Agony, ecstasy and existential despair in Tullamore: the ups and downs of being a Kildare supporter

Guest Post by Paul Nolan

1-ENTER MICKO

MickoThe Kildare 365 site tells me that my initiation into the tribal rites of following the county’s footballers began on October 7, 1990, just under two weeks shy of my ninth birthday. It was an auspicious date to commence my lifelong fandom, as it was the very first competitive game to be played under the team’s new manager – no less than the best Gaelic football coach of all-time, the man who had guided Kerry to a record-breaking eight All Ireland titles, Mick O’Dwyer.

It would be difficult to overstate the surge of excitement O’Dwyer’s appointment sent through the county’s football community; it was as if Johan Cruyff had upped sticks and declared he wanted to build his next empire at Millwall. For dyed-in-the-wool football men such as my father, who had spent the ’80s coaching underage Kildare teams (winning a Leinster minor title in 1983), the optimism was scarcely containable. After a slump lasting several decades, could Kildare now be about to retain its place among the footballing super-powers?

In many respects, it was the day that modern Kildare football was born. It could also be said that the basic arc of that afternoon in St. Conleth’s Park – a giddy sense of anticipation followed by the deflating disappointment of defeat – was good preparation for the ensuing quarter century-plus of following Kildare football teams around the country. Nonetheless, the drama of the team’s late surge following a punched goal by Round Towers’ Noel Donlon was enough to get me on-board: I was hooked.

Under O’Dwyer’s guidance, Kildare fought a dogged Division 2 league campaign throughout the winter of 1990 and the spring of 1991, before a late Bill Sex goal in the final game, away to Mayo in Castelbar, secured us a play-off place – once more against Leitrim, though this time in Navan.

Although the whole occasion was very much off-Broadway, that game against Leitrim was the first time I got the sense that something special might be building under Micko. Martin Lynch delivered a midfield masterclass and Jarlath Gilroy thumped home two goals as we finally got the better of the men from the west.

A keenly fought second half eventually swung in our favour after Lynch powered through the Leitrim defence and smashed a spectacular shot into the top corner (breaking the stanchion in the process). As the Leitrim goalkeeper rolled out the ball to take the kick-out, my father sparked up a cigarette. “Jesus Christ,” he said nervily after the first puff. “It’s worse up here than it is on the pitch.”

There was a great atmosphere among Kildare supporters in the pubs of Navan afterwards. Kildare’s good form continued into Croke Park, where Kerry (of all counties) were seen off in the quarter final, and Donegal in the semi-final after a great game. Which just left O’Dwyer and his young team one game away from claiming a most unlikely national title in his first season. The title would be decided by a glamour game against Dublin, O’Dwyer’s arch rivals from his Kerry days. Although our developing team still had much to learn, there was no denying it – Kildare were back in the big time.

Unfortunately, the game was to be the first of several disappointments that would characterise O’Dwyer’s first spell in charge of Kildare. A fortuitous first-half goal by Vinny Murphy left us chasing a lead we would never fully recover. Despite a brave second-half fight-back, and another vintage display by Martin Lynch (who won a deserved All-Star later that year), Paddy Cullen’s more experienced outfit ultimately prevailed.

Nonetheless, the mood amongst Kildare supporters afterwards remained buoyant. We had run one of the top teams in the country to within a couple of points, and a favourable draw in Leinster (thanks to the first ever open draw), had placed the Dubs and Meath on the opposite side. Though tricky, our first game – away to Louth in Drogheda – looked eminently winnable. The summer would surely end with us testing our mettle against Dublin or Meath in the Leinster final. Wouldn’t it?

If it was difficult to overstate the excitement of O’Dwyer’s first league game, it’s similarly hard to convey the crushing disappointment Kildare supporters felt after his first championship match. The fact that John Crofton had cried off with a last minute injury beforehand had left the Kildare full-back line looking vulnerable, but we would still surely have enough to see off the Wee County. When a Jarlath Gilroy goal late in the second half finally put some breathing space between us and a Louth team that were a little too resilient for comfort, it finally seemed like we could start thinking of a Leinster semi-final.

How wrong we were. A disastrous sequence of events in the Kildare defence let in Stefan White for his second goal virtually on the stroke of full-time, and the tiny ground in Drogheda erupted. Paul McLouglin stroked over a late free, but it didn’t matter – Louth still had a point to spare. The Kildare support was dumbstruck as the lengthy post-mortem commenced in the bars of Drogheda. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nonetheless, it was a feeling we were to become accustomed to over the next few years.

