Kildare finding themselves at the right time
It threatened to be a year to forget for Kildare, losing all seven league games and then suffering a humbling defeat by Carlow. And then the CCCC came along. Cahair O'Kane looks at how their momentum could fuel a push to emerge from the Super 8s...
IT was always there. It just took Kildare six months to find themselves again.
They’d been deserving of their place in the top flight on the back of last year’s displays in Division Two, and they took a better swing at Dublin in the Leinster final than anyone had in the five years previous.
When they were kept apart in this year’s draw, it was widely expected from the beginning that it would end up in a second consecutive decider between the counties.
And then Carlow came along.
Kildare’s confidence had fallen through the floor, naturally enough after ten consecutive defeats, stretching from last summer’s round four loss to Armagh right through to their meeting with the Division Four runners-up.
Everything they did went wrong and Carlow, punch drunk on momentum and adrenaline, had the stomach for it. It looked and felt like a blow that there’d be no coming back from for Cian O’Neill.
After failing to really threaten Dublin in their opener, they lost by a point to Monaghan, a point to Tyrone and two points to Donegal. A couple of those fall the right side and there’s a completely different complexion on everything.
As it was, they were effectively relegated by then and their struggle to lift themselves was evident. Mayo, Kerry and half a Galway side got away far too lightly with the points, but that run indicated a lack of belief and conviction rather than a lack of ability.
Still, nobody expected that they’d be taken down by Carlow’s. But they were woeful in attack, single runners getting turned over in the middle of the underdogs’ defence all day a sure sign that they either hadn’t expected what was coming, or they hadn’t taken the message seriously.
Tomás Ó Sé had cut through him for a shortcut in the build-up to the game, creating a wave of pressure that seemed certain to bring the entire regime crashing down.
The decision to cut experienced duo Emmett Bolton and Ollie Lyons from the squad going into the season came under the spotlight, but while it was hard to argue that seven defeats from seven league games was anything bar a disaster, the wailing seemed unnecessarily loud.
And then Derry came along.
They were the perfect opposition for Kildare. Their own confidence has been eroded over a few years and, while still absolutely capable of it when they get a run on a team, it was like an arm wrestle between two tired bodies.
Derry netted twice in the first half and, had Mick O’Grady not gotten back to clear off the line from Shane McGuigan seconds into the second half, who knows where the game would have ended up that day?
That would have put Derry a point up, but instead Kildare hit 1-3 in the next seven minutes.
They won by eight and they had been the better side throughout, their power and pace too much to work with for an Oak Leaf defensive setup that allowed the green shirts to get a run on them.
Pearse Park was a trickier second assignment. Longford had won at least one qualifier in each of the past nine years, and for 69 minutes that run looked like continuing.
But the introduction of Kevin Feely, unable to start because of a calf injury, and a late rally helped squeeze the Lilywhites through once more.
And then the CCCC came along.
Mayo were merely an extra in a drama for which this entire year’s championship will come to be remembered. Little David’s slingshot was enough for Goliath once more, with the #NewbridgeOrNowhere campaign catching fire and bringing a tsunami of support from the whole country in behind them.
So much so that the neutrals revelled in them lasting the distance better than everyone’s second favourite team. St Conleth’s Park crackled and the players, as they had to do having invited the storm upon themselves, stood up tall.
It wasn’t so much that they beat Mayo, but the manner in which they beat them. This was a seriously seasoned opponent that has mastered the run through the qualifiers in recent years. They were perhaps due to run out of lives, but had Kildare retreated at any stage, Mayo would have won the game.
All evening they slugged. It seemed like extra-time would be needed to break them, and then Kildare got the run on it. And that’s all it is. Pure momentum. Pure adrenaline.
It never, ever seemed like Fermanagh would catch them out, and within 10 minutes we were absolutely sure they wouldn’t.
And so here they are. A step further down the road this year from where they were abruptly halted by Armagh last year.
The optimism has returned and the fanbase has mushroomed, filling most of the space in Navan last Saturday evening.
11 consecutive defeats has turned to four consecutive wins, and all of a sudden their qualities are evident again. As Malachy O’Rourke was quick to point out, Croke Park will suit them. It will in the sense of their attacking play, but perhaps not defensively.
Of any team in the last eight, they have arguably the most settled defence. Their full-back line hasn’t changed all year, with David Hyland, Peter Kelly (enjoying a fine run of form) and Mick O’Grady in front of Mark Donnellan, while Eoin Doyle is the permanent and effective sweeper in front of them.
But there are undoubtedly issues there. Carlow and Derry both hit 2-14, Mayo racked up 0-19 and, albeit with the asterisk of a pedestrian second half, Fermanagh managed to score an uncharacteristically high 0-18.
Across the season, Kildare have had nine players black carded. That’s easily the worst record of any of the eight sides left, with Kerry, Dublin and Roscommon closest with just three each.
They struggle to deal with pace. Every time Padraig Cassidy ran at them from Derry’s midfield, they’d no idea how to stop him other than to cleave him down.
Their strength has been from midfield up. Kevin Feely is as fine a fielder of a ball as there is in the game, while Tommy Moolick, Fergal Conway and Paddy Brophy are all reliable and steady soldiers in that battleground.
Daniel Flynn’s 6-17 from play is second only to Ciaran Kilkenny’s incredible haul of 4-33 this year. More than McBrearty, more than Comer, more than Geaney. That mix of power, pace and guile that he has is supported ably Cribbins Paul and Keith, and late bloomed Neil Flynn.
He played four minutes of the National League and only made his first start in the round two qualifier against Longford, but has gone on to amass 1-23 in the championship, taking over the frees to good effect.
It wasn’t how they envisioned making progress, but they’ve made it nonetheless. And if they were to get over Monaghan this weekend, they’d be bringing Galway into the bearpit with a serious chance of getting out of the group.
Probable starting XV v Monaghan: Mark Donnellan; Peter Kelly, David Hyland, Mick O’Grady; Johnny Byrne, Eoin Doyle, Kevin Flynn; Kevin Feely, Tommy Moolick; Fergal Conway, Paul Cribbin, Keith Cribbin: Neil Flynn, Daniel Flynn, Paddy Brophy
2018 top scorers (Championship scores in brackets)
Daniel Flynn 6-17 (3-8)
Kevin Feely 0-32 (0-9)
Neil Flynn 1-24 (1-23)
Paul Cribbin 0-18 (0-12)
Niall Kelly 2-7 (1-2)
Most minutes played
David Hyland 835
Peter Kelly 831
Eoin Doyle 785
Mark Donnellan 770
Daniel Flynn 755
Super 8 fixtures
July 15: Kildare v Monaghan (Croke Park, 2pm, Sky Sports)
July 22: Kildare v Galway (Newbridge, 2pm, RTÉ)
August 4: Kerry v Kildare (Killarney, 6pm, Sky Sports)