Martin Breheny: Leinster's chasing pack
Martin Breheny gets the inside track on how the pretenders to Dublin’s crown are shaping up
DUBLIN'S All-Ireland success last year not only sent morale soaring in the capital but also fired a jolt of energy through Leinster as counties realised that the new benchmark was, for the first time since 1999, located within their own province.
Tonight's Allianz League programme provides an early-season opportunity to assess the progress of three of Dublin's main Leinster rivals and whether they are likely to launch a major challenge to Pat Gilroy's crew this year. Laois welcome the chance to test themselves against the All-Ireland champions in Portlaoise, while Meath and Kildare clash in Navan.
Willie McCreery (Kildare midfielder, 1998, 2000 Leinster winning teams)
He ran a straight, honest line as a Kildare player during their most successful period for seven decades and now, as a supporter and close observer, he hasn't deviated in his approach.
McCreery trains horses for a living these days but also keeps a close watch on Lilywhite fortunes, a pursuit which has alternated between optimism and frustration in recent years.
Kildare have taken their Championship campaign into August for the last four seasons but never quite made it to September. Nor have they decorated the summer with a Leinster title -- in fact, they reached only one provincial final -- which has also raised the disappointment level.
"Last year would have been a great time to win a Leinster. We'd been in the All-Ireland semi-final the year before and looked to have made good progress so it was very disappointing not to win Leinster, at least," said McCreery.
"After losing to Dublin last year, we weren't going to win the All-Ireland but we'd have had a right good chance if we won Leinster because it would have given the squad real confidence. It's different in the qualifiers. We're a great county through the back door until we get to a certain stage but we've still won nothing. That's the frustrating part."
He has specific issues with aspects of how Kildare set themselves up -- in particular, their deployment of Johnny Doyle.
"I couldn't understand why he was played back as an extra man against Dublin last year. He's most valuable when he's within shooting distance of the opposition goal. And if he's to be played as a third midfielder, he should be going forward all the time. That's where he's most dangerous."
Kildare's failure to get out of Division 2 in recent seasons is also a source of concern, a pattern which will almost certainly continue if they fail against Meath tonight.
"When you don't win promotion, you can always say you're concentrating on the Championship, but the thing is you're better prepared for the Championship if you're in Division 1. You're playing stronger teams all the time so you're in better shape heading into the Championship. Division 1 teams win the All-Ireland," said McCreery.
Kieran McGeeney has worked hard at getting the Kildare squad to a level of fitness that can match -- if not surpass -- anybody, but it hasn't been enough to provide that vital extra edge.
"Physically, Kildare are very fit and well conditioned but it's still a game of football, not a game of muscle men," said McCreery. "Whoever scores the most wins -- that never changes in football and never will."
The Kildare attack is regularly criticised for its modest scoring return, especially when it comes to goals, but McCreery also has concerns about the Lilywhites' midfield and defence.
"When we were winning Leinster titles back in 1998 and 2000, we had the best backs in the country. Maybe we didn't always score enough but we were very tight in the backs," he said.
"Now, we seem to have problems on both fronts -- and playing Johnny Doyle at midfield is not the answer.
"The Kildare backs work fierce hard but then tend to give away a stupid free in front of goal which undoes the good work. At the other end, we're finding it hard to score against ordinary teams."
For all that, Kildare have reached a level from where a small injection of inspiration might make all the difference. McCreery still believes that the Leinster Championship provides the best opening, even if it will be extremely hard to win it this year.
"Meath are on a bounce and Dublin will be even stronger than last year but I still think it's the best chance Kildare have of winning something," he said.
"I don't agree with the view that entering the qualifiers gets a team on a roll and that losing in the provincials is no real setback. Teams are playing every week if they go into the qualifiers early on. That takes its toll, and you're always likely to pick up injuries too."
McCreery is concerned that if Kildare fail to win a title under McGeeney, the aftermath could be problematic.
"Lads could feel burned out and find it hard to pick things up again. We'd be hoping to get a few breaks that might make the difference this year and maybe win Leinster, but we probably had a better chance last year," he said.
Mattie Kerrigan (Meath All-Ireland winner and ex-Westmeath and Cavan manager)
Meath supporters who travelled to Gracefield on Wednesday night for the Leinster U-21 first-round clash with Offaly were not encouraged by what they saw.
Kerrigan was among them and came away wondering what had happened to the underage scene in Meath. It wasn't the defeat that concerned him most, but rather the absence of individuals who could definitely be pencilled in as future senior stars. It has been the same for a few years.
