Wednesday 21 February 2018

Championship road has a familiar starting point for Kildare

Louth have history of inflicting summer heartache on Kildare, writes Aisling Crowe

As Kildare manager, John Crofton suffered defeat to Louth in 2007. Photo: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
As Kildare manager, John Crofton suffered defeat to Louth in 2007. Photo: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Aisling Crowe

The early days of summer 1991 and in Kildare, expectations of a scorcher are soaring. Mick O'Dwyer has ridden into town on his charger and immediately made an impact, leading the team to a National League final. Drogheda was the first stop on what Lilywhite fans were hoping was a road trip all the way to the promised land, but they ran out of road quicker than they could have imagined.

"I picked up a hamstring injury in the league final so I wasn't togged out unfortunately, I was on the sideline watching that horror show," recalls Sarsfields manager, and former Kildare player and manager John Crofton. "We got hit with a couple of controversial decisions in that game. Paddy Collins refereed it, I remember, and Stefan White scored a couple of goals. It was the shock of the year at the time. Our stock was high and even though we were away we were expected to jump that hurdle. It was knock-out, there were no back doors so it was a sickener."

The result gives the story a different hue when viewed through a red and white prism.

"Louth weren't given much of an opportunity against Kildare but we fancied whatever chance we had because the game was in Drogheda," says former manager Peter Fitzpatrick, who was in the Louth defence that day. "To be honest, I think it was the biggest crowd I'd seen for a Drogheda game, there wasn't one space left around the pitch. I thought Louth played exceptionally well, but the last 10 minutes were tense.

"A couple of goals were scored and it was a see-saw affair. Young [Jarlath] Gilroy got a goal that put Kildare ahead and they kind of thought the game was over, but then Stefan White got a goal for us. It was a fantastic game of football,"

That result was far from an isolated event. For those unfamiliar with the recent rivalry between the pair, it may come as a surprise to learn that Louth and Kildare have a fiercely fought championship rivalry. In six championship clashes over the past 23 years, the score is three apiece and the margin of victory has been tight.

History suggests the gods do not smile kindly on Kildare managers making their first forays into the white heat of the championship. Since Louth burst Micko's bubble back in 1991, only Pádraig Nolan of the men who came after the Kerry legend, has successfully negotiated his first hurdle.

Crofton is speaking from bitter experience as one of those who suffered the fate that Jason Ryan will be eager to avoid this afternoon. His tenure as Kildare manage was ended by Louth in the 2007 qualifiers.

"It was a massively disappointing occasion for us. We had Louth at home and the bogie struck again. We had a very poor performance that night, Louth hit the right notes really all the way and they weren't flattered by the win."

Having fallen victim to Louth, can Crofton pinpoint the pitfalls awaiting Kildare in Croke Park and how can Jason Ryan plot a safe course through them?

"I think that for some reason, Louth have been able to score goals against us, they have always seemed to be able to rattle the net. The exception might have been that defeat in Navan where they racked up 22 points but only scored one goal (2010 Leinster championship). Our defence needs to be tighter certainly than it was in the last couple of league games and I think it will be because that free-flowing, virtually no physical contact that occured in the league certainly hasn't been applicable in the matches I've seen so far.

"I think there will be a tighter, not necessarily defensive mentality, but we will be getting far more bodies behind the ball I suspect than we did in the league."

Kildare are going into the game not only with a new manager but without a trio of star names who provided leadership. Johnny Doyle, Dermot Earley and Ronan Sweeney have all departed the scene, but the new generation, nurtured by Kieran McGeeney and developed by Ryan, are ready, Crofton believes.

Crofton and Fitzpatrick predict the game's outcome will be dictated by the man who has been the colossus in Louth's midfield.

"Paddy Keenan is one of the best footballers in the country. He is two-footed, has a big engine and is a natural leader. He is a rallying force and his distribution skills are very good, his link-up play, he has every club in the bag as they say," says Crofton.

"I think the game will be won and lost in the middle of the field. Louth have picked Paddy Keenan and Brian Donnelly to play there and I see Michael Fanning, who is another midfielder, picked at corner-forward so I have a funny feeling that Louth might play a three-man midfield to try to stop the counter-attack and the way Kildare run as a team."

Time has moved on and both teams have known heartache since 1991, but the summer road trip has a familiar starting point.

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