Review: Rollercoaster Ride in 2018 For Kildare Senior Footballers

Here’s our annual ramble through the Kildare season which, as ever was another rollercoaster.  In a longer version of the article by Richard Commins published in this week’s Kildare Nationalist, we bring you the story of Kildare’s season. It wasn’t dull!

Supporting the Kildare footballers is a rollercoaster. Five changes of division in six seasons heading into 2018. More snakes and ladders maybe.

There’s a guarded optimism about the season ahead.

2017 had brought highs aplenty (promotion with a game to spare, dominant wins over Laois and Meath and “competitive” against the Blue dollar in a Leinster Final).

But we never got off the bus against Armagh. Division Three Armagh. With an All Ireland Quarter Final in our grasp.

The question is: are we going to be good? Or can we be great? O’Neill says as much in a phrase that will spring to mind later in the summer: “Time to Sh*t or get off the pot”. He knows. The golden generation is primed. This should be their time.

Wannabees

Under O’Neill, Kildare are no longer the “Kings of January”. The O’Byrne Cup is now the pre-season warm-up it was meant to be. And a trial for the wannabees.

Normally you’d glean something out it, but this January it’s absolute misery as Louth destroy our full back line in Hawkfield and Longford have too much for us in Pearse Park.

The trialists scarcely raise a gallop, unfortunately. Five players discarded. Good club players one and all.

Blue Weeds

By common consensus the goals for the year would be retaining our place in Division One and a Leinster Final seems a given with a pathway clear of blue weeds.

After that the new Super 8’s would be only a win away.

Speaking of blue, Croke Park beckons for our league opener. A chance to catch the Dubs cold perhaps with them scarcely back from their cultural tour of World War I cemeteries. Not a ball on the plane, let alone kicked, mind.

Neil Flynn is laid low with a hamstring pull shortly after he’s opened the scoring but hopes are lifted when another Flynn pulls down a high ball close to goal and neatly slots it under Cluxton.

Not Daniel mind you, but younger brother, Luke.  Whatever happened to him?

Two points ahead at half-time and we’ve even instigated the pre-half time schmozzle. It’s a tad uncomfortable for the hosts. Has this Kildare worm turned?

There’d been debate as to whether our lads should give the Dubs their guard of honour as Champions, but no one expects it after half-time as we graciously usher them towards Donnellan’s goal.

After a few false warnings, Rock raises a green flag and Brogan feeds Fenton for number two. Game over. Heads gone. It stretches to an eleven point lead before Leper scores three from the bench and Flynn with a rasper fires over Clucko’s head and into the rigging. Daniel this time.

Some see a seven point gap as progress. Not me. Our full back line was destroyed and as ever no one covers Eoin Doyle when he sweeps.

No Home Comforts

At least we’re back in Conleth’s for the next two. A chance to get points on the board.

Monaghan are up next and we’re boosted by Kevin Feely recovering from injury. But the Athy man has a nightmare with his frees and, despite Paul Cribbin’s efforts, Monaghan command the opening half.

Cribbin inexplicably pulls down Hughes and his black card means we’re up against it as The Farney take a four point lead into the break.

We come to life in the second half with Ben McCormack on song and eventually Niall Kelly pulls us level. But it’s Monaghan who convert their chance to edge it by a point while Callaghan, Feely and Paddy Brophy miss scoreable shots for us. Same old same old.

We really need something now from the visit of Tyrone. Cian tells us lessons are being learnt. Great. But sooner or later the school bell must ring.

One of the lessons presumably is how not to concede soft goals when you’re ahead. Such as the one Brennan scores after Mick O’Grady and David Hyland fail to deal with a ball into the goalmouth. It allows Tyrone to steal a half-time lead when we’d been very decent. Dominant even.

As Tyrone lead by a point going to injury time, Feely misses a scoreable free from the edge of the ‘D’ but he does succeed in injury time with a closer one and we look like hanging on to a point.

Maybe not. Naively we allow Donnelly to march up the wing past a tired Feely challenge with 75 minutes gone. His shot is only going one place.

Referees don’t seem to fear Kildare and we never get a rub of the green. Daniel is fouled within pointing distance but Paddy Neilan calls it back for an infringement out the field. What advantage rule?

The wily Northerners had stunned us at the death just as they had in 2014. But with less of the drama.

Gum-Gate

Speaking of referees: to Ballyshannon and ‘Gum-Gate”. Finally O’Neill puts an extra body in front of Doyle (Keith Cribbin) and Kildare start well with Daniel grabbing a goal early on and our kick-passing opening up Donegal.

