Sunday 21 January 2018

Fresh blood helps Lilies bloom again

New-look Kildare back in big time despite being written off after O'Byrne Cup humiliation by Dubs

Under Cian O’Neill’s direction Kildare have managed successive promotions and this afternoon the Lilywhites can claim their first silverware since winning the Division 2 final in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile
Under Cian O’Neill’s direction Kildare have managed successive promotions and this afternoon the Lilywhites can claim their first silverware since winning the Division 2 final in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

One of the stories of the spring has been Kildare's careering progress, galloping out of Division 2 and challenging the old Alan Hansen hypothesis that you won't win anything with youngsters. Of the team chosen to play Galway in today's Division 2 final only Keith Cribbin has played football for Kildare earlier than 2011, reaching back to Kieran McGeeney's first season, and he is still only 27.

A tidy percentage of the rest are one, two and three seasons into their senior careers. Ollie Lyons is something of a rarity at 31, though he has relatively low mileage, having first played for the county only six years ago.

With this irreverent and fearless turbo-blast of youth Kildare have been making heads turn. In the opening round of the league at Navan they blitzed Meath 3-17 to 0-16, with the newcomer Ben McCormack scoring an early goal and finishing with 1-3. McCormack, scorer of five points for the county under 21s in the provincial final against Dublin last year, has been troubled by a hamstring injury during the campaign but is fit again to take his place in the full-forward line.

There he will partner Niall Kelly, who is back to his lethal best. Kelly fired 2-2 against a Meath team that only narrowly missed out on promotion and doled out some harsh beatings themselves. Kildare's run gathered momentum when they put Cork to the sword at Newbridge a week later. A narrow loss to Derry in the third round checked their stride momentarily, before they hammered Fermanagh 4-14 to 0-14, defeated Down by five points in Newry and sealed promotion with a home win, by a point, over Clare with a round still to play. They made 13 changes and lost by only a point to promotion-chasing Galway. Had the game gone on a few minutes longer, the more likely winner, the team with all the momentum, was Kildare's second string.

It was a defeat to a second-string Dublin in the O'Byrne Cup semi-final that brought much criticism and aroused concern back in January. But Kildare responded perfectly in the league opener against Meath and have kept going ever since. There has been much to please. Their regular free-taker Neil Flynn had to have his appendix removed but Kevin Feely took over and it had no debilitating effect on the team. Feely, a promising underage player, only came on to the senior team last year after spending a few seasons away from Gaelic football while pursuing a soccer career. When they lost McCormack to a hamstring injury playing for the county under 21s, Chris Healy stepped in and did not look out of place.

"They took a fair bit of grief in the county for losing the O'Byrne Cup semi-final, especially when they had a strong team out themselves," says former team selector Morgan O'Callaghan. "So the first game in Navan was a really important one for them. Ben McCormack scored a goal from the throw-in and they took off from there. When you win the first two it sets you up in the league and usually determines the kind of league you are going to have.

"They responded well to the Derry game, which they looked to have won, but let in a bad goal in the last minute. David Slattery came in as a sub against Down and got two goals in the second half - players are stepping in each time."

Under Cian O'Neill's direction they have managed successive promotions and are back in a Division 2 final, which they last won, their most recent silverware, in 2012 when defeating Tyrone with Johnny Doyle as captain. Many of their more recognisable players like Doyle, Eoghan O'Flaherty and Padraig O'Neill are no longer involved, while Emmet Bolton has recovered from a burst appendix and is back on the bench along with fellow veteran Eamonn Callaghan.

Their spring form has made people sit up and take notice and will prick the interest of the wider pubic eager to see how they handle Galway in Croke Park today. The old ground has not been a profitable location for Kildare in recent times, with one win from three visits there last year.

Having sealed promotion as winners of Division 3, they went down to Clare in a high-scoring league final, with defensive frailties evident when Clare carried the ball at them and tested their defensive lines.

Since the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, Kildare have won only seven of their 23 visits to Croke Park. Five of their 16 defeats were against Dublin but they also suffered losses to nine other counties at the venue. Last year they defeated Wexford by one point in the Leinster quarter-finals, then lost to Westmeath in the semi-finals. They won against Offaly in the second round of the qualifiers and were eliminated by Mayo in Castlebar in round three, beaten by nine points.

O'Callaghan saw the difference that day, between where Kildare are and where they have to get to. "The big thing about all mid-level teams is that most of them don't have to deal with the physicality or the pace of Dublin and Kerry and Mayo. That is the big step up when you are in Division 1. Kildare have a lot of nice footballers. They will now be tested. Can they be more than nice footballers and add a strong defence and a physical element? That will be the next thing needed against better teams.

"Against Mayo last year they were competitive for long spells, and then all of a sudden in a burst it was game over. It is about how to perform in these spells against better teams when under pressure."

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