Tuesday 11 December 2018

Tomás ó Sé: It's high time this bunch of Kildare footballers started looking in the mirror, and Cian O'Neill must do it too

Kildare manager Cian O'Neill. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kildare manager Cian O'Neill. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Tomás ó Sé

I think it was the late, great hurling man, Georgie Leahy, who once told a Laois team before they played Kilkenny that "a bit of a ditch shouldn't make that much difference" between them.

It's amazing how county boundaries get inside our heads, feeding a sense of success in some places being pre-ordained, inevitable almost. In our minds, a Kilkenny hurler or a Kerry footballer will always have a different cut to them to a Laois hurler or, say, a Limerick footballer. They might live only 500 yards apart, but they come to the world in our imaginations almost as different species.

That dynamic ripples right through the GAA. Every rivalry has a natural tilt. At least, if we allow it to.

Like I've been thinking about tomorrow's Kildare-Carlow game in Tullamore, two neighbouring counties coming - theoretically - from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Kildare, a Division 1 team at the start of the year; Carlow, Division 4. Except, of course, that class division has narrowed since, Kildare relegated to Division 2, Carlow promoted to Division 3. And you know something? It honestly wouldn't surprise me if this game threw up the first big shock of the summer.

It shouldn't and, more than likely, it won't. But this fixture has the feel, from a Kildare viewpoint, of one they'd say in the past "should be played over the phone".

Why?

Because Kildare just look to me like a team completely ransacked of belief. And that's a problem for Cian O'Neill, a man I worked with in Kerry, someone I know who has real passion for the game.

My understanding is that commitment levels have left something to be desired in recent months and to lose seven games on the bounce in the league, admittedly some by narrow margins, just seems to have ripped the heart out of this Kildare team. Given they lost their two games in the O'Byrne Cup too, to Louth and Longford, that's nine defeats in nine competitive games this year.

Steadied

So any talk of the ship having been steadied since has to, surely, be taken with a pinch of salt.

The reason I see them under pressure tomorrow is that Turlough O'Brien has shown an ability to get the most out of his team. We saw the difficulties they gave Dublin last year just by being disciplined, well organised and fiercely competitive. Without being unfair about it, up to a few years ago my view of Carlow would have been that they couldn't beat snow off a rope.

That's changed. We all saw what promotion meant to this group and what we can say with absolute certainty is that O'Brien is bringing an absolutely united bunch to O'Connor Park now.

That's why I thought it was so disappointing to hear of Brendan Murphy going to America, their one real marquee player, their star. That had to be a real kick to the solar plexus for what they're trying to achieve and, personally, I'd have thought his timing could have been a little better.

Look, I've big time for Murphy as a footballer, he's well entitled to do what he wants to do and I'm sure he has his own reasons. But, if you're O'Brien, that's a setback you really didn't need.

That said, Murphy or no Murphy, this is a team on a high that's already taken the scalp of Louth in this championship and their confidence going to Tullamore will be sky-high.

In other words, they're moving in exactly the opposite direction to where Kildare appear to be headed after those nine consecutive defeats. No matter what spin is put on it, that was an abysmal Division 1 league campaign from O'Neill's men. The argument that they were close in a few games, if anything, just feeds my sense of worry about this group.

A team with unity and confidence and togetherness would, on balance, edge a win out of one or two of those matches. But where were their leaders when they needed them? If fact, do they have any? I'd go so far as to say that Kildare always look to me like a team ready to fold under pressure.

I made my National League debut in 1998 against a Kildare team in Killarney that would have rattled anyone's cage. They'd always had good footballers but now they had Dwyer in charge too and he just took them to another level. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all just Micko.

That team had natural leaders like Martin Lynch, Glenn Ryan, Dermot Earley and Anthony Rainbow, terrific, hard players. But Dwyer unquestionably gave them something too. The same something that my uncle Páidí gave Westmeath. In both cases, they had the players jumping out of their skin.

O'Neill has an outstanding record in the realm of physical preparation of teams, as he showed with Tipperary hurlers, then Mayo and Kerry footballers. But this is his first job as a manager and it's with a group that is rightly ranked the second best team in Leinster. They've had good underage teams coming through in recent years too, so this should be a team absolutely hungry for championship. But is it?

In my opinion, the quality of player available to Kildare is far superior to what their recent results at senior level suggest. The likes of Daniel Flynn, Paddy Brophy, Keith Cribbin, Kevin Feely, Mick O'Grady and Eoin Doyle are absolutely top-class. Kevin Flynn is a fine prospect as is Fergal Conway (although is he a wing-forward?). And I haven't forgotten the goal Brophy scored against Dublin in 2013.

But I'm actually surprised I haven't heard anybody else say this. To me, tomorrow's is a game that could conceivably cost O'Neill his job. I just get a really negative vibe about them and the loss of experienced men like Emmet Bolton and Ollie Lyons probably hasn't helped. Are you honestly telling me that neither of those had anything left to contribute?

I hate being so down on a group but, if I was a Kildare supporter, I'd be deeply frustrated with the sense of ambivalence that seems to be surrounding my team right now.