McCormack then sets up Daniel for a second but he is in the square. No goal.

That’s pivotal but not as much as Doyle’s bizarre sending off. Already on a yellow, he collects another when he instinctively fields a Donnellan kick-out while he’s on his way to the sideline to collect a gumshield under instruction from David Gough.

Confuson reigns but Gough eventually sends Doyle off. We’re still in with a chance as we continue to penetrate a porous home defence and goals from Kelly and David Slattery keep us in touch with a Donegal side now scoring freely.

Kildare are dogged but this isn’t to be their “Laois ‘97” moment. We are sunk ultimately by a goalkeeping error as Mark Donnellan revisits some of his 2017 nightmares with a ball from Ryan McHugh sailing over his head and into the net.

Four defeats in four and Kildare are clinging to Division One status by a fingernail.

Down and Out

The nail breaks in Conleth’s. Painfully. No hard luck stories here. No referee to blame. A 36 year old corner forward wins 15 out of 16 races for possession with a marker eleven years his junior, the manager does little to alter that scenario, and ultimately Mayo run out clearcut seven point winners.

Flynns give you some solace; Daniel with a classy slalom goal and Celbridge’s Kevin showing his colleagues the way with a lively first start.

Mathematically, Kildare aren’t relegated just yet but a bitterly cold St.Patrick’s week end in Tralee rubber-stamps it. Despite a master show from Daniel (six points from play), Kerry are comfortable winners.

We’ve now lost ten games in a row stretching back to the Leinster semi-final win against Meath and the visit of top of the table Galway in a dead-rubber offers a final chance to boost confidence before the championship opener with Carlow or Louth.

But miserably we go down by six points and plummet back to Division Two. Oh well, every day’s a school day.

Sleep-Walking

You know Carlow will provide a battle. Dublin experienced discomfort against their parked bus and they looked an improved attacking outfit against Louth in Portlaoise.

In truth, though, you’re happy to avoid Louth. Too many bad memories. And sure we’ve beaten Carlow sixteen times in a row back to an O’Byrne Cup defeat in 1964. What could go wrong?

But of course you’ve learned nothing. From Louth (take your pick which year), Wexford ’04, Wicklow ’08.

O’Neill and his charges sleep-walk into ambush. Carlow throw up a wall which Kildare are too clueless to penetrate. Daniel is wedged in a full-forward line where space is swallowed up by Carlow bodies.

No one thinks to move him further out. Our key player, neutralised so easily, although he does manage to poach a soft early goal, which is soon negated by St.Ledger’s free kick traveling all the way to the net. Carlow lead by two and never relinquish it.

Éanna O’Connor has a complete nightmare with the frees and then misses a penalty before being hooked. Carlow, meanwhile, cannot miss. No, I mean they literally cannot and do not miss. Not a wide.

Kildare defenders panic too often and gift Broderick frees which he would kick all day long. In short, nothing goes right on or off the pitch.

I say “off the pitch” but Carlow have a 16th man in Stephen Poacher who covers (legally?) every blade and referees the match as well. Versatile. But you admire his spirit. Carlow want this. Do we? It seems not.

Conor Lawlor leads a late break-out for the Scallion Eaters and their second goal signifies their greatest day in generations.

It’s post-mortem time for us and O’Neill is the dead man walking in some eyes with the losing streak now reaching a dozen games.

Dermot Reilly takes the opportunity to lambaste the County Board Executive at its quarterly meeting and the county seems to be at its lowest ebb.

Resurrection

Despite that, a reasonable crowd travel to Derry’s Owenbeg two weeks later. This could go two ways now. Derry were always a hard nut to crack but they have just been relegated to Division Four.

The difference in Kildare is evident from the start and Fergal Conway leads the charge to respectability with an outstanding display. Four points in the first half are embellished by the pick of Daniel’s goal of the season contenders.

Conway should be in defence of course but what do I know?

Released from provincial shackles both teams play fast, open, football and by half-time we lead by 1-12 to 1-10.

We’re clearly the better team and, while Kelly’s goal is critical, Neil Flynn’s six point cameo from the bench is probably the most impressive impact from a substitute since Podge buttoned up the Division Two final in 2012.

What had happened in the intervening thirteen days in Hawkfield?

