Thursday 18 January 2018

Cork to fully test Kildare's eternal qualifier hopes

Jason Ryan is feeling the pressure after another difficult season for Kildare
Jason Ryan is feeling the pressure after another difficult season for Kildare

Daragh Ó Conchúir

The qualifier series is an exercise in psychology as much as outright quality, which is why the clash involving Cork and Kildare is so intriguing.

Kildare have endured a difficult season. A second consecutive league relegation had many keyboard warriors baying for Jason Ryan's head on a plate, questioning his credentials and those of back-room staff with the terms 'clown' and 'buffoon' among those used.

In an increasingly black-and-white world of winners and losers, you are either a genius or a cretin. The cult of the manager means one person takes all the credit; the remainder blame and ridicule.

Ryan was in trouble from the start because he wasn't Kieran McGeeney, although now McGeeney is being questioned after his Division 3 Armagh side lost to Donegal and Galway in the championship.

Niall Carew, John Evans and indeed Brian Cuthbert are others that have been hailed and nailed alike.

There are many reasons Kildare are not as good as they were from 2009-2011, quite apart from the still-inexplicable decision to dump McGeeney.

There has been a huge turnover of players and amongst the absentees over the last two years are some gritty leaders, including men who set a standard on the training pitch even if they weren't playing.

Johnny Doyle, Dermot Earley, Mick Foley, James Kavanagh, Hugh McGrillen, Ronan Sweeney, Morgan O'Flaherty, Brian Flanagan, Paddy Brophy, Daniel Flynn and Seán Hurley have all departed in recent seasons.

Peter Kelly, Darryl Flynn, Mikey Conway and Eoin Doyle have been dogged by injuries and Keith Cribbin is ruled out for the season with a cruciate knee ligament injury.

Tomás O'Connor and Shane Connolly withdrew from the squad due to a lack of game time at the end of the League, while Athy clubmates Darroch Mulhall and David Hyland left after the Dublin demolition.

The circumstances were different with the quartet at differing stages of their career but the one common denominator was that they weren't getting on the pitch enough.

The other issue is one of confidence. Kildare are brittle and without the calibre of Doyle, Earley, Sweeney and Flanagan, do not react well to setbacks, making them a psychiatrist's case study.

Last year, after a good opening win against Mayo in Division 1, they blew a five-point lead at home to Tyrone with normal time elapsed by conceding two goals. Relegation ensued.

This season, the Lilies led Down by three with just seconds left and lost by four. They looked shattered for the rest of the campaign and again dropped down a division.

The thing about last year though is that they finished up strongly and were unlucky not to beat Monaghan in the last round of qualifiers.

The back door has been their redemption in the past eight seasons. Prior to that, their record was dreadful, with three wins from 10 attempts. Two of those losses came six days after Leinster final defeats.

Since 2008, Kildare have reached only one provincial decider and appeared in 22 qualifiers. That indicates a level of under-performance provincially but nonetheless, the record of 19 wins and two losses is remarkable, regardless of quibbles about the opposition. No other county possesses such a success rate.

In 2010, Kildare became the first team to make it through the four rounds. Their first qualifier defeat since the 2007 loss to Louth came against Tyrone in 2013. Last year's reverse, against Monaghan, came after extra-time.

One of McGeeney's many success after his arrival was to steel the players' resolve in the face of adversity. When knocked to the canvass, they got back up. He made them believe every fight was worth fighting and that the season could still end with silverware even when the Leinster dream had died.

Through the current championship, Kildare's state of mind has been the main theme. They have looked jittery in the first round of Leinster against Laois, and the qualifier against Offaly. Having survived those outings, they were significantly better next time out.

Eoghan O'Flaherty has been brilliant throughout the summer, providing vision and leadership. Paul Cribbin looks like a senior footballer now and would make most teams in the country as a strike runner. The return to fitness of Eoin Doyle has provided steel to the defence.

Colm O'Neill and Co will test Kildare's defensive patterns in a manner that Laois, Offaly and Longford were not equipped to.

Yet these are the Qualifiers and for Kildare, that means hope is eternal.

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