Consistency of selection keeping Kildare on the riseTop flight is within the Lilywhites' grasp again, writes Colm Keys
When a Dublin football team, taken almost exclusively from players outside of their all-conquering 2016 squad and current U-21s, turned Kildare over to reach an O'Byrne Cup semi-final in Newbridge, it was considered further evidence, not that any more was required, of the declining standards of Leinster football.
Kildare had the feel of a championship selection that afternoon, Dublin were largely drawn from All-Ireland-winning U-21 and minor squads from the previous six years and a healthy club scene.
But in terms of an order of merit this was, at best, a third-string side, even if acting manager Paul Clarke objected to that description.
Kildare manager Cian O'Neill expressed his 'disgust' with the result. They had led early on, had scored the game's only goals yet were helpless as Dublin hit the last five points, each one feeling like the nail in the coffin of the chasing pack in the province.
Having had to replace his entire management team in the off-season, it had to have compounded O'Neill's discomfort.
But just over two months on and Kildare are within one more win of booking their place back in the top flight where they occupied for two seasons, 2013 and 2014, before they fell through the trap door and landed in the third division.
Effectively, the same team that fell away so badly to Dublin at the end of January has picked themselves up to put themselves within touching distance of Division 1 again, courtesy of four wins from five, their only defeat coming courtesy of the concession of a late goal in controversial circumstances.
The temptation for O'Neill and his selectors, Ronan Sweeney and Enda Murphy, might have to perform radical surgery after such a defeat. But there was no knee-jerk reaction.
Instead faith was shown in 14 of those players for their opening Division 2 league match against Meath two weeks later, a match that looked like it was critical then to the promotion plot and appears to be even more so now.
That consistency of selection, threaded through their other four league games, has been a key component of their progress. Thirteen players have started all five games, only the two corner-forward positions originally occupied by Neil Flynn and Ben McCormack have rotated because of injury to the pair with Chris Healy, Cathal McNally and Conor Hartley deputising at different stages in the last three games.
O'Neill is getting to know his best team quickly and on Sunday they host Clare, their Division 3 final conquerors last April, in the knowledge that victory guarantees promotion with a game in hand.
Every line from goalkeeper Mark Donnellan to half-forwards Fergal Conway, Niall Kelly and Paul Cribbin have started all five games so far.
Kevin Feely has emerged as a real leader with his ability to play in a variety of positions.
Improvement has come at both ends. With 11-71, Kildare are the league's second highest scorers, just behind Armagh who have amassed 14-75.
With a score difference of 32, having conceded 2-66 in their five games, only Armagh are off a better mark in the four divisions.
Much of that exalted position they find themselves in is down to their own progress.
But the gap in standards between that hardcore of Division 1 teams and the rest is also a factor.
Few promoted Division 2 teams can stay the pace at Division 1 altitude. If we take it that Donegal, relegated in 2013, and Tyrone, relegated in 2015, are natural Division 1 teams in the current order and bounced back the following year that they went down, then only Monaghan have been able to make the leap and sustain it for any length of time.
Roscommon made semi-finals but already look to have booked their return ticket to Division 2, while Cavan, promoted last year, have helped themselves with that win in Mayo but have still left themselves a lot to do.
Behind Kildare in second place Galway have developed more consistency than they had 12 months ago but the other six teams are divided by just two points which makes the next two weekends so interesting.
Galway look best equipped to advance, having spent the last five campaigns in Division 2.