Monday 20 May 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: All I seem to be hearing is hurling snobs rabbiting on about God's game

Lilywhites got the attention of GAA world last weekend - now they need to show that they're worthy of keeping it by booking place in 'Super 8s' series

1 July 2018; Conor McGrath of Clare in action against Eoin Cadogan of Cork during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
1 July 2018; Conor McGrath of Clare in action against Eoin Cadogan of Cork during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

I think it was Lester Piggott who estimated that nearly two out of every three racehorses don't really want to do their best.

To win, they needed to be tricked and cajoled. To be manipulated in a sense. Winning didn't mean anything to them so, unless he found a way of pulling the right strings, Piggott believed he might as well have been going to battle on a rocking horse.

Well, I'm beginning to think Kildare might be football's equivalent of a reluctant stallion.

I mean Newbridge last Saturday radiated just about everything that makes us love the GAA. A tight, rural town engulfed by two sets of passionate supporters. A game that kept us guessing. And a story at the end that, no matter your choice of colour, had the feel of something seismic.

Kildare’s David Hyland celebrates with supporters in Newbridge last week. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Kildare’s David Hyland celebrates with supporters in Newbridge last week. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

But one question. How come it took a row with the GAA to bring that performance out of Kildare?

Honestly? In this era of slavish attention to systems and scientific preparation, it was actually a little bloody-mindedness that changed their season. Nothing more, nothing less. Just the instinct to tell people to 'F**k off!'

If I'm honest, my impression of Cian O'Neill up to last week would have been that he was a good man to talk the talk. But he showed himself to be more than that in how he led Kildare both on and off the field.

In hindsight, there's no way he'd have taken such a public stand if he didn't believe that Kildare were getting better. Personally, I couldn't see any evidence of it myself. Basing your judgement solely on results, they looked a group in trouble.

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That said, nobody outside that squad can fully understand what the chemistry has been between O'Neill and his players. He's kept accentuating the positive when all the evidence to the naked eye suggested he might have been bluffing.

But last week, O'Neill was a leader from head to toe. It was hugely impressive. He stood his ground before the eyes of the nation, going on RTé's Six-One News to, basically, lay down the gauntlet to the GAA. And he did it when, clearly, not everybody in Kildare considered his approach welcome.

I'd certainly say he found the comments of Kildare president and former All-Ireland final referee Seamus Aldridge less than supportive. The suggestion that only a member of the county board was entitled to communicate Kildare's view of things struck me as incredibly old school and, frankly, out of touch.

Did Aldridge honestly believe that O'Neill was flying solo? That he hadn't been in constant discussion with the county board about what their stance should be and how they should articulate it?

Trust me, the manager of the team speaking the way O'Neill spoke was always going to carry more weight than any interview with a little-known administrator.

That's not in any way intended to denigrate county board people, but this was a time for getting the entire country on your side. In my opinion, O'Neill's interview achieved that.

It showed me a side of the man I wasn't entirely sure existed. But I also suspect it showed his players an element of steel in their manager that told them he was a man worth following. Now I wouldn't over-egg its long-term impact just yet, because I honestly believe Fermanagh will be really sticky customers in Navan this evening.

But, sometimes, leaders need to lead. It's like the moment Martin Johnson told the IRFU official to take a run and jump at Lansdowne Road. Or Roy Keane warning Patrick Vieira in the Arsenal players' tunnel "see you out there" when poor, little Gary Neville was getting bullied.

This could be a seminal moment for O'Neill and Kildare.

Because nobody would bat an eyelid if Dublin or Kerry squared up to officialdom because they're viewed as bullies on the field. Kildare? Let's be honest, they'd be more Neville than Keane in terms of how people see them.

The core of O'Neill's message was that neither he nor his team would be pushed around.

That made it a tough week for the GAA, yet one I believe that, ultimately, reflected well on the new president John Horan, and director-general Tom Ryan.

Horan was impressive on the radio last Monday morning, speaking with common sense and, maybe even more importantly, humility.

He acknowledged that the GAA got something wrong. And you know something? The sky didn't fall in on top of them as a result.

Anyway, we're down to the last 12 and you can feel the energy changing around this championship. It'll be a big thing for the likes of Fermanagh and Laois to have come this far, but that'll also be the feeling in Kildare and Armagh. Both could so easily have had their summers parked up on cinder blocks now.