2-THE DUBS

kildare v Dublin 1993Chastening as that Louth defeat was, by late 1991 O’Dwyer had gone back to the drawing board and commenced planning for the following season. After a spell playing Aussie Rules, a promising youngster by the name of Niall Buckley was back in the team. Kildare Mark I under O’Dwyer could be supremely aggravating to watch – not least due to their tendency to squander their superior possession with a wide-count that swiftly became notorious – but the fundamental ability of the team was not in question.

Still, as anyone who followed Kildare in the early ’90s will tell you, there was one team who stood in the team’s way like a particularly unwieldy road block – Dublin. Seven times we went into battle with the Dubs in league and championship from 1991-94, and the best we could manage was two draws.

The team had earned some credit for a spirited comeback in the 1992 Leinster final, but by spring of the following year, the psychological block with our neighbours was reaching crisis point and Kildare were starting to earn a reputation for freezing in big games. Early in the second half of a league quarter final against Dublin in 1993, a pointed Niall Buckley free edged us into the lead and seemed to position us nicely to drive on and finally – to borrow my uncle’s phrase – “beat the hoors”.

There followed the now all-too familiar implosion and bitter post-game recrimination. However, as Eugene McGee wrote that summer, “boundless optimism is a pre-requisite for being a Kildare supporter”. The faithful were confident that the perennial problems in attack had been sorted and the psychological flaws rectified as we headed into another Leinster final show-down with the Dubs in July. After a brutally intense first-half – which culminated in all-out brawl in the tunnel at half-time – Kildare were to revert to their more familiar meek selves as the inevitable second half fade-out commenced. Once again, the Dubs coasted home.

The final six months of O’Dwyer’s first reign were to be devoted – with increasing desperation – to finding a solution to this most vexed of problems. In early 1994, a last-gasp Paul Curran point secured Dublin a draw – and another psychological victory – in St. Conleth’s Park (a game also notable for the blazing sideline row that erupted between O’Dwyer and his counterpart Pat O’Neill); in the first round Leinster Championship match that summer – also the day of Ireland’s famous World Cup win over Italy in Giants Stadium – despite a man of the match display from Kilcock attacker Graham Dunne, Kildare somehow contrived to blow a five-point half-time lead and grant Dublin a reprieve; while the towel was finally thrown in during the replay defeat a few weeks later.

O’Dwyer told the waiting press corps afterwards, “I’ll be back in a minute”. He didn’t return for another two-and-a-half years

3-THE EARLEY YEARS

Although success again proved elusive during the late Dermot Earley’s two-year stint in charge of Kildare, his tenure did actually get off to a promising start. In early 1995, we finally defeated Dublin in a league game in St. Conleth’s Park, in a game when Sarsfields’ John Whelan seemed to announce himself as Kildare’s midfielder for the ’90s. It was another false dawn.

Though always capable of playing stylish football when facing accommodating opposition, Kildare still lacked the ferocious competitive edge that kept Dublin and Meath ahead of the Leinster pack. A televised first round championship game that summer against Louth (now becoming a bogey team) allowed the country to see that the old failings were still in evidence; the forwards failed to zip and, yet again, when it came to the crunch in the second half, too many players went AWOL. It had become a tiresomely familiar story.

There was a scarcely less catastrophic first round hammering by Laois in 1996 and, for all of the early ’90s optimism, Kildare football now seemed back where it was in the pre-O’Dwyer era, a football backwater. It was in this climate that the county board once again turned to a familiar face.

4-MICKO PART 2

kildare v meath 1997No more than any sports fan, I have made some spectacularly wrong predictions over the years. Amongst the many wildly inaccurate calls I have made, my view on the reappointment of Mick O’Dwyer has to rank highly. I remember thinking at the time that it was the wrong move – that O’Dwyer simply didn’t understand the cut-throat nature of Leinster football and could never produce a team with the resolve to withstand the punishment dished out by Dublin and Meath. How wrong I was!

A decent league campaign in 1996/97 meant there was reasonable optimism when we headed to Croke Park to play Laois in the Leinster championship in 1997 – an optimism that was swiftly obliterated by the dismissal of both Martin Lynch and Johnny McDonald in the opening ten minutes. What followed was a display largely uncharacteristic of Kildare teams in the preceding years – showing bravery, tactical ingenuity and quite phenomenal resolve, the 13-man Lilywhites somehow vanquished a Laois team playing with the full complement. Glen Ryan produced one of the greatest individual displays I have ever seen on a football field as O’Dwyer’s team finally came of age.

