27 January 2018 – Kildare 2-10 Dublin 2-17 (NFL Division One, Croke Park)

So where does that leave us?

It’s common in the modern media to take the “5 Things We Learned…” approach to these things.

But frankly it’s not really about what we the supporters learn from occasions like last night. It’s about what Cian O’Neill and his panel can take from it and put to good use in the future.

The nagging question is whether they have the capacity to do so, either on the sideline or on the pitch. Haven’t there been plenty of learning experiences over the last few years? Clare, Westmeath, Galway, Armagh,  er… Dublin.

O’Neill categorised this year as “Time to Shit or Get off the Pot”. It’s a good motto and reflective of the age profile of the bulk of the current panel, most of whom are in their mid-twenties and five years at this lark. It might also relate to O’Neill himself, in his third year in team management with his native county and continuing to commute a few times a week from Cork. That takes its toll.

Without wishing to prolong the analogy too long how will we judge this season’s visit to the bathroom?

Division One is the place to hone your craft in football and anything other than survival in the top echelons must get marked down as a major setback. Likewise, making the Super 8’s at a minimum would represent further progress for a team that has made incremental improvements since O’Neill arrived in 2015.

So where are we after last night?

The optimists will point to a bright start and a competitive first-half during which we were dominant in terms of possession. That we came strong in the run up to half-time when Dublin were starting to get into their stride.

Sure didn’t we even stand up to them and if anything started that shemozzle before half-time. A statement was made surely? Kildare had grown balls.

That we pulled up our socks in the last 10 minutes and brought the gap down to the lowest it’s been in six games against the metropolitans dating back to the 2011 Leinster Semi Final.

Straw clutchers.

There was some debate on social media as to whether Kildare would have to give Dublin a guard of honour before the game as reigning All Ireland Champions. What we didn’t realise was that it was scheduled for the start of the second-half.

Dublin had obviously had a word with themselves at the interval. As rusty as you’d expect them to be only two weeks back from holidays, they clearly weren’t happy with their own standards in that lacklustre first-half. They shook themselves into action and blew Kildare away in a familiar manner.

What did Kildare talk about in the dressing room during the break? Did they not ready themselves for the inevitable challenge? Two points behind, playing into the Hill for the second-half? Jim Gavin in their dressing room? Dublin’s first-half slumber was never going to continue.

Within 10 abject minutes Dublin had created four goal chances, converted two of them and tacked on three points to put the game to bed. Hardly a finger laid on them. Guard of Honour is right.

Anything that happened afterwards was largely irrelevant. Dublin had eased seven points clear. By the 54th minute they’d stretched that to eleven and benches were emptying.

Going back to the first-half, O’Neill had emphasised the need to be ruthless at Division One level. It’s not a quality we’re renowned for and the naivety and poverty of execution in the forward line bit us hard once more.

We got off to a perfect start despite losing Neil Flynn to the corner-forwards curse in the 2nd minute, the Maynooth man pulling up with a hamstring injury shortly after opening the scoring with a free. It was a slow-paced affair early on but the signs were good as Dublin ran into a few white blind alleys and Kildare looked patient and thoughtful in possession.

Kildare had already a couple of wides on the board in the 8th minute when the lively Paul Cribbin miscued another from the right wing.

League debutant Luke Flynn was lurking at the far post and while the nearest Dub marker Ciaran Kilkenny assumed the ball was drifting out, the younger Johnstownbridge brother plucked it from the skies and slotted it low under Stephen Cluxton.

Thankfully Hawkeye doesn’t adjudicate on such matters as the suspicion was that it wasn’t just Flynn’s feet that were behind the endline.  1-1 to 0-0.

Dublin were forced to crank up the engine and a four-point burst in six minutes drew them level, though Kildare contributed as much to their own downfall with Mark Donnellan struggling to find a white shirt from kick-outs and Eoin Doyle and Johnny Byrne conceding unnecessarily soft frees.

