Old doubts linger for latest leap into the unknown
Kieran McGeeney admits to making mistakes in his efforts to take Kildare to the next level.
IN late October, some time after the disappointment of another fore-shortened summer had worn off, Kieran McGeeney sat down and reflected on the events that had taken place. The Kildare manager was far from despondent. The All-Ireland championship had decanted stinging defeats to Meath and Cork and the usual calls for a change of leadership. But McGeeney saw progress and a solid foundation for hope. He was of no mind to pay heed.
He knew there were bits of the season that needed to be isolated and analysed. Why they had been so sloppy against Meath in the Leinster semi-final. And so wasteful against Limerick in the qualifiers. In the Cork game, he'd seen something he couldn't have countenanced beforehand: a sense of flatness about his team, how static and rigid they were as Cork danced around them for two early goals that, effectively, ended it as a contest.
Away from the caricature of the lonely obsessive, driving his players as relentlessly as he once drove himself, McGeeney is a fascinating character, not only willing to ask tough questions of them but equally demanding of himself. Even after five seasons at the helm in Kildare, he refused to believe he was remotely close to the full package. He made mistakes. He was still learning the game. Never tired of learning.
Referring to the grievous six-point loss against a youthful Meath, he said something particularly interesting. "The thing is," he said. "I know I've made a truckload of mistakes. I don't like it, but it happens. I made two bad ones against Meath and I think it probably cost us the game. I put my hands up. I'm not afraid to admit it."
McGeeney didn't want to be drawn on the precise nature of the cardinal sins he had committed, but as he talked more it became clear that one of them involved the use of a sweeper system that, to his mind, had undone them. It was a tactic, he said, he'd been uncertain about before the game but, against his better judgement, he'd endorsed it and paid a heavy price. His sense of regret was palpable.
"We didn't play with a sweeper," he said, "but we did against Meath. I thought it was a mistake but I went with it. We dropped off [Conor] Gillespie to do that and Gillespie destroyed us. I'd thought that [Damien] Carroll was the one who'd run the ball, but Gillespie was the one who did it. He didn't really have another good game all year."
It is interesting that McGeeney would express such a viewpoint because the perception exists that Morgan O'Flaherty, when available, has performed precisely such a sweeping role for Kildare these past few seasons. But it is easy, too, to get bogged down in tactical semantics. Just because Kildare, like most teams, rely on an extra defender to shore up their defence or, at the very least, a third midfielder, it does not de facto mean they are employing a sweeper system.
McGeeney could not have missed the irony, though, that part of Meath's game plan had been to snuff out the threat of Tomás O'Connor by planting a man directly in front of the full-forward line to sweep up any hopeful ball coming that way. The gaps that opened up for Gillespie to rampage into at one end became throttling roadblocks at the other. Maybe adopting the sweeper system wasn't ultimately Kildare's undoing. It's just that they didn't do it very well.
Fast forward a year and there is consensus that, in order to keep Dublin's nimble forwards in check, McGeeney will require a defensive masterplan that is rigorous and will hold up to the strain. The sweeper system is a feverish topic of discussion again, presumably Eamonn Callaghan holding the middle, preventing the open spaces that undermined them a year ago, O'Flaherty somewhere behind him, mopping up ball and launching counter-attacks, Paul Cribbin dropping deep from wing-forward to offer another protective body.
All this is entirely plausible, but open to a certain level of guesswork too and that is precisely how McGeeney would want it.
Earlier this month when Kildare edged past Offaly in the Leinster quarter-final, McGeeney effectively fielded an orthodox formation, figuring no tactical wizardry would be needed to cope with a team three divisions below them. While that risked a certain level of complacency, as happened against Meath, it would stand them in good stead for the tougher battles ahead.
And there's little question that, for Dublin, Kildare are a little bit of an unknown quantity today. When Jim Gavin's side hammered them in the league earlier this year, there was the clear sense McGeeney was keeping his powder dry with more critical future encounters in mind. The team Dublin will face today isn't the talented but ultimately brittle version that gave them frights in 2009 and 2011 and neither is McGeeney the same manager he was back then.
There's little doubt that when he contemplated the torpor that had afflicted them against Cork, McGeeney was already thinking about significant changes for the year ahead. Bringing in former Wexford manager Jason Ryan as his
assistant didn't merely freshen things up, it showed McGeeney's willingness to have strong characters around him, people who had knowledge and experience to offer and from whom he could learn a thing or two.
Assuming control of the under-21s looks like a smart move too. When they shipped a bad defeat to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final recently, McGeeney was notably upbeat in the aftermath, praising the "courage" the players had shown rather than admonishing them for the hatful of scoring chances they'd squandered.
Seven of that talented side featured in the game against Offaly and five of them will start against Dublin. The faith McGeeney has shown in them is eye-catching.
It has taken six years but the signs are beginning to appear that McGeeney has Kildare in a good place right now. Shorn of the grim circus that surrounded the Seánie Johnston transfer and the constant chatter about Kildare's finances, McGeeney's summer has seemed calm and productive. The infusion of youth has added spark. The subs' bench fizzes with unprecedented talent now. For once, expectations seem muted and that might just play into their hands.
But the old doubts still linger, of course. McGeeney has made his team strong and proud, but has he made them ruthless enough to be able to take Dublin in their own backyard and earn the opportunity to shoot for a badly-needed provincial title?
Because McGeeney knows winning the tactical battle will not alone guarantee victory today. If his side get the scent of victory in their nostrils again, this time they have to make certain of it.
Dara ó Cinnéide told a story recently. With time running out in Kerry's Munster championship stroll against Waterford, Colm Cooper lined up a free and shouted out to his team-mates: "Four more points." That's how champions think. They never let up. Contrast that with Kildare's last 10 minutes against Offaly when they took their feet off the pedal and conceded 1-2. In the last 10 minutes against Westmeath, Dublin conceded nothing. And therein lies the major difference.
Making that leap requires a change of culture. Donegal have made it and Mayo show glimpses. And Kildare? During their media day in Newbridge last week, one Kildare player was asked about his opponents and spoke about the "aura" of Jim Gavin's team and you immediately sensed the extent of the challenge facing the manager. If McGeeney can somehow infuse true belief into his team, then there is no reason to doubt they can do it.