Park The Bus, Cian !!

Donegal-defence-When updating this site with past results it’s been interesting to track how much gaelic football has changed over the past 20 years. Of course you know the preparation and commitment is at an altogether new level now than when, say, Mick O’Dwyer was tearing up the Lilywhite script all too briefly.

We all remember the high-scoring first replay against Meath in 1997 and hammerings of Offaly and Laois en route to Leinster Finals. But the following scorelines probably don’t bubble easily to the top of the memory banks: Derry 0-8 Kildare 0-8, Monaghan 0-10 Kildare 0-5, Kildare 0-10 Clare 1-5.  These were relatively low-scoring but fairly typical league encounters during O’Dwyer’s second coming.

Even a decade later when Kieran McGeeeey kicked off his managerial career his Kildare side served up a league debut perfectly crafted for a man of his dour reputation : Tyrone 0-7 Kildare 1-4.  Granted the Armagh man went on to produce a side capable of hitting the heights in scoring terms (18 points from play in a Leinster Final) while doing a reasonable job of keeping the door shut at the other end. At least prior to the 2012 season when his team were in decline.

Fast forward though to 2014 and Jason Ryan’s NFL debut with the Lilywhites and an astonishing 2-19 to 2-18 scorefest against Mayo in Newbridge. Delightful as Paddy Brophy’s magnificent six point haul from play was at one end of the pitch, in hindsight the writing was on the wall. Kildare just did not know how to defend.

Through two torturous years any good work Kildare did going forward was undone by the lack of any semblance of a defensive gameplan. Shipping late goals to Tyrone and Down in confidence-sapping home league defeats. You imagined Ryan would find solutions in time for the Championship, but 12 goals against in just two games this past summer against the aristocrats of Dublin and Kerry, and the writing was on the wall for Wexford man.

There is no doubt the game itself has trended towards higher scoring over the course of the last 20 years with rule changes in particular contributing. But has any county shown as soft an underbelly as the men in white over the last 2 to 3 years (even in McGeeney’s last year they were annihilated by Dublin in both League and Championship)?

And so we come to 2016 and Cian O’Neill is the latest manager tasked with improving the lot of the game’s great underachievers. They probably ranked themselves alongside Mayo and above Cavan on that score in the not too distant past but their newly found Division 3 status belittles even that argument.

If there is one thing the Kildare support are crying out for O’Neill to deliver it is to make the team “competitive” again. While a campaign operating with the tag of promotion favourites in lowly Division 3 will bring pressure to produce results and an immediate return to the upper echelons, the over-riding aim of the next seven games surely must be to find a few gnarled “thou shalt not pass” defenders in a structure that protects the half-back line in particular from direct running opponents.

Another priority is teaching the team in general, and the full back line in particular, how to tackle. The 15 selected for tomorrow’s opener versus Westmeath has an experienced trio in that line, all committed, skillful players in so many aspects of the game. But Peter Kelly, Ciaran Fitzpatrick and Ollie Lyons also have a propensity for taking what some might regard as the easy option : leaving a hand in and then blaming the referee when the inevitable whistle comes. Sometimes patience truly is a virtue.

Looking through the rest of O’Neill’s selection and the inclusion of Jonathan Byrne and Ryan Houlihan suggests O’Neill is looking for a new dynamic in his half-backs. Byrne has been with the hurlers for the last few years after an earlier spell around the edges of McGeeney’s squad while Houlihan has impressed as a strong all-round competitor at underage and club level.

The midfield also smacks of a protective shield for the defence. Doubts surround Daryl Flynn’s ability to get back to the physical prowess that saw him dominate Donegal in one of the great Kildare midfield performances in 2011, but there’s no doubt both he and David Hyland will likely focus primarily on “holding the middle” while the likes of Paul Cribbin (picked at no.12) and Eoghan O’Flaherty will look to prompt the attacking unit into action.

It may not exactly be parking the bus a-la Donegal of old but it smacks of a safety first approach that should be welcomed.  That’s not to say that the forward division doesn’t carry it’s own positive talking points. Niall Kelly, picked on the inside line alongside promising Maynooth free-taker Neil Flynn (11 points in the Leinster under-21 final v Dublin), will take some watching, and O’Neill has also unleashed his free-scoring clubman Adam Tyrell for a league debut on the half-forward line.

A scenario that might not be the worst pointer to a more competitive future is a set-up that involves some parking of the bus in a low-scoring encounter harking back to Micko’s days with Tyrell, O’Flaherty and Flynn between them popping over the vast majority of frees that come their way.

I’d take something like 0-8 to 0-7 quite happily.

Kildare Line-Up:

  1. Mark Donnellan (Maynooth)
  2. Peter Kelly (TMH)
  3. Ciaran Fitzpatrick (Kilcock)
  4. Ollie Lyons (Celbridge)
  5. Jonathan Byrne (Allenwood)
  6. Fergal Conway (Celbridge)
  7. Ryan Houlihan (Moorefield)
  8. Daryl Flynn (Moorefield)
  9. David Hyland (Athy)
  10. Adam Tyrell (Moorefield)
  11. Eoghan O’Flaherty (Carbury)
  12. Paul Cribbin (Johnstownbridge)
  13. Cathal McNally (Johnstownbridge)
  14. Niall Kelly (Athy)
  15. Neil Flynn (Maynooth)