That theme continued when Chris Healy, way out the field, swung Jonny Cooper rashly to the ground and his day was over with Conor Lane having no option but to issue a black card. Niall Kelly, whose involvement with the squad had been curtailed by holidays in January, was introduced earlier than he would have expected. Not to any great effect sadly.

The game was competitive now and Kildare didn’t look out of place. Bernard Brogan edged the home team in front but Kevin Feely found the range with a free and then the talismanic Daniel Flynn used all his pace and power to burst through cover and kick his first point.

Kilkenny, along with the magnificent Brian Fenton, was the one Dublin player who looked on his game in that first period.

Whether by design or not, Kilkenny was allowed free reign by Kildare’s formation. Whether someone is detailed to plug the gap when Doyle moves back to shield the full back line is hard to say but he took full advantage to slot over an equaliser.

Cribbin’s running was a feature of the first half and he took on the Dublin defence and availed of a pass from David Slattery to swing over a lovely point as Kildare edged 1-4 to 0-6 ahead in the 24th minute. This was surprisingly competitive and reasonably compelling now.

Fenlon and Feely were reprising their battle for supremacy at midfield from the Leinster Final with Fenton shading primary possession but Feely thoughtfully prompting the Kildare forward line at times. As the game wore on though it was the Raheny man who became the dominant force. Ten minutes before the break he swept over a beautiful left-footed shot, albeit under little pressure, to draw the sides level.

You expected Dublin to hit the afterburners coming up to half-time but for those few minutes (fleeting as it turned out), you hoped you were seeing a different Kildare.

Doyle is the closest the team has to a Glen Ryan, and coincidentally plays in the same no.6 shirt. The Naas man had stood firm against a couple of Dublin challenges earlier, notably coming off best on one occasion against Johnny Small.

Another sturdy interception from Doyle launched Kildare forward just past the half-hour mark. Daniel Flynn gained possession and powered once more towards the Dublin goal with Doyle making up the ground to give him a perfect option for the offload with the goal at his mercy.

Cathal McNally was another option to his left. But Daniel had eyes only for Cluxton’s goal. Sadly his feet weren’t on the same wavelength and he blazed over the bar. His captain was furious and he had every right to be. It was the most significant moment of the game, starkly so in light of O’Neill’s call for ruthlessness.

Still there was time before the break for Donnellan to escape his kick-out purgatory and slot a fine long-range free over the black spot to edge the Lilies two points clear (1-6 to 0-7).

Time before half-time for Kildare to make their statement. Cooper collapsed under a gentle push from Kelly, poor lamb, and Hyland led the charge as Kildare piled in. One in, all in. Yellow for Kelly. Statement made it seemed. Not really as it turned out.

That opening sequence in the second-half makes painful reading. If we want to draw on excuses, Feely’s influence on proceedings died almost completely when in one incident he pulled a calf muscle and was the recipient of a nasty knee to the head from Michael Daragh McAuley.

He continued on but ultimately was pushed into full forward and finally called ashore. His health will be monitored with interest this week.

Those who put Feely in the same category as Fenton have all-white blinkers on though. There’s no midfielder in the country that can touch him on this form. He strolled forward twice at the start of the half to pull Dublin quickly level.

Kildare’s relative first-half success had been built off the industry and aggressive running of the likes of Cribbin, Feely, Doyle, Fergal Conway and Luke Flynn. None of them could get to the pitch of it in those awful opening 10 minutes after the break.

Having stood firm defensively in the first-half Kildare were unable to ratchet up their performance levels as Dublin ran at waves at them. James McCarthy, Fenton, Brian Howard, Kilkenny etc were suddenly full of energy and their opposite numbers were “marking space” and literally at times waving the metropolitan forwards towards Donnellan’s goal.