"Winning titles isn't all that important at underage level. It's nice, of course, but it's more important to be picking up two or three stand-out players every year, lads you know will make it at senior level. We haven't been doing that in Meath the way we used to. I don't know why that has happened but it needs to be examined," he said.
That's a medium-term project, which won't yield any return for the current set-up as it attempts to steer its way back up through the rankings after a succession of volatile seasons.
Meath reached All-Ireland semi-finals in 2007 and 2009 and won the 2010 Leinster title, a return which should be most encouraging, yet there's no sense in the county that it's close to hosting Sam Maguire any time soon.
"The way it is in Meath at the moment is that we're capable of beating anyone on a given day or of losing to anyone on a given day. The consistency hasn't been there for a long time and without that you're lost. We need to go on a run of five or six wins and get back Meath's name as a county that's to be feared again," said Kerrigan.
Wins over Monaghan and Westmeath in their first two League games have put them in a position to embark on the type of run Kerrigan talks about, which makes tonight's clash with Kildare so important.
Kildare have beaten Meath in their last three League and Championship meetings, a sequence which would have been unheard off some years ago. If Kildare win tonight, it will get their promotion chase back on track, while defeat would turn the campaign into a relegation battle. Meanwhile, a Meath win would not only further press their promotion case but provide a psychological uplift for later on.
"A Meath win would be a huge boost. We have been behind Kildare for a few years now, and while beating them in the League wouldn't automatically change that, it would be a start. Better still if Meath could get out of Division 2 -- teams really improve from playing in Division 1 against all the big boys," said Kerrigan.
He cites bad luck with injuries (Kevin Reilly, Shane O'Rourke and Joe Sheridan among others) as a destabilising factor for Meath in recent years but, more fundamentally, the problem has been rooted in the breakdown in the supply lines.
"A fair few counties have beaten Meath at underage level and when those lads come in as seniors they believe they can beat Meath again. We need to get back to the stage where teams fear Meath just because of who we are," said Kerrigan.
He sees signs of hope for this year as Meath are on the same side of the Leinster draw as Wicklow, Carlow, Offaly and Kildare, with the latter regarded as the biggest threat to a Leinster final appearance.
"It would be good to put down a marker against Kildare on Saturday night. Show them that Meath are different this year. You can never start early enough when it comes to that," said Kerrigan.
Joe Higgins (Former Laois defender and 2003 All Star)
Patience and Laois don't tend to be all that compatible, but Higgins has no doubt that it's a much required virtue in the county right now.
"Look at how much time Kildare have given Kieran McGeeney. Laois tend to change managers quite often, which isn't necessarily the best thing to do. I have no doubt that Justin McNulty has learned an awful lot from last year and he'll learn more this year," he said.
"Last year's Championship was disappointing for Laois but at least we're in Division 1 now where the lads are getting valuable experience against the top teams. That will stand to them."
Laois lost to Dublin and Kildare by a combined total of 23 points in last year's Championship -- a double dip which didn't augur well for this season, but after losing to Mayo in the first round of the League, they beat Donegal in Letterkenny.
According to Higgins, the comparison between Laois and Donegal is interesting. Laois beat Donegal by four points in the Division 2 group game last year and lost the final by a point to Jim McGuinness' side, so the counties looked fairly even going into the summer. It didn't turn out that way.
"We had a bad Championship while Donegal went on to win Ulster and came close to beating Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. Little things can make a big difference in the direction a season takes. There's plenty of good young players coming through in Laois and I know the hard graft is being put in. It's a work-in-progress but it's getting there," he said.
One of the interesting experiments McNulty is trying out this year features the use of Padraig Clancy at full-forward. He was especially effective against Donegal, and Higgins believes the move could work over the longer term too.
"He's a great man to win a high ball. He's also very agile. He'll need the right corner-forwards to play off him but this could work. Padraig was played in the forwards before but didn't really like it because midfield was his favoured position but now he's happy to give it a go at full-forward and it certainly worked against Donegal. It's early days but it's well worth a shot," said Higgins.
Despite the win over Donegal, Laois are still odds-on (4/6) to be relegated. However, thanks to Cork's indiscretions against Armagh, Laois will have four of their remaining five League games in Portlaoise, starting tonight with the visit of Dublin.
"We have Dublin and Cork in the next two games, which will tell us a lot about how the squad is shaping up.
"Whatever happens in those games, I'd be optimistic for the year ahead and indeed for the next few years but Laois supporters have to be patient. It's easy to criticise and be negative but it gets you nowhere. There's a big effort going in and after that all you can do is hope that the players are good enough to move things on. I'd be confident that they are," said Higgins.