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Love/Hate season six

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Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

THINGS Kieran McGeeney gets blamed for (an incomplete list)

* The performances of the Kildare seniors in big matches last year.

* The performance of the Kildare U-21s in the All-Ireland semi-final this year.

* The financial disrepair of the Kildare County Board.

* The resignation of its former chairman.

* Making his players 'too big'.

* Making Kildare too defensive.

* Said players' failure to match Cork physically or defensively last year.

* Their propensity to shoot too often and too errantly.

* Their lack of 'natural' forwards.

* Luring Seánie Johnston away from Cavan.

* Kildare club's meagre access to their inter-county players.

So when he describes himself as "public enemy number one", it's only half in jest. He's not feeling sorry for himself, but neither does he expect to be a lightning rod for the ire of every malcontent in the county and very often, further afield.

"Yeah, but you wouldn't want to believe everything you read in the papers," he says, when the club access matter is put to him directly in question, on a balmy evening in Hawkfield, Kildare's training complex outside Newbridge.

 

Blame

"I always laugh at that particular thing. We let the players play for the club whenever they want to. People just find it easier to have someone to blame, public enemy number one.

"I get on very well with the County Board here. I think they are very commutative. It's a very enjoyable thing. We work in tandem with each other. We hope we do everything as right as possible.

"I have always found myself very amicable, even if not everybody else would," he laughs.

"What I do changes from one week to the next, according to what people would write. Like, one day, we are too defensive and we shoot too much. These things just..," he tails off shrugging – drops of water off a duck's back.

Here, on the eve of his sixth championship in charge of Kildare (only Mickey Harte has served for longer), his stock is still rising, but difficult to rate precisely.

Largely, that's because McGeeney's tenure has been filled with a mixture of rapid progress and harsh checkpoints – the Kildare supporters' propensity for wild expectation remains as pronounced as ever.

Scepticism and misery was high locally after the Meath and Cork defeats last year, yet Kildare came out and won the O'Byrne Cup and then beat Donegal, Cork and Kerry in rapid succession to start off life in Division 1.

And then – bang! Dublin in Croke Park and a 13-point hiding and despite qualifying for the semi-finals, his team lost their final three league matches (including the semi against Tyrone) by an average of almost six points a game.

In the background, a particularly talented and impressively physically developed U-21 team carried the hopes of national silverware right through a tough Leinster campaign, fuelling belief that not only could they land the top prize at that particular level, but contribute immediately to the fight for Sam Maguire.

"Only after Dublin got beat (in the Leinster U-21 quarter-final)," McGeeney points out. "And there wasn't a mention of any of the players until we started playing them at senior level.

"You remind the players of that, that it's more hype, that whatever they do, they have to keep proving it every single day."

But a stack of wides, 19 high against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, unwound their All-Ireland ambitions, leaving a sour, unfulfilled taste in the mouth.

"See, it's very hard," McGeeney muses. "People have the choice, do you coach that out of them? Should we show them how to buy free-kicks? Should we show them how to do things like that?

"To me, one particular ex-player called them cowards in his headline and he wasn't the bravest man himself. To me, they showed great courage and they never stopped, never, when things were going wrong.

"Yes, you'd like them to calm down and get a wee bit of composure.

"There are a few players out there who could buy a free-kick fairly handily rather than taking a shot, settle the team down, but I struggle with that part of the game because I was a defender and I hated people doing it to me. I find it very hard to coach it."

What then, does he lean on as a coach?

"It's part of what you are like yourself and maybe that's ego. My thing is, you should be courageous on a football field, you should be robust, but you should be fair.

"You should learn to kick the ball, you should learn to win your own ball and take the big scores. That's what we are trying to do."

While Kildare's qualifier consistency has been nothing short of brilliant, they have yet to produce one of their better performances in a big Leinster Championship game or, largely, take out football's elite in Croke Park – the final and, by extension, most difficult frontier.

Against that, if you look at Kildare's performances and record in the four years before McGeeney took over, you realise how considerable and rapid progress has been.

"I have been with teams that have done all the wrong type of training and still go out and win.

"I've been with teams that do all the right type of training and still go out and lose," he says, by way of articulating that football, management and success are not, in his experience, elements of any exact science.

"You have to believe in what you are doing, you have to be committed and you have to work hard. Look at any winning team. They have all the same ingredients. They do.

 

Work-rate

"Dublin's work-rate this year is in a different league. Like, it really, really is. Their tackling, everything else. Is that a system? Is that an ethic? Is it a core value?

"And people still get mixed up between talent and skill and they always will when there are idiots, past players who like to talk more about themselves than, like, nobody was ever as good as they were. They should watch TV for a change.

"There is a wee bit of luck and sometimes people get mixed up.

"I had a meeting the other day with a fella in business and he said never get a dose of brilliance mixed up with a dose of luck."

The expectation fuelled by logic that Offaly will be shredded in Croke Park on Saturday is tempered by memories of Wicklow and Louth, but a Leinster semi-final with Dublin is the most likely outcome from Saturday evening's double-header.

And a win there would certainly be a landmark in Kildare's journey under McGeeney.

"My job, when I was asked to come here, was to try and improve things," he points out.

"I think I have done that. I haven't got them where I would like to get them.

"It's quite a hard ceiling to break through, sort of. I know that from Armagh – when there isn't a culture of winning there.

"When you break it, you can make big, big strides," McGeeney adds, a familiar recent theme.

"But it's still a big ceiling to break."


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