Dublin hadn’t fashioned a goal chance in the first-half but that all changed in front of the Hill. With the craft of Brogan coming to the fore Kildare were suddenly taking on water. Brogan popped a through pass to Scully who blasted wide with the goal at his mercy.

Kildare needed to settle down now but Donnellan’s kick out went straight to Saint Bernard to the delight of the hill. The Maynooth man made amends by saving the resultant shot but it squirmed to Dean Rock. Incredibly he also skewed it high and wide.

Still Kildare couldn’t draw breath though. The impressive newcomer Brian Howard jinked through with lovely feet for a big man and Dublin were a point ahead.

Brogan’s class then put David Hyland to the sword. The Athyman is perhaps not the game’s most natural full back. I for one would prefer to see him on the half-back line. And twice he was second best to the elder statesman of the Dublin team in quick succession and on these occasions Dublin ruthlessly punished his mistakes.

First Brogan was quickest to Cooper’s high ball and with Hyland falling awkwardly, the Oliver Plunketts Eoghan Rua man scooped the ball invitingly into Rock’s hands and he made no mistake this time with a low drive across Donnellan.

Straight after it was truly game over. Brogan again showed all his nous to get to another high ball ahead of Hyland and palm it into Fenton’s path for the midfielder to sweep through and finish brilliantly.

Kildare’s heads were gone. This was so familiar. Dublin running rings around them, all the time in the world, space opening up and not a semblance of leadership on the field to bring calm to procedings. Disappointingly so. Kildare needed to slow things down, hold possession and build again from the back. Easier said than done of course. But that’s the level expected in Division One and eventually it has to sink in.

The next ten minutes saw Dublin assert their total dominance. They played some beautiful attacking football with newcomers Colm Basquel and Howard to the fore and five points from play in that time had them eleven clear. Kildare eked out a solitary reply with Feely pointing a free after the hard-working McNally was fouled near goal.

Feely, now in at full forward, might have got a touch above Cluxton to force a goal but that chance went abegging, and McNally failed to collect a pinpoint through-ball from Kelly, but sorties into enemy lines had a touch of going through the motions about them.

Eamon Callaghan made his customary appearance from the bench and with Feely departing the Naas man took on the free-taking role, kicking three successfully from his hands as Kildare made some inroads on the scoreboard in the final ten minutes.

Slattery, very quiet after replacing Neil Flynn, cut inside in injury time to force a fine save from Cluxton before Kildare ended the game on a high.

Doyle, still working hard, if over-run for much of the half, showed Daniel Flynn the benefit of teamwork as he came forward up the right and played the Johnstownbridge man into space to the right of the parallelogram.

And Flynn to his credit produced a finish of some style with a rasping shot that rattled the stanchion over the right shoulder of a motionless Cluxton.

While that put some respectability on the scoreline, make no mistake. This was the same old story from Kildare. Some will dress it up, sugar coat it. Straw clutchers. They’ll rightly point to the next six matches as those that will truly define our league campaign.

But you won’t go far without being able to defend. You won’t go far kicking six wides and at least two short when in the ascendancy in the first half. Not to mention blazing over when failing to play in a clearly better-placed colleague with the goal at his mercy. That gets found out in Division One, not just against Dublin.

You won’t go too far in management if in your third year you haven’t found a way to plug the gap when your centre-back drops in. Notably there are no former inter-county backs on the Kildare management team. That may be something to look at.

But ultimately it’s up to the players what they want to do when they sit on that pot. The next week is probably a good time to decide.

Player Ratings:

Mark Donnellan – 5 – tough day at the office. Kick out strategy and execution problematic all day.

Peter Kelly – 5 – Both corner-backs were comfortable in the first-half. Might have had a point but Cooper’s challenge was enough to put him off. At sea with the rest of the defence second-half.

David Hyland – 5 – Strong first half performance and as always was first into the fray when tempers flared. Brogan too cute for him in the second-half leading directly to the concession of two goals.

