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Getting over a white line

WITH Kildare football, it seems, the glass is always teetering between half-full and half-empty. Spring 2013 was, for the most part, a period of onward and upward progression.

They won the O'Byrne Cup. They qualified for a league semi-final in their first year back in the top-flight. Their U-21s conquered Leinster. A whole raft of those U-21s gained invaluable senior experience among the big boys. How could you possibly view any of the above in a negative light?

But (isn't there always a but with Kildare?) ... in the space of a deflating week in April, they lost a league semi-final to Tyrone and then their U-21s literally kicked away their chance of reaching an All-Ireland final. They amassed 19 (nineteen!) wides against Galway. New generation, same old Lilywhite story ... so concluded the media jury, and probably the general public too.

Kieran McGeeney has always blanched at such definitive dismissals of his team - those headline-friendly but pejorative clichés like "flat track ponies" or "nearly men" or "scattergun Lilies" or, worse again, "Croker chokers".

Ambitions

So when you ask him if those twin defeats against Tyrone and Galway were a setback to their championship ambitions, Geezer shoots back: "We were told at the beginning of the year we were favourites (for relegation) and at the beginning of the year we were third favourites in the U21 to win Leinster ...

"Like everything else, there are some things that are meant to sell papers. Suddenly, we played the 21s during the league - we had a 'brilliant team'. But before that, they weren't. So, it depends on your perspective.

"We probably would have felt it wasn't a brilliant six months, but it was a decent six months. We did well in the O'Byrne Cup, had a lot of young players coming through; did well in the league, got to the semi-final ... (we were) probably unlucky, we played Tyrone with Stephen O'Neill and Stephen was exceptional that day, he hits points that you couldn't get from anywhere.

"The U-21s played extremely well against Galway; we just couldn't finish," add McGeeney, who doubled as U-21 manager for the first time this season.

SO we now stand on the cusp of another Leinster senior championship, McGeeney's sixth as commander-in-chief of Kildare. The man who conquered Everest as an Armagh player by a circuitous, even tortuous, route is now hoping to replicate that All-Ireland winning formula with his adopted Lilywhites. But for a team that routinely makes it to the August Bank Holiday weekend - and just as routinely comes up short upon getting there - there is another widespread belief (call it media perception!) that Kildare can't possibly hope to capture Sam Maguire without first achieving some provincial validation.

So then, what would McGeeney say to people who proclaim they must first win Leinster?

"I would agree with them," he replies. "They only have two since 1960, so a third one would be nice and that is about as short and succinct as I can put it."

Part of his brief, he believes, it not just managing a team - it's trying to "change a culture, a mindset".

"Although Kildare have fantastic footballers and a fantastic football tradition, results will prove otherwise with regards to inter-county structure," he expands. "Apart from two years, they have not competed for an All-Ireland since 1928 and they have only two Leinster titles in the last 40/50 years. You are fighting against that.

"You have a group of players who are well capable of doing that and more, but it is like everything else - it is about getting them over that particular line. I am hoping that I will be part of that ... it may not be (me) but they are going to do it soon enough," he predicts.

As Geezer sees it, there are a hundred permutations that go into making a winning team but "it is no coincidence that over the last 20 or 30 years, it is the bigger counties that are the ones that come to the forefront." By the same token, he believes Kildare "should be one of those teams - they have a large population, they are starting to put the right structures in place, they have great underage structures over the last number of years ... and the players are starting to come through. The next thing is to give them a winning mentality. It is not a tangible thing, I can't tell you what that is. People call it tradition, history, so many things. Belief, confidence ... that is a hard thing to give a player."

McGeeney has never stopped trying to inculcate that "intangible" in his Kildare dressing-room. He could, of course, hark back to his own Armagh days - the long wait for Ulster deliverance in 1999 and eventual All-Ireland coronation three years later.

"We used to walk around thinking we were pretty good at football too," he recalls. "And then Brian McAlinden came in and showed us what training was - before we realised that we weren't actually training hard. He brought us to a point too; won the Ulster championship from the preliminary round which was never done in a long time, won two back-to-back and got beaten then by Galway (in 2001). Joe (Kernan) came in, and Paul (Grimley), and took us across the line.

"I remember standing in that tunnel down there (in the Hogan Stand)," he adds, "and being asked after the Galway game 'Was that it?' ... and I was thinking to myself 'It was, that was it.' And I suppose it's just going back to the old clichés - the darkest day is before the dawn. You just have to tell these fellas to keep on pushing, and hopefully some day it will come for them."

So then, was last year's quarter-final collapse to Cork the darkest day? Did McGeeney contemplate walking after five years of 'qualified' (ie. qualifier) success but no trophies?

"I suppose my own personality is that I don't tend to walk away from things," he responds.

"I think Kildare have reached a level of consistency now that they never had. We've struggled in some of the big games and that could be down to me ... you do look at these things. But the players wanted me back and I said 'Fair enough'."

With the influx of U-21s, he accepts there has been a "changing of the guard" this year but when asked if this was a conscious decision, he answers: "It's alright saying you want to change things, but you have to bring in people who are better than the people you have - or you're actually going to go down instead of up. We would feel that this particular group of players have shown that, but that remains to be seen - they have to go into the championship now and prove it again."

Starting with Offaly on June 1, a match that Geezer refuses to look beyond. The Dubs - and Everest - can wait.


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