Kildare on the road to redemption
Kildare have staved off a crisis with a rousing run in the qualifiers
It is only a short time ago that Kildare followers were staring into their half-empty glasses and speculating on Jason Ryan's likely successor. A sense of fatalism swept across the flat lands even before relegation to Division 3 of the National League was confirmed by defeat in Tuam in early April. The reading of the tea-leaves did not bode well for Ryan and his backroom team.
But, be the hokey, here they are - Kildare! - playing football into August and sharing the stage with All-Ireland champions Kerry on the back of a rip-roaring win over Cork eight days ago. If the reactions were unduly downbeat earlier in the year there needs to be an equal restraint placed on escalating Kildare expectations now. Yet some credit is due to all concerned.
A second successive relegation appeared to settle minds that Ryan was not fit for this task to which he was appointed after Kieran McGeeney's dismissal in a controversial vote in 2013. That belief hardened when they finished 19 points behind Dublin in the Leinster semi-final. Now it is harder to imagine Ryan not being there in 2016 unless today brings some catastrophe. Kildare have earned their place in the final eight. Their most recent victim is one of those high-ranked counties marked absent from previous Lilywhite expeditions through the qualifiers.
The calmer observer will tell you it was never as bad as it seemed. "We would always have seen ourselves as a Division 1 or 2 team," says Johnny Doyle, who retired two years ago. "You might drop down to Division 2 to catch your breath but you would expect to be back up in the company of the Division 1 teams before long.
"So, to be in Division 3, it didn't sit well with the general public around Kildare. But it did not sit well with the players either. From my own point of view it was not the end of the world. You were missing a few key players though injury. In the earlier games Eoin Doyle and Niall Kelly didn't start, and they are in now and they have a bit of form. They are big players for Kildare. They sort of make things happen."
Ryan's difficulty is trying to create his own imprint after six years of McGeeney, which ended after defeat by Tyrone in the third round of the qualifiers in 2013, the first time under his guidance the team failed to reach the quarter-finals.
Ryan steered Kildare to the final round of the qualifiers last year, where they lost in early August to Monaghan after extra-time. Now he has gone a step better, progress in any man's language. He has had to deal with injuries and other absences which were the result of personal choice. Paddy Brophy and Seán Hurley left last autumn for careers in the AFL. Daniel Flynn returned from Australia and was part of Kildare's league campaign but is no longer on the squad. After the league, Tomás O'Connor pulled out too. And a few days after being trounced by Dublin they lost Athy players David Hyland and Darroch Mulhall, who took up invitations to play in the US for the summer. Neither was a regular on the team but the decision was a blow to Ryan at a time when spirits were low.
Ryan spoke after the qualifier win over Offaly of the difficult time they endured in the wake of the Dublin defeat only six days earlier. "I have been in that situation myself," says Johnny Doyle, "it was always going to be an uphill struggle against Dublin, no point saying otherwise, but I know lads would be very disappointed in the manner of the defeat. Maybe that's where experienced players come in, where you look for Emmet Bolton and players like that, people who have been through the mill, to say, 'that is over now, we can mope around all week, and have Offaly turn us over, or we can have a right go at the qualifiers.'"
Doyle says that the departure of players can have a galvanising effect. "You expect everyone to be singing off the same hymn sheet. When someone goes, if I was involved, I would be disappointed even though lads have their reasons. Sometimes it's in adversity that character is shown and I think that has happened."
Morgan O'Callaghan, a Kildare selector, describes the challenge they faced ahead of the qualifiers. "The biggest thing is to lift the mood of players and their belief. Again, more often than not, whether it's a large victory or large defeat, it is somewhere in between where you really are. So it was about getting them to believe they still had plenty of football ability, that they were still well capable of progressing. Offaly was probably a good draw - some of the lads would have gone to school in Edenderry and been familiar with the Offaly lads, so that local rivalry added a bit of bite."
Offaly, coming off a dispiriting loss to Longford before relaunching with a win over Waterford, threw everything at Kildare and came up two points short. That provided the breathing space Kildare needed. They blew Longford away and ran Cork ragged. They have no bleak history with Kerry and can go out and have a cut.