Mick O’Grady – 5 – Similar day to Kelly and Hyland.

Johnny Byrne – 5 – ok first half but totally lost in the second. Came on a ton in 2017 but struggling early on this season and place may be in danger.

Eoin Doyle – 6 – Archetypal Doyle performance in the first half. Led the team from the back. If he was supposed to be marking Kilkenny you’d have to say he failed though so we’re giving benefit of the doubt. Became somewhat invisible as Dublin rang rings around us in his area of the pitch in the third quarter.

Cian O’Donoghue – 6 – neat and tidy performance deputising for Keith Cribbin. Bad miss in the first-half but overall carried the ball well and made good, though largely conservative decisions. Solid.

Kevin Feely – 6 – Fenton ultimately blew our midfield away but injury was a factor in that. Was calm and controlled in the first-half and kick-out strategy didn’t seem geared towards his strengths. Seemed to lack a bit of confidence when faced with long-range frees but wind perhaps a factor.

Luke Flynn – 6 – First-half was a decent introduction to league football for the younger Flynn and of course took his goal well. Has strength and mobility and with time hopefully he can impose himself more. Didn’t disgrace himself but was marked absent along with more senior colleagues when Dubs got a run on us.

Fergal Conway – 5 – lively enough in possession in first half, went missing in the second and called ashore. Where is his best position? Not really a forward but doesn’t provide a lot of cover defensively from 10. Conundrum for O’Neill. Many would position him as an extra back with Doyle free behind him. Might be worth a try next time but O’Neill doesn’t seem to like that tactic.

Chris Healy – 5 – Experimental positioning at 11 when all the evidence suggests he’s strongest close to goal. Not really convincing at this level. Rash “tackle” on Cooper deservedly resulted in early shower.

Paul Cribbin – 6 – Seemed to have the bit between his teeth in the opening period. Scored a fine point and drove at Dublin at times. One of many to disappear on the resumption.

Neil Flynn – N/A – terrible luck with injuries continuing and with the run of games coming up will surely miss most of the league now.

Daniel Flynn – 7 – such a raw talent and despite “that” goal chance going abegging was the one player to really scare the Dublin defence. Barnstorming goal at the end. Flitted in and out at times and needs to make better decisions but is a real threat.

Cathal McNally – 6 – you get plenty of industry with Cathal but always seems to “almost” pull off a score, like the one that hit the upright in the second-half. Not clinical enough against the top echelon sides but you won’t find a more committed worker. That’s why he gets the nod in the 15 so often.

Subs:

David Slattery 5 – thought he should have started but he proved me wrong with a very quiet outing.

Niall Kelly 5 – still not stamping his undoubted talent on the big occasion.

Tommy Moolick – 5 – pace and mobility draw-backs really biting over the last year. What to do with him?

Ben McCormack – 5 – sometimes you’d just like him to slow down. Young enough and richly talented.

Eamon Callaghan – 6 – good distribution and took over the free-taking with 100% success rate.

Mark Hyland – 5 – didn’t have much to do in his 10 minutes or so on the pitch.

Scorers for Kildare: Daniel Flynn 1-2, Luke Flynn 1-0, Eamon Callaghan (3f) 0-3, Kevin Feely (2f) 0-2, Neil Flynn (f), Paul Cribbin, Mark Donnellan (f) 0-1 each.

Kildare Line Up:

Pos Player Sub
1 Mark Donnellan
2 Peter Kelly Mark Hyland (61)
3 David Hyland
4 Mick O’Grady
5 Jonathan Byrne
6 Eoin Doyle
7 Cian O’Donoghue
8 Kevin Feely Eamon Callaghan (61)
9 Luke Flynn Ben McCormack (56)
10 Fergal Conway Tommy Moolick (50)
11 Chris Healy Niall Kelly (20)
12 Paul Cribbin
13 Neil Flynn David Slattery (4)
14 Daniel Flynn
15 Cathal McNally