Saturday 21 April 2018

History but no fairytale for Kildare

Pride still intact despite first hurling game against Kilkenny ending in a 19-point loss

Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent in the press box at Freshford. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent in the press box at Freshford. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The light danced in the field behind the old church, as if too cold to settle in a single place.

It was a poetic setting for history then, Freshford's tranquil rhythms unsettled by a throng maybe 400 strong, the town ringed with traffic cones, men in luminous bibs directing the cars into marshy parking spots. Nobody could remember a hurling game played between Kilkenny and Kildare before.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody arrives at the ground. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody arrives at the ground. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

"Not in my lifetime anyway," shrugged the venerable Ned Quinn, Kilkenny's Central Council delegate after just short of three decades overseeing the most extraordinary stockpiling of trophies from a county board engine room.

"But our footballers beat them once in the O'Byrne Cup," Ned added with a grin. "And that was in Newbridge!"

The road over from Ballyragget bore a treacherous sheen of ice, only the most devoted braving January's frosty grip for a Walsh Cup game that nobody mistook to be anything other than educational for the men in white.

Kildare, after all, took a drilling in their first outing from a Laois team subsequently emulsified by Kilkenny.

Limerick boss Joe Quaid shares a joke outside the dressing-room. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Limerick boss Joe Quaid shares a joke outside the dressing-room. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Joe Quaid is now settling into his third season selling a gospel that requires resilience and stamina. He never sold this day as anything but a pre-season opening of blinds. After all, some of his players have yet to even play senior club hurling, let alone masquerade as boys ready to go shoulder-to-shoulder with a team in black and amber.

He's been hearing predictable grumbles about their right to even be on a Kilkenny field and, well, finds it best to bite his lip. All week he'd been reminding his players that this game wouldn't define anything about their season. But, boy, did they want it.

Manners

It took Kildare time, admittedly, to forget their manners. For 10 minutes they stayed in sync with the dreary ennui of the season, Kilkenny easing into a 0-6 to 0-0 lead with bodies neither flexing nor straining.

And this wasn't exactly the Kilkenny of our imaginations, was it? Brian Cody is currently working from a squad of 52, essentially using each game as a broad job interview.

Kilkenny fan Ned Byrne – a member of the Erin’s Own club – looks on. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kilkenny fan Ned Byrne – a member of the Erin’s Own club – looks on. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Of the 20 men used last July in the championship defeat by Waterford, only one (Liam Blanchfield) saw action here. So, to begin with, Kildare were being spooked by a shadow.

But then their corner-forward Jack Sheridan caromed off Ryan Bergin with a bullock shoulder by the stand and it was as if it suddenly registered with team-mates that the opposition mightn't be hurling's equivalent of expensive vases.

"I think the lads might admit that probably the first 10 minutes, they were a little bit overawed by the whole thing and paid them too much respect," Quaid would reflect later. Sheridan's shoulder, he believed, "got everyone else up for it".

So much so, they would win the remainder of the half 0-5 to 0-3, Kildare full-back John Doran wind-milling his arms on the stroke of half-time as if to communicate the absence of any palpable threat had allowed the cold creep into his bones.

Still, Kilkenny's way is to permit no liberties and though there'd be gentle murmurings of a fairytale in the tiny concrete stand as the teams slipped off for replenishment, Cody's men resumed like a group who had been encouraged to remember themselves.

Liam Blanchford gets away from Paul Divilly and Shane Ryan. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Liam Blanchford gets away from Paul Divilly and Shane Ryan. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

They also came back with four new faces, one of whom - Bill Sheehan - lanced home a goal inside two minutes.

And Mullinavat's John Walsh, a thrilling minor some years back whose career was stalled by cruciate trouble, all but turned the remainder into a one-man audition, finishing the day with an impressive 2-3 from play.

That said, this was never a meeting of equals and, accordingly, its strangeness placed an asterisk under just about everything we'd seen.

Kildare weren't ever Christians fleeing lions exactly, but their business will be in Division 2A of the National League and, further down the road, they'll hope to carry a puncher's chance in the Christy Ring Cup. So, as Kilkenny eased away to win by 19 points, Quaid was anything but displeased.

Kildare’s Mark Delaney takes his shirt from kitman Richie Hogan. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kildare’s Mark Delaney takes his shirt from kitman Richie Hogan. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

He will work only with county natives this season, having recruited Kilkenny's John Mulhall, Limerick's Dave and Mike Reidy and Tipperary's Dinny Stapleton to buttress their ranks in 2017.

"Look, I never wanted to bring in outside players to be honest," he explained.

"In saying that, we had to bring the lads in last year because we hadn't enough Kildare players. And what they brought to us was phenomenal.

"We'd love to have them back in, but I can't justify dropping Kildare lads who want to hurl for outsiders. We brought them in to up the standard of hurling in Kildare and that's what I'm here to do.

"We had 42 lads that came into training this year. We've never had that."

That they stayed with Kilkenny for 35 minutes here without the deployment of a sweeper pleased their manager no end. So too the fact that the second-half concession of goals could, largely, be put down to self-harm.

"The main thing is we just need to speed up our hurling," Quaid added.

"And the only way to do that is play against teams who hurl quicker than you. We did it today for periods."

He was thankful, above all, that their spirit never gave, gathering them into a circle on the field afterwards and declaring, "we drive on from here".

For Kilkenny, Cody - as ever - was still viewing the world in a rational light.

"They were impressive, they had a real, genuine spirit and you could see their body language was good," he said of Kildare. "We pulled away in the end and, you know, the reality is we should be pulling away a bit because there are different levels there."

The frost returning, he didn't linger.

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