Saturday 16 December 2017

Alan Brogan: Kildare look set to give Dubs their best Leinster game in years - but are we expecting too much?

Read Alan Brogan every week in The Herald

4 June 2017; Kildare manager Cian O'Neill before the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Laois and Kildare at O'Connor Park, in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
4 June 2017; Kildare manager Cian O'Neill before the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Laois and Kildare at O'Connor Park, in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Alan Brogan

I thought nostalgia was getting the better of me there when recalling past Leinster finals so I checked and it turns out, I was right. In 2002, there were 78,000 in Croke Park when we beat Kildare in my first Leinster final.

In 2007, against Laois, the official attendance was over 81,000. Last year, there was only 38,000 at Dublin v Westmeath.

Back then, we were getting closer and closer to an All-Ireland and so the interest within Dublin to see us in those early games was much higher.

Mostly, though, it’s because there was an expectation that the Leinster final was going to be a competitive, entertaining match. Dublin haven’t just set a standard in Leinster since then, they’ve pushed on considerably.

All the while, the standard across the rest of the province has uniformly nose-dived.

What’s left is a competition where any one of five or six teams could be good enough for a place in the final but none of them are nearly good enough to avoid a hiding therein.

Maybe it’s because some of the counties in Leinster deem an All-Ireland to be far beyond them and, in theory, a provincial championship more attainable. Yet Dublin’s recent form pushes that goal further and further away – and when that happens, it’s harder for players to put that extra vital bit of effort in.

To compete at the level Dublin are at, it’s a full-time commitment. It’s every day, every minute of your life devoted to it. That’s the standard.

And if you don’t match Dublin for commitment, you’re not going to have a chance against them on the pitch.

The flipside of that is I’m sure it’s hard to give that total, manic devotion when deep down you know you’re probably not going to match them on the field anyway. The reality is that Dublin aren’t going to fade from view any time soon so it’s for others to come up to that level.

Step forward Kildare, saviours apparent of Leinster.

The team with the artillery, the athleticism, the organisation and the form to finally challenge Dublin.

Or, on the basis of that wholly impressive win over Meath in Tullamore at least, the best equipped team for some time to try anyway.

Are we expecting too much?

For context, Dublin beat Kildare in 2015 by 5-18 to 0-14.

In 2013, they won by 4-16 to 1-9, also featuring many of the same players that will take part in Croke Park on July 16.

Kildare have, prior to beating Meath, lost six Leinster semi-finals in-a-row, so let’s not get carried away. Yet, there’s no denying Cian O’Neill has started to put his stamp on the team.

The word that I heard from Kerry is that he’s very highly rated down there and you can clearly see Kildare starting to take shape. It’s his second year now and the natural trend is, save for an unexpected bounce like the one we got from Tommy Lyons in 2002, it takes most managers at least a year to begin seeing progress.

Especially for a team like Kildare, one that suffered their share of dispiriting losses and, in truth, probably had to be convinced as players that it was worth going to the well again.

Their form is good.

They’re promoted to Division 1, a pre-requisite for any team with ambitions of taking on Dublin in summer. They beat a Meath team, plenty said were making strides, by nine points in Tullamore.

It’s not often you see huge wins in provincial grounds – look at Dublin against Carlow in Portlaoise. When you get to Croke Park, it feels bigger and defenders are more isolated and your dominance tends to be magnified. Which is why beating Meath by nine points was so impressive. They’ve some very impressive forwards in Niall Kelly, Daniel Flynn, Cathal McNally and Paddy Brophy.

They have Ollie Lyons and Eoin Doyle at the back, Keith Cribbin is as athletic as they come and in Kevin Feely, maybe the most impressive performing midfielder this season outside of David Moran.

Feely is an interesting addition. He’s an ex-professional soccer player, though he shone for Kildare at underage levels beforehand, while Flynn, McNally and Brophy have all had stints as full-time athletes in Australia. Maybe now, the way they approach the business of preparing themselves for matches, is setting the tone for the rest of the players in the squad.

O’Neill is a smart man and he’ll have learned from Westmeath’s botched attempt to take Dublin on last weekend.

He won’t make that mistake, even with a team that is more talented and better conditioned than Westmeath.

He’ll have to be wary of not shipping too many scores in the first half. They have too many guys who can beat their men and stick the ball over the bar if they’re left one-on-one and the last thing anyone needs when they play Dublin is to go into half-time six or seven points down.

It’s about striking a balance.

In 2010, after Meath got the five goals against us in the Leinster semi-final, Pat Gilroy made the decision that we would keep six men back at all times in their traditional positions.

Our half-back line didn’t really cross the halfway line and if that might seem a bit extreme and more than a touch predictable, it keeps you solid and makes sure there’s no huge gaps in your defensive structure.

You might keep all six defenders back or it might be by having one of your half-forwards drop into one of the half-back positions when your wing-backs attack.

But I think it’s vital, given the firepower Dublin have, that any team makes sure they get nothing easy early on.

For the sake of the Leinster Championship, we need a big game from Kildare.

The reality is, whoever finally beats Dublin in Leinster is probably going to have to have at least one if not a couple of near misses before they do.

It’s hard to see a team coming from nowhere to beat Dublin.

All told, I don’t think Kildare are going to beat Dublin. I don’t think they have the strength in depth to beat Dublin.

They might have 12 or 13 guys who can really compete with them but once the game goes down the stretch, Dublin have the likes of Bernard, Kevin

McManamon and Eoghan O’Gara to bring in, it’s too difficult for any team to hang in there with them coming in fresh to finish off the game.

But it would be great if Kildare could at least bring Dublin down the stretch, give us a bit of a spectacle in those last few minutes. It would also foster the belief that the gap is closing, sparking a real rivalry in Leinster again.

Because the crowds at the Leinster finals in the past few years speak for themselves.

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