'We don't panic. If things aren't going well, we keep on working'
Belief is the key word in the emergence of Kildare under Kieran McGeeney's tutelage, writes Damian Lawlor
T WO weeks ago, after the fourth-round qualifier draw was made, Kieran McGeeney received a text message from Paul Grimley.
After a couple of seasons in the Kildare backroom with McGeeney, Grimley joined Seamus McEnaney's Monaghan. The two were likely to meet again somewhere along the line, and sure enough they were pulled out of the hat together in the final round of the qualifiers.
Once Grimley saw the pairing, he rattled off a text to his old pal. As the week unfolded, McGeeney eventually replied.
"He was giving me the silent treatment for a while," the Monaghan coach smiled, "but then he got back to me jokingly looking for a DVD of the Tyrone/Monaghan Ulster final. I told him I'd send him up a video of Fr Ted instead."
They embraced warmly after the final whistle last Saturday, a game that blew apart the myth that it was Grimley who spearheaded the Kildare charge while McGeeney learned the managerial ropes.
Indeed, when Grimley went back up north, many people wondered how the team would cope without him. But after last weekend, any lingering doubts about who really was in charge were finally confounded.
"All that talk was nonsense," Grimley confirmed. "Kildare were magical. The best performance I'd seen them putting in this year was the second half up in Derry and their second-half display against us complemented that."
Today, Kildare face their sixth game in six weeks. We've already seen how teams like Sligo, Monaghan, Limerick and Louth have failed to keep the show on the road when asked to make quick turnarounds. But it's different for Kildare. Success has been a constant companion these past two months. In fact, they've yet to lose a qualifier under McGeeney. And while it's possible that his players could be leg-weary and mentally fatigued for this afternoon's clash with Meath, there are no signs that is the case.
"It only becomes a big ask if you lose," McGeeney said, referring to their heavy six-week schedule. "If I had my choice, I'd probably prefer an extra week, but nobody from the GAA has rung me and asked what I thought, so we'll just get on with it. It's the same for everybody, it's how you recover. There are so many things you can do to help you recover but if you believe you're tired, you'll be tired."
He's worked hard to ensure that none of his players are drained. Training centres on short, sharp bursts, all with the ball and the 2010 plan was to have them peaking for the latter stages of the championship. With the lung-bursting stamina dredge long since out of the way, this team is sharper and more mobile than last year. It's a happy camp too; McGeeney has placed complete trust in his backroom team and lets everyone do their job.
They haven't got carried away, though. Few of the team have featured in media interviews as access has been rare. McGeeney himself has remained under the radar, leaving most of the press duties to his selector, Niall Carew.
Often the only place to catch a word with him is after a game. And last weekend, as he spoke in Croke Park, he highlighted how important it was for the players to have their heads cleared, their legs fresh and minds focused.
"I'm a big believer in the mental side of things," he said. "People can say what they want, but coaching comes down to belief. Belief is everything. Mick O'Dwyer can make you run laps and laps and when the ball is thrown in he makes you believe you're the fastest man alive. I have always felt that Kerry have a mental edge on everyone else because they are so tough psychologically, but I think our players are starting to believe in themselves."
You can see that characteristic slowly rubbing off on the Kildare players.
Devoid of the sublime services of the talented Rob Kelly, who was scoring freely earlier in the year before sustaining injury, and the brilliant Mikey Conway, one of the best passers of a ball around, the team has had to cope with slow starts on a regular basis.
Louth shot well ahead of them in their Leinster opener, Leitrim did the same in the qualifiers, Derry had 1-2 scored before they knew it and Monaghan looked to be in total command when they registered three early points. But each time the team has clawed its way back into games. Johnny Doyle reckons they are starting to believe.
"There's a bit of belief there," he said. "We don't panic. If things aren't going well for us, we put the shoulder to the wheel, keep on working hard and eventually things will open up."
Since taking over the team, the manager has gone flat-out to ensure that the team is not reliant on Doyle anymore. During the week, local sports journalist Brendan Coffey revealed that Doyle had received specialist place-kicking training from Ronan O'Gara. It didn't look that way last Saturday when he had a shocker in front of the posts, but when did he last suffer such a malaise? And with his radar switched off, the under-rated Daryl Flynn, the increasingly impressive James Kavanagh and Eamonn Callaghan all stepped forward to pick up the pieces.
Some pundits maintain that they lack natural forwards outside of Doyle. But Kavanagh, Callaghan, Eoghan O'Flaherty and Ronan Sweeney are showing otherwise. Apart from their attacking figurehead, they had seven other scorers from play last Saturday. Doyle, meanwhile, remains the championship's top scorer with 1-34 this season. McGeeney looks to have it sorted on both fronts.
Another observation: after they narrowly bowed out of last year's championship to Tyrone, having led by six points at the break, the Kildare manager suggested that they needed 'a wee bit of badness at this level' to get over the finishing line.
We might have seen a glimpse of that late last Saturday when Ronan Sweeney palmed the winning goal past Pádraig McBennett and threw a few verbals at him on the way back out the field. The two have history; remember the heavy tackle Sweeney sustained from McBennett in last year's league? This may not appeal to purists but it's part of the modern game. And the Kildare players are only catching up with the rest.
More pertinently, movement off the ball and work-rate are the two other areas of the game that they've improved dramatically. Forwards like Callaghan and Doyle are to the fore in that regard while Emmet Bolton has been breaking from the back at every opportunity. They're leaning on swarm-type tactics around the middle of the pitch and it's working.
The challenge today is to not let Meath go too far ahead of them from the throw-in, something they've been guilty of in recent weeks against lesser teams. They'll also need to put in a 70-minute performance and cut down on their wides tally, a malaise which is spreading by the outing.
They've probably earned the right to be called a top-five team but now they need to beat a major power. That will demand tuning in from start to finish. Against Monaghan, they huffed and puffed in the early stages and then took their foot off the pedal in the last seven minutes. They won't get away with that against Meath.
Overall, though, they're in a good place. Being on the road every week and clocking up those wins has left them positive and tightly-knit. They haven't really seen much stress since Louth beat them. Although they only drew with Antrim six weeks back, they hit 15 wides in Newbridge that evening and proved they were the better team a week later.
In three successive years they've reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals, a feat also achieved by Kerry, Cork, Tyrone and Dublin in the same period. They're close enough to dining at the top table now.
This time last year, Donegal played five games in 29 days to reach the same stage of the competition and were hammered 1-27 to 2-10 by Cork. The Ulstermen were out on their feet and had five subs used by the 55th minute. But you got the sense from the Kildare manager last weekend that they'll be anything but weary today.
"I think there's more in them," he said. "This year, people failed to realise we had many injuries and I think we're only starting to come back now. What we've tried to do is build up a panel and we're going to need it. You're always trying to make people irreplaceable but the Meath game is going to be a real step up."
Looks like they're finally ready for it.