Damian Lawlor: Kildare and Jason Ryan needs blend of courage and belief
Few give Kildare a chance, but they won't arrive in Croke Park without hope
Brian Lacey recalls a moment in 1997 when he thought the shock of the century, and all he had dreamed of, was about to become a reality.
In the days before he became an All Star corner back playing for Kildare, Lacey ploughed many a fruitless furrow for his native county, Tipperary, enduring several punishing Sundays along the way, some more excruciating than others.
The 1997 Munster championship match against Kerry falls into the latter category. Tipperary were given no hope of beating Kerry but Lacey and his team-mates had other ideas.
"Thought we were going to do it," he recalls. "We were probably the better team throughout. Then, same old story - a Denis O'Dwyer late goal, they clip on a couple of points and boom. We're down by five. Game over. No qualifiers then either. Season over."
Casting a rueful glance back, Lacey doesn't figure it was a lack of belief that saw Tipperary pipped at the post that afternoon, more a weariness that crept in towards the end of the game, blips in concentration here and there.
This, he insists, are what his adopted county Kildare will have to guard against if they are to avoid a pummelling against Dublin this afternoon.
Kildare's chances are rated somewhere between slim and none. One bookmaker has a points spread of Dublin at -11. The same bookie has put Kildare at 12/1.
Guarding against such extreme odds, Dublin manager Jim Gavin has tried to hype his opponents, but even his players were reduced to talking about 'not taking anything for granted'.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating - Kildare have slumped from the lofty heights of Division 1 of the National League to the backwaters of Division 3 in just two seasons.
Last year they were dumped out of the Leinster championship by Meath and barely got past Clare before finally producing a performance against Monaghan in a game that they should have won.
This year has been a mixed bag. They often played well during the spring but failed to see results for their toil. They looked decent against Laois in the first game and put up 3-18 against them in the replay, but that win is surely devalued following Laois's miserable collapse to Antrim last weekend.
Still, 3-18 is a noteworthy total. They had several different scorers in the replay; the corner and wing backs darted forward with success too which shows an admirable philosophy. Unlike the league when they handed three games to the opposition, they dropped more men deep behind the ball when they surrendered possession on both occasions against Laois.
"They have nothing to be afraid of," Tadhg Fenin, who is with the Kildare minor backroom team this afternoon, says. "Those Kildare players will go out onto that pitch with nothing to fear. The only thing they'll be afraid of is letting themselves, their families and clubs down. That's it. No one gives us a hope and that's probably fair enough but that doesn't mean there is an onus on Kildare to lie down. The target is the first 10 minutes, we need to get going quickly around the middle third and we need to make this a contest for as long as we can."
They have a manager, Jason Ryan, who has a history of putting it up to Dublin teams. Ryan was only 31 when he took over at Wexford in 2008 and brought them to an All-Ireland semi-final where they lost out to eventual champions, Tyrone. He never got there again but he gave Dublin lots of grief in trying to get back there, especially in 2010 when he had Pat Gilroy's side on the ropes.
Ryan was never one to take Dublin on at their own game. He came up with a game plan which worked for large parts of the games that they clashed in.
Those organisational skills will be badly needed today and it's what the Kildare players will have cried out for - a system where they can utilise their own strengths and still make life difficult for the Dubs.
Ryan will have given every Kildare player information on each opponent after scouring through hours of video research. He would also have encouraged them to do their own bit of work too.
Brian Lacey, in more recent years a coach with the Kildare minor and under 21 teams, says that while it will be a huge task for the county to come near a famous win, there are ways in which they can, at least, put themselves in a position to do so.
"Kick-outs are the first port of call," he says. "We have a fine 'keeper to find a man with a short kick-out but I wouldn't be rushing those restarts if I was him. And then they have to try and win as many Dublin kick-outs as possible.
"Kildare will need to have a system for set plays and frees and ensure that no matter what happens they kick the ball dead and not put it into Stephen Cluxton's hands. If they do find Cluxton Dublin will catch them on the counter. The Dubs also thrive on cheap turn overs and that's how they win so much of their ball. I would encourage the lads to cut down the time that the ball is in play.
"I would draw attention, too, to the fact that the Dublin kick-outs are not being marshalled properly by referees. That's my opinion. I would say that a lot of Cluxton's kick-outs are illegal. The ball, for instance, must go at least 13 metres from the 13 metre line. And all players must be outside the 20 metre line when those kicks are being taken. But several times there have been Dublin defenders within the 20. Sometimes Cluxton kicks from the 20 metre line and Ross O'Carroll takes possession from the 'D'. But to be legal the ball should go another six metres past the 20 metre line to hit the required 13 metres. These are things that teams need to start looking at in order to beat Dublin."
Lacey also feels Kildare need to show a hardness not often seen. "They have to be ruthless. They have to know the rules and how to stretch them. In Kildare, we have been very naïve in that regard over the years.
"They must manage the bench as well. Once the pressure comes on, they can disrupt Dublin's momentum by slowing the game down and using their subs to do so. I'm not being cynical here, I just feel that in a 70-minute game against Dublin in Croke Park you will need a time out or a breather here and there, so you slow it down in a constructive way. When you are playing your playing at 100 miles per hour, but when you need a break against them, take all the options.
The former corner back feels that all these aspects of game management are part and parcel of modern day Gaelic football. "At the very least they will need a man or two to drop back every time Dublin get on the ball," he stresses.
"There is a dilemma. Do they push up on Cluxton like Kerry did in 2011 when they forced him to kick long? Tomás Ó Sé set the template that afternoon by pushing up, but that takes balls because there is a risk attached - if the ball breaks and goes over the top of your defence you are stretched and they will punish you. But there's an old saying: 'If you don't risk anything you risk even more.'
"Kildare might be a bit off getting those dynamic forwards of the 2013 minor team but they have enough about them to attack too. Provided we don't give them easy access to the ball we have a chance."
Fenin believes that the two games with Laois will have improved Kildare and feels that their league form wasn't as bad as people think. He says the morale around the county has improved significantly in the past fortnight.
"Not many gave us a hope of beating Laois - and that was just within the county here, but we have taken a lot from the second game especially. If they are to go down today the key thing will be performance and something to bring into the qualifier match that the loser has to play against Offaly."
Lacey is confident that if it comes to it, Kildare could be a force in the qualifiers, but says they should go into this game with huge enthusiasm.
"There is a definite top five in operation at the moment in Gaelic football - Kerry, Dublin, Donegal, Monaghan and Mayo - and the rest are operating at a different level, in a different tier. But Kildare would be capable of beating any of the rest and they should approach this semi-final with their homework done, knowing what to do and still ready to express themselves. They could do worse than to look at the Waterford hurling system whereby the defence holds and they still average 22 points a game at the other end.
"No one gives them a hope in hell, but sure that's part of what the players look forward to - proving people wrong."
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