Thursday 20 June 2019

Frank Roche: 'Cian O’Neill must believe in Lilies but no one else is convinced'

Kildare manager Cian O'Neill. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Kildare manager Cian O'Neill. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Frank Roche

WAS Cian O’Neill playing to the dictaphones with his fighting talk in Tullamore?

Was it a Lilywhite flight of fancy, encouraged by the flimsy evidence of an 11-point win - at the second attempt - over Division 3 opponents who looked leg-weary from the off?

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Or is O’Neill actually serious when he talks about Kildare scuttling Jim Gavin’s ‘Titanic’, without any iceberg assistance, in Croke Park this Sunday?

“We are going to win that match, we are going to perform,” he predicted, as quoted in yesterday’s match reports.

He added, not quite so definitively: “The nature of the game of football is that in any one day, if you perform to your best, you are in with a shot.”

This column can only conclude that the Kildare boss really does believe that the Dublin juggernaut can be stopped and that his team is the one to do it.

We’re equally sure that this belief stems from that part of the brain where blind loyalty and optimism collide.

Put it this way: if a manager doesn’t believe, what hope for the players he must convince?

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But the reality - as portrayed time after time, trouncing after trouncing, during Gavin’s six-and-a-half year reign - is that Dublin never lose in Leinster and that double-digit victories are, with the very odd exception, a less-than-satisfying minimum requirement.

So, while it’s probably the right thing for O’Neill to accentuate the positive this week, the post-match reality is that countless managers in his position invariably end up admitting, in the cavernous Hogan Stand media room after it’s all over, that they were simply out of their depth. 

This column wasn’t in O’Connor Park for the Longford replay and you would glean very little from the truncated Sunday Game highlights. But we could surmise this, given the time and space afforded a host of Kildare men as they tapped over some of their 14 second-half points: Longford looked physically and mentally spent.

In such circumstances, it’s easy to look good. But you won’t get that against Dublin defenders not so much fighting to keep their Leinster crown as battling to retain their single-digit jerseys.

Consider all those who didn’t start against Louth: Philly McMahon and Rory O’Carroll came off the bench; minor ailments had ruled out Jonny Cooper and Eoin Murchan from the match-day 26.

Even in Croke Park, with its open spaces and forward-friendly surface, Kildare’s attack won’t have that luxury against Dublin. And even against lower-division, non-Dub mortals, Kildare have far too often lacked the clinical shooting and ruthless streak to finish off the opposition.

That’s how it was against Wicklow last month, when they led the Division 4 minnows by seven points and ended up hanging on by two.

That’s how it was in the original Longford stalemate. Three times they built up decent leads; three times they relaxed their grip on Longford throats. Clear goal chances morphed into points – or worse. These are the shortcomings that you’ll never get away with against Dublin.

O’Neill knows that. But at least the replay form graph was heading back in the right direction. Saluting his players for what he termed “an outstanding job”, he told The Sunday Game that this left “another 20-30pc for improvement going into next week, which is a nice place to be.”

Back in the studio, Ciarán Whelan and Pat Spillane struggled to share his optimism. Whelan cited how they’ve struggled without their go-to man in 2018, Daniel Flynn. Both pundits reckon that, since beating Mayo last summer, they’ve gone backwards.

“They’ll take confidence from 1-18 but they’ve a scary prospect ahead,” said Whelan.

“He says 30pc improvement for Kildare against Dublin,” added Spillane. “Oh gee, they need an 80pc improvement.”

O’Neill believes but the bookies don’t: BoyleSports have priced Dublin at 1/100. In a two-horse race. Says it all.

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