They look rudderless to me and that presents a serious question for O'Neill. Because this weekend they're going to be presented with a puzzle that, mark my words, won't be easily resolved. Has he the smarts to help them come through it?

I don't doubt he'll have them well conditioned. I don't need anyone telling me that he'll have been cutting edge on the scientific side of team preparation, be that through the use of occlusion goggles or whatever. But are they a team? Do they have a plan? Cian has often described himself as "a data geek", but this will be a day for honesty, courage and a real clarity of vision. No end of data can guarantee that.

When he was training us in Kerry, it would crack me up sometimes how he'd be so long-winded with his explanation of a drill. It might take him five or six minutes to explain something which I often felt could have been clarified in ten seconds. Fair enough, some players probably appreciated the detail, but I honestly couldn't bear it. Sometimes I'd jog off in the middle of it, hungry just to get started.

Success

Look Cian's record speaks for itself. He had success with Tipp hurlers and Mayo footballers and did brilliantly when coaching Kerry. But a manager has to be all things to everyone. They have to be able to bring the whole group with them. You might argue that I'm no-one to talk about modern-day management given that, basically, the only person I've ever really managed is myself. But I have played under serious men and I've watched how the workload at senior county level has continued to increase so incredibly. I've worked under managers who had big egos and I've worked under managers who, like Eamonn Fitzmaurice, had none.

But what they all had in common was an ability to hold a dressing-room. To engage men. To inspire.

I would ask right now has O'Neill got the Kildare dressing-room because I have my doubts. I mean I was amazed when, after what I think was their fifth league defeat, he came out with the quote: 'We're going in the right direction!'

After five league defeats and having lost to Longford and Louth in the O'Byrne Cup? Kildare going in the right direction? At some stage, you need to start winning games. Forget Dublin and their dominance of Leinster because that should seem a million miles away from any conversation about Kildare today.

I'll ask this question. Have they ever gone into championship on the back of nine successive defeats in competitive games? In fact, throw in their loss in last year's Leinster final and the qualifier defeat to Armagh and Kildare have lost their last 11 competitive matches. That's a shocking statistic.

Look at Colm Collins and the job he continues to do in Clare and it tells me that not every dressing-room needs the promise of trophies to stay tight. I read an interview with him recently in which he said that he now feels in a position of sufficient strength to tell anybody who's not putting it in to clear off and not be wasting his time. A few years ago, he couldn't have done that.

On paper, a Division 1 team should never lose to a Division 4 side. And chances are that Kildare won't tomorrow. But the very fact that it's considered a possibility is a terrible indictment of their last 12 months.

I spoke with a good friend of mine from Kildare this week, a good GAA man and he'd actually forgotten they were even out in the championship this weekend. That speaks volumes. It tells me something is missing in the county.

Look, the last thing I want to do now is start giving Cian or Kildare a kicking. But what style of football do they want to play? Do they even know? This is a county with fabulous footballers many of whom, I don't doubt, took their inspiration from those men of '98. But they've surely got to start looking in the mirror. Cian included.

I mean Kerry would kill for the likes of Daniel Flynn. He nearly destroyed them on his own in this year's league and would walk onto most county teams in the country. But I can't help wonder will we see much of him this summer.

Look the draw still suggests to me that Kildare should make the Leinster final, meaning they'll be just one game away from the 'Super 8s'. But they'll need momentum. And they've got to start earning it now.

On the other side of the coin, there was something hugely impressive about Monaghan last Sunday.

I saw a lovely line in one newspaper about them playing 'with chalk on their boots' as in Malachy O'Rourke had players hugging the sidelines, making the field big. In saying that, it was still the 70th minute before Conor McManus got his first point from play (already a candidate for score of the season), so Tyrone will probably feel that they succeeded in one of their primary jobs too.

People think I'm down on Mickey Harte, but his team played brilliantly in patches. Trouble was they also slipped into the trap of falling back into their old, ultra-cautious ways. To that degree, it was a Jekyll and Hyde performance from them.

I'm not stupid, I recognise the idea that you build a winning team from the back. But at some point you've surely got to expand that, develop it, focus on how to win big games as distinct from trying to avoid losing them.

I think, slowly but surely, people are figuring out ways to counter blanket defences.

And that can only be a good thing, because it's horrible to watch. Let's be clear, the Tyrone team of the noughties, just like the Donegal team under Jim McGuinness, did so much more than that.

Their transition play was outstanding. Both of those teams also had about ten players each among the very best in their positions in the country.

But it strikes me that the current Tyrone team is struggling to express itself. They just don't do off-the-cuff stuff and, to be honest, that makes them hard to like. Because they have the players to be far more ambitious in my view, as we saw in glimpses last Sunday. Christ, Tyrone were brilliant at times and I still think they'll be in the 'Super 8s'.

On that point, I was amazed by Seán Cavanagh's comments before the game given it's so seldom that any Tyrone player has been even remotely critical of the Harte regime. But to hear last year's captain say, essentially, that Tyrone's forwards were being strangled by the system was remarkable.

Mickey, I don't doubt, will not have appreciated that. But he could do worse than to listen. Because I think the answer is somewhere in between.

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