressing-room wall. Others might leave players stewing in their own silence. Whereas Kildare's top man is more likely to plaintively ask: "Parlez vouz Geezer?"

We jest, of course. What Kieran McGeeney actually said to the media after watching Down demolish his Kildare charges by 1-16 to 0-8 in Newbridge last February was this: "I must be speaking French before the games because they're definitely not listening."

Who could have dreamt that, almost seven months on, the same two sides would be among the last three pretenders to the All-Ireland throne? That they would be squaring up at Croke Park this Sunday, both harbouring genuine prospects of advancement to a final date with Cork?

Hard to believe on several fronts. Down may have run amok in St Conleth's Park that day, but they were only just out of Division Three, had become accustomed to summer under-achievement throughout the noughties and their new manager, James McCartan, was only just dipping his toes in the job. In short, they looked a long-term project, not a shortcut contender for Sam.


Kildare were further down the development road, having reached All-Ireland quarter-finals in their first two years under McGeeney. In 2009, especially, the team had started to take shape. But the manager had then lost his right-hand man, Paul Grimley, to Monaghan during the closed season and his players had spent the early weeks of 2010 mired in bad habits and shrouded in red mist.

Two players walked for second yellows against Down, albeit the game had already slipped beyond the wilting Lilies' grasp. This merely continued the January trend: five Kildare men had been dismissed during the O'Byrne Cup, three alone in a tempestuous derby clash with Laois, which brought the running tally to seven sendings-off in just four outings.

McGeeney didn't mince his words after the Down debacle. "They're not doing what they're being asked to do," he fumed. "You could put together a list of problems there after the game and say 'why do you do them?' If you had a list of things we said we'd do before the game, they would have been the exact opposite of each other.

"I talk about discipline -- I'm sick talking about it -- and we get two men sent off. I talked about getting quick ball from the half-back line and we have seven fist passes across the middle and go backwards."

As Kildare now contemplate their first semi-final in a decade, it's clear that the manager's message eventually got through. Either that or they've all brushed up on their French!

Mind you, Kildare's transformation was no overnight sensation.

Their Division Two form oscillated wildly -- the Mourne meltdown was followed by emphatic victories over Tipperary (12 points) and Donegal (eight), then they crashed to a seven-point loss in Armagh, squeaked past rock-bottom Westmeath by one, before suffering back-to-back defeats against provincial rivals Laois (four) and Meath (five). Six points from seven games, sixth in the table -- scarcely the stuff that summer dreams are made of.

Then Kildare went to Navan for a Leinster opener against Louth and their full-back line was plundered. It's not often that you score 1-16 and end up losing by six. The Lilywhites looked in a state of chassis.

Not any more. McGeeney reshaped his defence and this, coupled with some further tinkering of resources, has helped Kildare embark on a thrilling six-game run through the qualifiers and beyond.

The crab-like recycling of possession that so infuriated the manager last February has been replaced by a high-octane game where super-fit players and the ball are being moved at blinding pace, most memorably during their swashbuckling comeback against Meath.

Here's another intriguing stat. Kildare have picked up 28 yellow cards during their seven championship matches but not a single red. True, David Whyte was caught misbehaving on camera against Louth and suffered a retrospective ban, but that was way back in early June. The double-yellow peril has been banished, partly because management have frequently moved to replace a player who is carrying a yellow card.

Still, even in the immediate wake of their eight-point victory over Meath, McGeeney sounded a typically cautious note about Kildare's next challenge against a side now managed by his former Queens University teammate.

"Somebody mentioned the Louth game and referred to it as a hammering, and I didn't think it was a hammering ... but Down did hammer us in the league. It was a hammering," he stressed. "We have it all to do. I'd know Wee James fairly well and he is one of the most competitive people I've ever met."

And a pretty astute manager too. McCartan built on that auspicious league baptism in Newbridge, leading Down to top-flight promotion. Their Ulster ambitions were suffocated, after a flying opening salvo, by Tyrone but their subsequent back door recovery has been every bit as impressive as Kildare's. Moreover, in Kerry, they claimed a far more imposing quarter-final scalp.

"I think the game probably meant more to us than it did to Kildare," McCartan suggested on the day of that NFL opener. "We're close to full strength. We have no rabbits to pull out of the hat. That's us. We've no secret weapons that we're leaving until later in the year."

Then he sounded another intriguing note, one that almost sounds prophetic: "The gloss that was put on it in the end -- sometimes as a manager you prefer that those balls went wide and you'd have won by four, three, two or one because some people start hyping it up."

Little did he know, half a year on, that a certain Kildare manager would be among them.

Parlez vouz hype, Geezer?