Wednesday 13 December 2017

One step at a time

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

THE cheques were written a long time ago in Kildare but still await a signatory.

That's certainly the perception among the supporters, many of whom believe that there's a sense of destiny surrounding the latest attempt to end the 84-year wait for an All-Ireland title.

Deep down, they are convinced that the investment in the current squad and its manager Kieran McGeeney will eventually yield a handsome dividend, leaving them cashing 'joy cheques' all over the county and beyond.

They see parallels with Dublin, who took several years to chart their way to the top, having experienced some spirit-draining knocks along the way. They also cite Cork, who knew misery in its darkest form before finally replacing it with elation in 2010.

There's a significant difference of course, in that Dublin were consistently winning Leinster titles, while Cork were sharing the Munster equivalent with Kerry but couldn't reproduce their best form when they encountered their neighbours in Croke Park.

As for Dublin, their conquerors of 2005, '07, '08, '09 and 2010 all won the All-Ireland title. It wasn't any consolation, but at least Dublin were losing to the very best.

Kildare's story is different. With the exception of last year, none of the teams that beat Kildare in the McGeeney era went on to win the All-Ireland.


Irrelevant? Possibly, but it would still have been encouraging for Kildare to spend the winters figuring out how they could have beaten the All-Ireland winners rather than wondering how many other teams might have edged them out.

Still, the comparison with Dublin is interesting. Despite dominating Leinster for all but one of the last seven seasons, Dublin took some terrible hits at All-Ireland level, principally in '08 and '09 when they lost to Tyrone and Kerry respectively by a combined total of 28 points.

And when they installed a new engine in 2010, it stalled badly against Meath, who dispatched five goals to the Dublin net in the Leinster semi-final.

Pat Gilroy saw it as a one-off, retained faith in the new design and has been rewarded by a run in which Dublin have lost just one (versus Cork in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final) of 11 championship games in almost two years.

There's a feeling in Kildare that their persistence is taking them on the same relentless drive towards the top. Empowered by the Boxer (the horse) philosophy -- "I must work harder" -- from George Orwell's 'Animal Farm,' their zeal has made such an impression that they are clear fourth favourites behind Cork, Dublin and Kerry to win this season's All-Ireland title.

Tyrone, superpowers for nearly a decade; Mayo, a consistent presence in Division 1 and conquerors of Cork in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final; and Donegal and Down, both of whom beat Kildare in the championship over the last two seasons, are well behind them in the betting lists which are, of course, established by public support.

It's difficult to rationalise why precisely that is the case.

Over the last four championships, Kildare failed to record even one win against a team ranked ahead of them, in marked contrast to Mayo, Down and Donegal, a trio also striving diligently towards making the big breakthrough.

And yet, there's a perception of Kildare as the county most likely to disrupt Dublin/Cork/Kerry this year. It's a view supported by the theory that, sooner or later, their luck will change.

After all, they were extremely unfortunate to lose the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, having been the victims of an incorrect 'square ball' call which gifted Down a precious goal, while Kildare were infuriated -- and with considerable justification -- when Dublin were awarded a match-winning free in last year's Leinster semi-final for what they regarded as a phantom foul on Bernard Brogan.

History shows that luck tends to spread itself fairly evenly over the years, leaving Kildare hoping that 2012 is the season when they finally get a few crucial breaks.

It may have already started. Their return to Division 1 owed quite a lot to good fortune. Two early defeats by Tyrone and Monaghan appeared to have zapped their promotion prospects but they took nine of the remaining 10 points. In previous years, nine points would not have been enough to win promotion but it was this time.

Also, they were fortunate to beat Meath by a point in a crucial game in Navan and even more blessed to take a point off Galway in the last game in Pearse Stadium after trailing by four points in the 64th minute.

Kildare can contend that those two results owed everything to their resolve and maturity but, alternatively, it could be down to pure luck, dispatched by the gods who were feeling guilty after events in the last two championships.

Having broken Kildare's way in the spring, luck may well stay with them for the summer. Ultimately, that may prove more important than anything else, even if it's beyond the control of players and management.

After missing the promotion cut over four successive seasons, Kildare were understandably delighted to have finally escaped from the second league tier in April.

They regarded it as real sign of progress, especially when they beat Tyrone in the final.

And yet, there has to be a doubt about the true merit of Division 2, certainly by comparison with the top end of Division 1, which houses the leading All-Ireland contenders.

Neither Galway nor Meath, who made life so difficult for Kildare in the league, have franked the form; Westmeath lost to Louth who, in turn, were humiliated by Dublin.

Monaghan struggled to beat Antrim, who were in Division 3, while Derry have yet to show their championship hand.

That leaves Tyrone as the remaining yardstick, one which needs further assessment after last Sunday's win over Armagh. It looked quite progressive but then Armagh were coming off league campaign which ended in relegation from Division 1.

The big question surrounding Kildare centres on their rate of advance from last year. The rest of the main contenders certainly won't come back to them so they will need to improve if the gap is to be closed. Question is: where will the improvement come from?

In terms of raising confidence levels, they badly need to win the Leinster title, not just to finally land a trophy but to give them a different impetus in the All-Ireland race.

The confidence gleaned from winning Leinster, especially if they were to beat Dublin in the final, would be enormous.

Apart from keeping them away from the qualifier route, and all the perils therein, it would ease the pressure which comes from being annual contenders with nothing tangible to show at the end of the year.

The Leinster draw has been good to Kildare, offering them Offaly in the first round at a time when their neighbours are at their weakest for quite some time, followed by Meath or Carlow, who have yet to settle their argument. It's looks like an ideal route for Kildare into the Leinster final.

It's only then that a proper assessment can be reached on whether they are real All-Ireland contenders or a top-six side as has been the case in recent years.

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