Sunday 18 February 2018

McGeeney backs his players to 'knuckle down'

Kildare's Eoin Doyle sees off the challenge of Sligo's Johnny Davey during their victory in Roscommon on Saturday
Kildare's Eoin Doyle sees off the challenge of Sligo's Johnny Davey during their victory in Roscommon on Saturday
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Kieran McGeeney had barely begun to digest what was possibly the most complete defensive display of his Kildare tenure when the lights of Gaelic football's most powerful juggernaut came roaring over the horizon at his team.

The drums had rolled quite kindly for them in the previous three draws but now they have run out of road and must stand and feel the impact of a date with Cork.

"A mammoth week ahead so," reflected McGeeney on hearing the news.

Nothing like the swift onset of the next draw against the most consistent team in the country over the last three years to ensure that their fourth-round qualifier in Hyde Park would quickly be consigned to insignificance.

Not that it wouldn't have been filed away in this category pretty quickly anyway.

From early on it had an inevitable feel about it. Kildare pushed up hard on Sligo's defenders and hit them with everything. The tackles flew in, the turnovers clocked up. Kildare were everything they hadn't been four weeks earlier against Meath. By the 12th minute they were 0-6 to 0-0 ahead and even allowing for the wind you could sense their urgency to get business done quickly.

But for the next 60 minutes or so they barely managed to double that early tally, and it is a source of concern that for all their endeavour, the ruthless streak required to survive at higher altitude just doesn't come easily.

Remarkably, this was a 13th qualifier win out of 14 played (they drew one against Antrim) on McGeeney's five-year watch. It reflects a team that struggles with expectation but can thrive on adversity. It is a sequence that points to character.

In each of those five years they have reached an All-Ireland quarter-final. Only the big three -- Kerry, Cork and Dublin -- have also achieved that. It's illustrious company to keep.

Yet McGeeney accepts the undisputed fact that they have yet to bring a top team to its knees. They've been planting their flags on foothills too often when it's a giant peak they need to scale.

"I would agree with most opinions. We haven't made it to the finals yet and we haven't beaten All-Ireland champions," he said.


"There is a huge expectation in Kildare, even though their history doesn't portray that, in terms of what people say they should win.

"Over the past while it has been a wee bit similar, in that things have got on top of the players and they have been a wee bit flat (in provincial games).

"They've been able to dig deep, go back into their reserves and prove they are a capable team."

What does the ability to rebound every time say about the team he has constructed then?

"It's very difficult. You can't talk too much about it because the last couple of weeks we've been called paranoid, whingers and criers," added McGeeney.

"You just knuckle down. Even though I have yet to hear anything from our camp. Whatever comes from other sources seems to be attributed to us.

"The boys put their heads down and work. It's a hard slog to keep coming back year after year. There are only a couple of teams fit to do it. You're just hoping that there is enough in the tank against the best team around."

If they defend like they did on Saturday night, then it's the perfect base from which to spring an ambush.

With Mick Foley, originally a stop-gap figure in the position, hugely industrious again at midfield and Mikey Conway enjoying an extra yard of space to spray neat passes around the place, Kildare always looked comfortable.

John Doyle continues to improve with every game through the qualifiers and while his legs lack spark, his heart beats strong, as exemplified by his ability to win first-half breaks beneath Foley and Rob Kelly.

With Tomas O'Connor winning just about everything fired into him, it should have been only a matter of time before they were out of sight. But Sligo, helped by an Adrian Marren free just before the interval that looked decidedly wide -- there was consultation among the officials but no change of decision this time -- somehow trailed by just 0-8 to 0-3 at the break.

They went from bad to worse, however, after that and it was a most inglorious end to their campaign.

With what may well have been his last contribution on a stage on which he has featured for the last 19 seasons, Eamonn O'Hara stitched a little footnote at the end that only served to highlight his county's misery.

His 70th-minute point was the last of the match and just Sligo's fourth in all. Worse still was the fact that it was their first from play, scored by a veteran substitute just nine minutes into the action.

For a forward line that shot the lights out against Galway earlier in the summer, that is a shuddering thought as much as it is a credit to Kildare's parsimony.

They lost David Kelly to injury at half-time, and Alan Costello's evening ended with an ambulance transfer to hospital to check out suspected concussion. On top of that, they finished with 14 men, Charlie Harrison's off-the-ball moment with Doyle earning a red card and unleashing a post-match tirade from his manager Kevin Walsh about the policing of matches.

For McGeeney, choosing the right team now has probably never been more challenging. Croke Park is such a different test from a sodden Hyde Park, and there are players queuing up in readiness it seems.

The landscape may not be right to produce Seanie Johnston from the start -- he only got four minutes at the tail-end here -- but they need something different and maybe he can provide that extra dimension that will get opponents thinking a little differently about them.

"We're up against it but that's why you compete," said McGeeney.

"That to me is why we all come back. It's why we love it so much because, at the end of the day, you are always trying to prove something. Every time you step out on the pitch, you're trying to prove to yourself that you can compete."

Scorers -- Kildare: E O'Flaherty 0-4 (4f), M Conway, A Smith 0-2 each, E Doyle, E Bolton, R Kelly, J Kavanagh, T O'Connor 0-1 each. Sligo: A Marren 0-2 (2f), D Maye (f), E O'Hara 0-1 each.

Kildare -- S Connolly 7; O Lyons 7, P Kelly 7, H McGrillen 7; E Doyle 8, M O'Flaherty 7, E Bolton 7; M Foley 8, R Kelly 7; E O'Flaherty 7, M Conway 8, J Doyle 8; J Kavanagh 7, T O'Connor 8, A Smith 7. Subs: P O'Neill 6 for R Kelly (54), D Earley for Foley (61), E Callaghan for E O'Flaherty (63), S Johnston for J Doyle (66), G White for Bolton (69).

Sligo -- P Greene 7; N Ewing 7, J Martyn 6, R Donovan 6; C Harrison 7, M Quinn 6, P McGovern 6; E Mullen 5, T Taylor 7; M Breheny 6, D Maye 6, S Coen 7; A Costello 5, A Marren 5, D Kelly 5. Subs: P Hughes 5 for Kelly (h-t), S McManus 5 for Mullen (44), E O'Hara 6 for Coen (53), F Quinn 5 for Costello (57), B Egan 5 for Breheny (57).

Ref: David Coldrick (Meath)

Irish Independent

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