Can either be the bolter from here?

It'd maybe be no harm for the championship if they did because all I seem to be hearing is hurling snobs rabbiting on about God's game.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that Gaelic has some distance to travel this summer to get even close to its small-ball brother. On top of that, it seems we're witnessing one of the greatest World Cups of all time.

So it'd be nice to see a bit more spark come into this football championship, albeit Kildare fairly lifted things with their defiance on and off the field last week. Hand on heart, they showed themselves to be everything against Mayo last Saturday evening that I'd been saying they weren't.

I've no problem admitting that. But can they back it up now? Imagine the anti-climax if Fermanagh squeeze the life out of them in Navan? Imagine if all that 'Newbridge or Nowhere' emotion actually fizzles out just one week later?

That's the unthinkable now for Kildare

Imagine following up your best day in years with one of your worst? Listen, the reason some of us have been inclined to give them a hard time is precisely because of a suspicion that the very mettle and unity shown in St Conleth's Park did exist somewhere deep inside that group.

All that said, Mayo were on their knees. The tank was empty. I think they might have survived in the open spaces of Croke Park where the occasion would have felt less attritional. But Newbridge was an emotional powder keg, proving Kildare dead right to dig in their heels about playing there.

Only for David Clarke, Aidan O'Shea, Paddy Durcan and Diarmuid O'Connor, it wouldn't even have been a contest. I suppose the writing's been on the wall with this Mayo group for a while now. Is it over for them?

I don't know.

They will certainly go down as a special team and it's a pity they haven't won an All-Ireland, though I don't buy into this idea that they - somehow - deserved one.

If they did, who were the winners that didn't deserve it?

I thought Kildare varied their game brilliantly on Saturday. They brought huge aggression to the tackle and some of their scores were spectacular. They also showed calmness under pressure.

I mean when Mayo went two points up halfway through the second half, Kildare were staring defeat in the face.

And that's when we saw them show a proper spine.

Put it this way, nothing about Kildare last Saturday made any sense of the fact they'd gone on a 13-month losing streak before these qualifiers. The way they closed out the game especially. The drive, but the composure too. The sense of a group ready to fight on their backs if that's what it was going to take.

Look, they have outstanding footballers in men like Peter Kelly and Eoin Doyle, in Kevin Flynn, Kevin Feely, Daniel Flynn and my man of the match, Paul Cribbin.

But, as O'Neill said afterwards, they've got to back it up now. Fermanagh simply have to be beaten.

After what was looking a disastrous season for them, Kildare are now one game from the 'Super 8s'. But bear this in mind. Fermanagh beat Monaghan and Armagh in the Ulster Championship. They'll make life really awkward for Kildare now.

And my criticism of O'Neill's men was that, up to now, when somebody made things awkward for them, they had a habit of folding.

So they need to be careful. I'd imagine they'll be looking closely at what Donegal did in the Ulster final as a template to follow here. My opinion is that Donegal could have won that game by an even bigger margin if they pushed up further. But Kildare need to be under no illusions here either,

Fermanagh will see them as inferior to Donegal and give themselves a right chance of rattling their cage here.

So this will be a dogfight. But these ultra-defensive systems are in themselves an admission of inferiority. They're a way of saying, 'We're afraid to take you on, man-on-man.'

Fermanagh won't progress any further in this championship unless they increase their attacking threat. As things stand, they depend on drawing panic from the opposition. And panic is the biggest enemy for Kildare now.

Because at some point this week a penny will have dropped. It'll seem that everybody's on their side right now but, lose to Fermanagh, and every ounce of that goodwill will disappear. Do they really want people saying, 'What did you expect?'

Look Kildare have the raw ingredients to mow down Fermanagh.

Their work-rate against Mayo was phenomenal and I think that's a point that was slightly missed after. You can play any system you want, but work-rate so often makes the difference.

A repeat of that this evening and I think they'll make the Super 8s. So my love-hate relationship with them continues.

Let's see how they follow-up what we saw in Newbridge. Let's see them be the next team to put a nail in the coffin of these ultra-defensive systems.

Tyrone, I believe, will join them as will Monaghan and Roscommon.

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