In retrospect, perhaps this new-found toughness shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. The core of the side – Ryan, Lynch, Anthony Rainbow and Niall Buckley – were now reaching their peak. Nonetheless, All Ireland champions Meath were hot favourites to overcome Kildare in the Leinster semi-final. Determined to show the Laois victory was no flash in the pan, Kildare unleashed a ferocious performance that very nearly toppled Sean Boylan’s men. We hadn’t won the game but, slowly, Kildare football was finally winning some respect.

The first replay between the teams remains quite simply one of the most incredible sporting occasions I have ever been at. On a gorgeous summer’s day in Croker, Niall Buckley produced a display for the ages as both teams engaged in an unforgettable contest that featured breath-taking end-to-end football, twists, turns, incredible scores and more drama than an entire season of Game Of Thrones. After an exhibition of point-taking from Jody Devine brought Meath back from the dead, a last gasp equaliser by Paul McCormack in extra time rescued a draw for Kildare. The final score said it all: Kildare 3-17 Meath 2-20.

Played in a downpour a couple of weeks later, the second replay was always going to struggle to live up to the first two games. Kildare failed to hit previous heights and the back-line struggled to contain Meath’s rampant Ollie Murphy, whose second half goal proved decisive. Still, we fought valiantly in the second half. We’d lost by a couple of points, but there is was a different feeling in the air afterwards. For the first time in a long while, Kildare had exited the championship with heads held high. There would be All Stars for Buckley, Ryan and Davy Dalton that winter, and we faced into 1998 with more optimism than ever before…

5-1998

kildare v meath 1998Several months ago, I had a conversation with one of the school-friends with whom I attended all of Kildare’s 1998 championship games. We posited the theory that the year was actually the high-point of civilisation. The evidence was compelling: The Big Lebowski, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Blur and Pulp headlining Glastonbury, Celtic hockeying Rangers. And crowning it all, of course, Kildare’s extraordinary run to the All Ireland final.

But as any Lily will tell you, we rarely make things easy on ourselves. The opening game against Dublin in a sell-out Croke Park was a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride, during which Kildare once more criminally squandered numerous guilt-edged scoring chances. It finished in a draw, and we wondered if we were ever going to get the elusive break-through under Micko.

It came in the replay, when Kildare – though once more guilty of profligacy in front of goal – were decisively the better team and should have won by more than the single point by which they eventually prevailed. Nonetheless, the Dublin monkey was finally off our backs and a spontaneous roar went up amongst the massed Kildare support as, euphoric, we exited the Canal End. We were going places.

Having easily disposed of Laois in the Leinster semi-final, D-Day for O’Dwyer’s charges came in the shape of a final showdown against Meath. A notable theme of the summer – and of O’Dwyer’s entire reign in Kildare, in fact – was the excellence of our defence. The half-back line of Ryan, Rainbow and John Finn was the best in the business. Behind them, the rock solid duo of Ronan Quinn and Sos Dowling were ably assisted by a new recruit, ex-Tipperary player Brian Lacey, who spent the summer snuffing out the threat of the most high profile forwards in Gaelic football.

With two other new arrivals, Karl O’Dwyer (Micko’s son) and Dermot Earley (son of the previous manager) to the fore, Kildare had opened up a three point lead late in the second half, which in no way flattered them. Nonetheless, showing the county’s characteristic resolve, Meath staged a brave comeback that drew the game level with minutes remaining.

The passage of play that followed will never be forgotten by all Kildare supporters present to witness it. Christy Byrne’s kick-out found Earley loose on the wing, who delivered a lovely ball inside to Lynch under the Nally Stand. Lynch’s sublime arcing pass found Brian Murphy lose in front of Hill 16 – where we and the majority of the Kildare support were stationed – and he duly smashed it into the net. In Micko O’Dwyer’s memorable phrase, “We lit up Croke Park.”

The sheer euphoria afterwards was unreal. We ran out onto the pitch and punched the air as Glen Ryan lifted the cup and commenced his epic half-hour speech. We could have listened to him all night.

As fate would have it, Kerry stood between O’Dwyer and Kildare’s first All Ireland appearance since the ’30s. Although Buckley cried off shortly before throw-in (news of which caused me to emit a loud “Oh fuck!” on Hill 16), Earley ably deputised and another barnstorming display from Ryan powered us to a one-point win. At the final whistle, the sea of white on the Hill exploded. We were in dreamland.