"I don't think anyone involved in the panel would have played Kerry in the championship, 2002 was the last time we met," says Johnny Doyle. "But 22 consecutive passes like you had inside the Cork 45 - that will not happen against Kerry. People like to talk about Kerry's football technique but they play a tough game. Kerry are one of the toughest teams I ever played, they hit you hard, though it is all fair - they (Kildare) will get that. And they'll pinpoint the likes of Paul Cribbin and Niall Kelly.
"Kildare have confidence coming back into the team and I don't think you are going to get any hugely negative tactics from Kerry either. You would expect them to come out and play football. It is going to be very, very tough to get a result. Kildare will have to find an extra level to what they found against Cork and maybe Kerry will have to hit a bit of an off-day for Kildare to win."
Doyle says earlier talk of removing Ryan from the management post was "crazy" and not grounded in reality. Former Kildare player Peter McConnon, who also served as county under 21 manager, watched all of their league campaign with the exception of the game against Galway while working as co-commentator for the local radio station Kfm. "The body language of the players was poor, it looked like a team that was flat, low on confidence, devoid of ideas. At times there seemed to be no unity there whatsoever. Lads were walking with the heads down."
They were unlucky too, he accepts. Last year they had Tyrone beaten, five points up with time almost up, and then conceded two goals. The previous round brought a one-point loss in Cork after they started off with a win over Mayo. There were further missed opportunities in the earlier stages of this year's campaign which set the pattern for what followed. In the penultimate round they needed to beat Laois to retain hopes of survival and did so.
"Down in Portlaoise, I thought they played exceptionally well, battled really hard, went back to where they were earlier in the league," says McConnon. "They went to Galway still in with a chance. Relegation meant they went into the championship low on confidence. I'd say it took a toll on a lot of players. People were crying for Jason Ryan's head but he has turned it around - now whether the performances are enough to mask some cracks remains to be seen. If you look at where Kildare were after the Dublin match, people would have to say fair play to Jason Ryan for getting to a quarter-final."
McConnon says that in the win over Longford, Kildare played the best football he had seen from them in 12 months. The mood has shifted and Dublin and the National League have faded into the background.
O'Callaghan rues the good positions they allowed slip in early-round league matches against Down and Meath, and a dreadful shooting performance which brought defeat at the hands of Westmeath, with a 30 per cent conversion rate.
The return to full fitness of Niall Kelly, who injured a hamstring playing for the under 21s, has been a factor in their improved performances but there are only a couple of changes from the team that lost so heavily to Dublin. Tommy Moolick has also added immeasurably to the team. Beyond that there has been no radical overhaul or magic remedy. It has been about knuckling down and getting a few wins and some momentum.
"You have to give a lot of ownership to players because ultimately they have to dig it out on match day," says O'Callaghan, "especially the more experienced players; they have been down this road before. They work with the younger guys to let them know that Leinster is one competition but a new one has begun and that started with the game against Offaly.
"Nobody wants to get relegated. You have to have a belief in what you are doing. We lost a few games where there were very fine margins. In the championship against Laois, we felt we showed good character coming back (from three points down to draw) and it was undoubtedly a pressure game, having been relegated. It was a big game for us. We were good in the replay, especially after half-time, and while the Dublin game was very disappointing we had to go back and get belief from the Laois game, and the win over Offaly added to that. I suppose the big thing in the qualifiers is momentum and confidence grows as you get victories."
But they were brittle and Offaly was the game-changer. "I have no doubt Offaly would have viewed that game as a great opportunity to beat their neighbours, they would probably have felt we were ready to be taken," says O'Callaghan. "Our lads showed character on the day; even when we conceded the late goal it could have been easy to concede another. We won a couple of important balls and closed the game out."
And now Kerry, where a win, tall order that it is, would see Ryan emulate McGeeney's best year with Kildare. "We are playing the All-Ireland champions," O'Callaghan states respectfully. "You have to be at your best. We want to progress further now. We certainly don't see it as the end of the road."
The same road has been anything but predictable so far.
Sunday Indo Sport