Wednesday 21 February 2018

Kildare's firm grip on Royals

McElkennon insists Meath ‘a match for anyone’ as they bid to conjure magic of Dublin mauling in 2010 and finally bring end to Lilies hoodoo

Meath manager Seamus McEnaney, right, and Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney square up at the NFL game in March last yea
Meath manager Seamus McEnaney, right, and Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney square up at the NFL game in March last yea
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When Meath put five goals past Dublin two years ago to book a place in the Leinster final for the first time in nine years, it brought to an end a losing sequence of five matches against their most storied rivals.

That sequence, which stretched back to the 2001 Leinster final, haunted many of the Meath players that had persevered through what was largely a trophyless decade.

Two All-Ireland semi-final appearances were as much the offshoot of benign qualifier draws that allowed early momentum to build, as they were an entitlement to be classed a top-four team.

For so many, the absence of a Dublin scalp, either in league or championship, felt like a stain on their careers.

So they set about redress for Leinster championship defeats to Dublin in the 2002, '05, '07 (after a replay) and '09 championships and the '08 league match at Parnell Park when five players were sent off and more than a dozen picked up suspensions.

They had simply taken enough of being on the receiving end of Dublin for nine years and played above themselves.

The scoreline was freakish, but it reflected a Meath team that was given an inch and took the proverbial mile for liberation. Dublin have not conceded more than one goal in a championship match since.

On Sunday, Meath face a Leinster semi-final against Kildare on the back of five successive defeats to the same opponents over the last 23 months -- the same figure that provided the backdrop to their lead-in to toppling Dublin two years ago.

Every time they have turned a corner to make a few strides over the last two seasons, they have found themselves facing the iron fist of Kildare pinning them by the throat at arm's length.

Meath have swung frantically and at times have gone close. But Kildare's grip has remained firm. Their dominance over Meath has helped them to quite an elevated position.

In the conscience of the GAA public, Kildare rank anywhere between No 4 and No 6 in anyone's assessment of what an order of merit might look like.

Yet in the four championship seasons that they have been building under Kieran McGeeney's management, they have never once lowered the colours in championship football of a team that could be considered top six.

Dublin (twice), Cork, Tyrone and Donegal have all had their measure in that period. But beating Meath has become almost a rite of passage for these Kildare players.

Nothing reflected that position more than their National League meeting in early March this year. Meath had begun the league impressively with wins over Monaghan and Westmeath, while Kildare had faltered somewhat with defeats to Tyrone and Monaghan.

For different reasons then, their seasons intertwined in Navan that night with much at stake.

Few could have envisaged how they could have embarked on such different paths after such a frantic finish, with Shane McAnarney striking an upright with an attempt to put Meath one point clear, before Ollie Lyons darted past the cover at the other end just seconds later to pinch a winner and spark celebrations in the Kildare camp.

Four such subsequent defeats put Meath into Division 3 and sparked a county board executive heave against the management, while Kildare took off in a different direction, winning their next four before taking the Division 2 crown -- the first meaningful piece of silverware in the McGeeney era -- with victory over Tyrone.

This week, Martin McElkennon, Meath's strength and conditioning coach and a current selector, found himself reflecting on how bad luck in last year's matches cost Meath and how that defeat in March points to positives in their ongoing efforts to rein in Kildare rather than the negative consequences that followed it.

"This team is due a break -- there's definitely no doubt about it. Had Graham's (Geraghty) goal gone in, the story would have ended up differently (in last year's Leinster quarter-final). Seamus Kenny, to me, was Man of the Match on the second day in Navan (before injury forced him off with 10 minutes to go in last year's third-round qualifier). He scored two points off Emmet Bolton."

McElkennon is convinced that players don't feel the weight of recent history on their shoulders the same way as everyone else see it. "I think the players just get on with the job. I don't think they think the same way as us. They spend time on videos and go back and go back. They only worry about themselves," said McElkennon.

"People, media, and the papers will look at all those things, but I honestly don't think the players will read anything into that. The players have enough belief in themselves that on a given day, they're as good as anybody. There are a lot of new players in this set-up that didn't play in some of those games last year."

Yet the inescapable fact is that Kildare have Meath at arm's length and there is little to suggest that it will change.

The probability that Kevin Reilly won't play because of an Achilles injury robs Meath of a player who has handled Tommy O'Connor so successfully in the past. O'Connor is developing into perhaps Kildare's most important forward.

And the nagging doubt has to play on Meath minds that despite throwing everything into the game in March and scoring two goals, they still came up short, regardless of what McElkennon's thinking is.

Whatever other doubts may exists with Kildare, their conviction to beat this Meath team hasn't weakened.

Irish Independent

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