Looking back at the 1998 All Ireland final from nearly two decades remove, I do wonder if I’ll ever see Kildare play in another All Ireland final. On the day itself, a precious ticket having been secured at the last minute, I took up my now familiar place on Hill 16. A goal from Earley had us in the driving seat at half-time. After 70 years of heart-ache, was this to be the anointed hour? An equally nervous fellow supporter asked me at the break what I thought. “It’s going okay,” I said, hesitantly.

A few years ago, I heard someone say that Kildare played one bad half of football in 1998 and it cost them the All Ireland. An over-simplification, maybe, but not far off. The defence that had spent the previous four months seeing off the best forward divisions in the game was simply blitzed by a brilliant display of stylish attacking football. Undoubtedly, injuries to Buckley and Ryan didn’t help, but we had no answer as Michael Donnellan, Ja Fallon and Padraig Joyce ran riot.

It was a remarkable triumph for Galway and their gifted manager John O’Mahoney. A sleeping giant of Gaelic football had awoken and we felt the full brunt of their fury. Though chronically disappointed, there was nothing else for us to do but regroup and go again.

6-THE QUEST CONTINUES

kildare v dublin 2000A disappointing first round exit to Offaly in 1999 meant the season never got off the ground. However, 2000 proved to be one of my most memorable ever following Kildare. A Padraig Graven penalty edged us over Louth in the first round of the Leinster championship, though a last-minute Vinny Claffey goal meant Offaly took us to a replay in the semi-final (interviewed by RTE immediately after the final whistle, Mick O’Dwyer – having thought we’d lost – was overjoyed to discover the scores were in fact level).

A brilliant display in the replay, during which the team (now featuring Ronan Sweeney, Johnny Doyle and Tadgh Fennin in attack) reeled off 12 points from play either side of half time, set us up for a mouth-watering Leinster final against Dublin. As tended to be the case with Kildare-Dublin encounters of the time, it was a frenetic, hugely exciting game which Tadgh Fennin appeared to have won for us towards the end, only for the Dubs to equalise.

During the replay – which took place, as did all of our games that summer, amidst the reconstruction of Croke Park – Dublin played us off the pitch in the first half and should have led by more than six points at half. Kildare, with bona fide warriors such as Willie McCreery now leading the charge, were at this stage a battle-hardened outfit and I remember thinking at half-time that a six-point deficit was definitely manageable.

More manageable than anyone could have imagined! Within 90 seconds of the restart, goals from Dermot Early and Tadhg Fennin had levelled the game, and I was dancing around the Canal End. The Dubs were psychologically gone, and we steamrollered them for the rest of the half. I still consider this game to be the sweetest victory I’ve ever enjoyed as a Kildare fan and, indeed, along with Ireland’s unforgettable 2015 win over Germany – it’s the most memorable sporting occasion I’ve ever been at!

Galway again stood in our way as we closed in on another All Ireland appearance. During a rainy day in Croke Park, John O’Mahoney’s superior forwards once more proved the difference as Kildare’s brave effort came up short. John Finn’s second half dismissal certainly hadn’t helped, but we still seemed short of that extra bit of class you need to go the whole way. Was the missing Niall Buckley the difference? We’ll never know.

The incredible rollercoaster ride of O’Dwyer’s second tenure had one more flourish, when the team reached the Leinster final in 2002. Unfortunately, Tadhg Fennin’s two goals proved not to be enough as the Dubs edged the contest to claim – incredible as it now seems – their first Leinster title in seven years. Micko was about the bid us adieu, but we’d seeing him again very soon. In fact, the following summer, I was seeing him in person.

Having left school in Kilcullen in 2000, I started writing for Hot Press magazine the following year. A week before the Leinster final in 2003, I sat down to conduct the first of a two-part interview with O’Dwyer. The story was irresistible: having only left Kildare the previous year, Micko was now taking them on with his new charges in Laois! He was the soul of conviviality as we met in the Killeshin Hotel in Portlaoise, telling me he used to run the gig listings for his Waterville hotels in Hot Press, and that – of all people – Louis Walsh used to hound him to put on new acts.

He also held forth about his glory years in Kerry, and his stint in Kildare. Everything, in fact, except his new Laois team, about whom he retained his famous evasiveness (O’Dwyer told me he was very surprised they’d reached the Leinster final in his first season; one of his players subsequently said that, at their first training session, he’d assured them they’d be Leinster champions within 12 months).

