Thursday 18 January 2018

"A manager can lose a game but he can never win it."

David Kelly

David Kelly

This is the kind of week that Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney was designed for. The grim joy of knowing that the road to glory can unfurl one more bend or, so startlingly, present instead an utterly immovable roadblock.

The sporting season's endless cycle of death or glory.

Last weekend in O'Moore Park, the manager was close to losing a game before his players contrived to extricate him from the clutches of desperate defeat.

Were it not for James Kavanagh dispossessing a toiling, loitering Limerick man, John Cooke, on the Kildare goal-line, their championship hopes would have expired before the quarter-finals for the first time on McGeeney's watch.

It would have been the last.

One suspects that Thursday night's club convention in McGeeney's native Armagh might have been a tad more interesting with so many in the county, led chiefly by erstwhile team-mate Steven McDonnell, eager to see their one-time driving force as a player return to take the top job.

Kildare, you suspect, after five years of liberating relief from being at once perennial mediocrities but also frustrating under-achievers, would not have stood on ceremony as they politely held the door open for him on the way out.

Even with a year left on his contract, it would have required McGeeney to extract the very last juices of his renowned determination not to conscionably admit to himself that he could offer any more.

This is a different week, but the vista is much the same.

Kildare's calamitous Leinster submission to a young, vibrant Meath, which left them once more at the mercy of the penitential qualifiers, sees them visit a venue to which they raised a familiar objection.

The objection was freighted with a Kildare County Board stamp but not without the approval of their contemporary authority on all things football, McGeeney.

Like the strop concerning O'Moore Park, it was summarily dismissed by officialdom and ridiculed by the general populace.

To the suggestion that Breffni Park be deployed, internet wags opined that Cavan had done quite enough to accommodate Kildare GAA already, thank you very much.

And so to the Hyde they go; it will be Dermot Earley's first official duty since being there as a babe in arms when his late father lifted the Connacht title.

Sadly but predictably, many neutrals will be wishing Sligo much cheer in their bid to tan the Lilywhite hides.

Kildare fans will tread warily; the counties hadn't met in the championship until the back-door system was introduced, yet in the first and fifth year of the new qualifier system, Sligo fooled the bookies' blackboard scribble.

Sligo won both games by a point. In 2001, they beat a Mick O'Dwyer-managed Kildare, 0-16 to 0-15 in a Round 3 qualifier in Croke Park and in 2005 they won a Round 2 game by 1-11 to 1-10 in Markievicz Park.

In manager Kevin Walsh, too, Sligo have a man who knows what it's like to beat Kildare; the Galway giant anchored his county's midfield in both the 1998 All-Ireland final and the 2000 semi-final (the last time John Doyle failed to score in a championship game).

And so, just as the benefit of history won't unnerve many in Sligo, the uncertainty of the present will weigh heavily on Kildare shoulders.

"Kildare are favourites on their track record over recent years rather than current form," observes Tommy Breheny, that rare beast in Sligo football, a Connacht title-winning manager, assessing the prohibitive 2/7 as against Sligo's 7/2.

"Sligo have had a reasonable season," agrees Breheny. "They beat Galway on their own soil for the first time in championship and you could argue both teams under-performed in the Connacht final.

"On the other hand, Kildare haven't really set the world alight apart from the Cavan game and if Limerick could have put the ball out of play, they'd be gone altogether."

And yet, caution is counselled.

"They'll be well used to the qualifier format at this stage," warns Breheny, averring to the unique Kildare paradox under McGeeney that has seen them flourish in the qualifiers in defiance of their impotence in Leinster.

"They're a fit and conditioned side. If anything, the qualifiers might have helped them. Last weekend may have been a wake-up call in some respects and Cavan know what happened to them after the wake-up call they got against Meath."

How Division 3's Cavan could get done for 3-20 by the same Kildare side that then spluttered to 22 fluffed attempts on goal -- 16 wide and six short -- against Division 4's Limerick will be one of a multitude of issues which will have occasioned sleepless nights for the driven McGeeney.

His side share similar traits -- and thus limitations -- to today's opposition. The difference is McGeeney, in his fifth year with Kildare, was supposed to have trumped every obstacle by now.

At huge expense, he has ultimately failed to do so and, although ill-fortune has mocked his reign -- dodgy frees and 'square balls' alike -- bad luck has not been as entirely coincidental as the often paranoid Kildare camp would like to suggest.

Self-imposed failings and McGeeney's own flaws have played as much a role as purported malign influences beyond his and the team's control.

That a young Meath team could so softly deconstruct the mythical machine so deftly crafted, yet relentlessly forged, by McGeeney and his management team, was a shock to the system.

One felt that the Cavan annihilation was almost reactionary; the Limerick performance, and attendant difficulties against a massed defence, seemed to more accurate mirror Kildare's current struggles.

"I think the game could be the making of us but it's a matter of getting a performance against Sligo and see how we go from there," reckons Emmet Bolton, who profited from Kavanagh's timely sacking in the Portlaoise gloaming.

"We will have to take a look at ourselves this week and at the game again and learn from it because if we play like that against Sligo, we will be beaten."

The talk in Kildare this week is that there was a lot of talk; physically, the squad have much done, some would argue too much, particularly in the light of the inconsistencies of display since their well-publicised training camp in Portugal.

The flaws are familiar; specifically an inability to convert from outside the '40', particularly when teams, like Limerick and Meath, station an extra man in defence to prevent the stronger Kildare men from deploying their powerful carrying game to bring them beyond there.

It wouldn't suit Walsh's natural footballing instincts to resort to a similar suffocating tactic, but with 70 minutes between his side and the last eight of the championship, the ends hover more significantly into view, not the means.

Brendan Egan from Tourlestrane helped DCU win a Sigerson by being deployed as an extra man while, if fully fit, Pat Hughes could also be deployed in that manner; Walsh was a keen observer in O'Moore Park and is destined to have something planned.


"Kildare are one of the leading teams, but they have weaknesses," offers Breheny.

"Limerick set themselves up defensively, put men behind the ball probably knowing that John Doyle was the only long-range kicker. They've shown there's a way around the Kildare system.

"Kevin Walsh has never operated like that, Sligo try to get the ball from defensive third to the attacking third as quickly as possible. Kildare, in fairness, are pretty similar.

"But Sligo have players who could play that role.

"It's about not parking the guys, just having guys funnelling back quickly. But Kevin knows he needs his team to play his own game as well, moving the ball inside a little bit more cutely than at times this season.

"What will encourage Sligo is that Kildare don't have any real prolific scorers, guys you wonder how will we mark this guy today, like you would against Kerry with Gooch and O'Sullivan or Dublin with the Brogans.

"They're hard-working and honest but they have to create a lot of scoring chances and the ratio can get quite high at times."

Kildare's chances are running out. Lose to Sligo and McGeeeney will probably lose his job.

It's that clear-cut. Existing to win, winning to exist. And if it takes more than 70 minutes, he'll feel each one of them as much as the players.

If they win, it's their glory. If they don't, the agony will be all his. Any wonder why managers say they'd give anything to be still playing.

Irish Independent

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