Despite a strong showing from Kildare (now under the guidance of Padraig Nolan), Laois ultimately prevailed and gave O’Dwyer yet another incredible achievement to add to his already glittering CV – it was Laois’s first Leinster title in nearly 60 years. All you could say was that since 1990 (when Eoghan McCrohan published a fine biography assuring us that there would be “no encore” in O’Dwyer’s managerial career), Micko had taken us all on one hell of a trip…

7-SEASONS IN THE ABYSS

And what of Kildare? Suffice to say that after 2003, the next few years were to be a lot less eventful than the previous 13. Under first Nolan and then John Crofton, we commenced a painful slide back into football’s also-rans. We still had household names like Johnny Doyle and Dermot Early, and it seemed like we had the makings of a useful side. There were also some notable underage successes, including U21 Leinster titles in 2004 and 2008, the latter of which even led to an All Ireland final appearance.

It didn’t seem to matter. The x-factor in evidence under Micko had disappeared and, for most of us, Kildare football slid further and further from the centre of our daily lives. It was like a fond relative who came occasionally to visit and then made an equally swift exit. And then an Armagh legend decided to try his hand at management…

8-GEEZER DOES IT

McGeeneyLike everyone else, the first time I got the inkling that something might be stirring under Kieran McGeeney came when the team reached the 2008 All Ireland quarter final against Cork. The game took place as part of a double header with the Cork hurlers, and I remember remarking jovially to a Corkonian work colleague in the week before the game that his county was in for a beating. “We might lose the hurling alright,” was his retort.

Kildare ultimately lost by a few points, after a spirited comeback, but things seemed to be moving in the right direction again. The following year, Kildare blazed their way through Leinster, trouncing everyone on their way to a Leinster final showdown with – who else? – Dublin. The match took place the same weekend as Oxegen in Punchestown, and although some of my favourite bands were playing, Blur, the Pet Shop Boys and Nine Inch Nails were effectively the support acts for Sunday’s headlining event in Croke Park.

We ultimately lost out narrowly after a thrilling encounter, and I remember feeling afterwards that we’d thrown it away, having had an extra man for most of the match. Nonetheless, we battled on that summer and seriously put it up to the reigning champions Tyrone in the quarter final, and Dermot Earley ended the year with his second All Star. There was no doubt about it – Geezer had made following Kildare exciting again.

The keynote theme of his tenure ultimately proved to be heartbreak, but Christ, we got our money’s worth. James Kavanagh’s moment of genius for his goal against Meath in the 2010 All Ireland quarter final was one of the highlights as we faced into our first semi-final in ten years. I arrived back from a holiday in Reykjavik convinced we were going to beat Down. And maybe we would have, but for Benny Coulter’s square ball…

There was more of the same in 2011, including Cormac Reilly’s outrageous decision to gift Bernard Brogan a last minute free against Dublin, until it all culminated in that incredible quarter-final against Donegal. That titanic struggle eventually ended with Kevin Cassidy’s mammoth point into Hill 16, and I made off for the Prince concert in Malahide Castle with a heavy heart…

Geezer’s final two notable achievements in Kildare were promotion to Division One in 2012 and a Leinster U21 title the following year. The latter win – by probably the best underage Kildare team many of us had seen until that point – came to an all-too-familiar conclusion on a colossally disappointing afternoon against Galway (them again!) in Tullamore. Would we ever win an All Ireland again at any grade…

I didn’t always agree with McGeeney’s tactical approach (the same forwards every year? the persistence with Tomas O’Connor? Johnny Doyle at midfield?) but he did incredible work in Kildare. We owe him a serious debt of gratitude.

9-HOPE SRINGS ETERNAL…

KildareVCorkFeb2017_largeThe hapless Jason Ryan’s stint in Kildare eventually assumed the dimensions of one-long debacle, and morale was at a serious low when Cian O’Neill took over in late 2015. After a somewhat underwhelming first season, I took my seat in St. Conleth’s Park earlier this year – where the journey commenced all the way back in 1990 – for the O’Byrne Cup tie with Dublin.

I left that afternoon cursing O’Neill’s inability to get the best out of the players and lamenting the fact that so much underage talent was going to waste. I felt we were likely to spend spring 2017 battling relegation. How quickly things change! After two hugely impressive – and, to me, utterly unexpected – wins to kickstart the league campaign, there is yet again a quiet optimism building among the Kildare faithful.

Certainly, having produced a number of talented minor and U21 teams in recent years, the raw materials for a top side are there. And trust me, if the past 27 years have taught me anything, it’s that the journey won’t be boring… Cill Dara Abu!

Paul Nolan is a contributing editor with Hot Press magazine. You can read his 2003 interview with Mick O’Dwyer here: http://www.hotpress.com/Mick-ODwyer/features/interviews/Mick-ODwyer/2671817.html