On A Roll

Of course, we’re now on a roll. The Qualifiers offer familiar, comfortable, territory. Longford pose a serious threat two weeks later in Pearse Park. But Lady Luck has changed her tune and is suddenly making eyes at us. Donnellan’s crossbar rescues us twice in the first-half.

It still has the feel of those league games in Newbridge when Longford are a point ahead after 56 minutes and an attack that had been on song starts to falter with familiar poor shooting.

But we push on this time, aided by a stellar performance from our most consistent player all season, Paul Cribbin and the arrival of the injury-hampered Feely from the bench.

A dashing run from Daniel down the wing sets up Chris Healy for the crucial score as Kildare hit the front in the final minutes. We go six clear and can withstand the inevitable Longford onslaught which yields them a goal.

Newbridge Or Nowhere

On the Monday morning all hell breaks loose in the GAA world and we’re right at the thick of it. We are pulled first out of the hat for a Third Round tie against Mayo, carefully plotting their normal course through the back door to an inevitable All Ireland Final defeat to Dublin.

The natural assumption that this would be an all-ticket affair in Conleth’s is dashed by lunch-time as the GAA announce a double-header in Croke Park the following Saturday night. The Croke Park where our colours have been lowered eleven times in twelve outings stretching back four years.

For a few days Newbridge is the centre of the sporting universe as Croke Park trot out some Health & Safety spiel explaining their rationale while O’Neill goes on Six-One news to tell the world it’s #NewbridgeOrNowhere.

As sense eventually prevails it’s over to the team now to follow through on the brinkmanship. Any other outcome is unthinkable for players, management and fans. But this is Mayo and few really expect us to win.

A magnificent night in Newbridge in a scorching Irish summer and you witness one of the games of your lifetime. Old school stuff. One team attacks and then the other. No blankets. It’s intense, ferocious, and Kildare are right in it.

Top drawer scores send us into a five point lead. Daniel has Cafferkey on toast a few times and Cribbin is on fire. Mayo are mature though and this is just following a normal qualifier pattern. By the half-hour mark they’ve turned over plenty of Kildare kick-outs and taken control to lead by a point.

This feels like a different Kildare though and with the atmosphere crackling despite the ridiculous curtailment to under 8,000 tickets, our lads put in a massive effort before the break to wrestle back some control and get us on level terms. Cribbin again is instrumental with a brilliant point.

Mayo still look likeliest for much of the third quarter and they stretch into a two point lead but Cribbin again, coming of age in this game, leads the charge again as we level it.

A few ebbs and the odd flow later and here comes Johnny Byrne sauntering up the terrace side to kick one of the most beautiful points an Allenwood man has scored in Newbridge. A few lessons from JD no doubt. Was this going to be the night? Kildare are now two clear.

The heart sinks as Cillian slots a ’45 and O’Donoghue equalises at 17 each with a monster point. Mayo believe. Why wouldn’t they? Neil Flynn slides a free wide to convince them.

But Kildare show what Kildare can be. With Mayo’s leaders struggling to make an impact (O’Grady has Moran dangling from his pocket, Keegan is nowhere), Peter Kelly goes for the jugular.

The Two Mile House man gets a fist in to break up a Mayo attack but isn’t happy with that and continues up towards the Town end.

Daniel, quiet enough tonight, finds the deftest of handpasses to slot Kelly through and Peter the Great keeps his cool to fist over the first championship point of his nine year career.

The rest will go down in history. Hyland marauds forward like Johnny and Peter before him and it ends with Niall Kelly punching over. Composure. Aidan O’Shea barrels forward but is stopped in his tracks by a thunderous shoulder from little Niall.

He gets in on goal again but this time drives low and it’s saved by Clarke. But Diarmuid of the O’Connors has dived on the ball and it’s a free in for Neil to tap over. Two clear. A county holds its breath.

Leper is on of course at this stage and with a skip and a jump he puts himself in a position to slot over our 21st point. Pinch yourself, it’s happening. Three ahead.

I think it’s only at this point that those magnificent travelling Mayo fans realise they might actually lose this one. They do win a 13 metre free and it’s Rob Kelly in reverse. White jerseys line the goals and Moran’s effort flirts with the crossbar but goes over.

Boys have become men. For once, Kildaremen have stood tall and made a statement in a match of significance. We can believe in these boys after all. And maybe we owe Cian an apology.

Carnival

With the wind at our backs Fermanagh in Navan is ‘all’ that stands in the way of an appearance in the first Super 8 series. That seems manageable and so it proves as a carnival-like mood prevails with Lilywhite fans coming out of the woodwork and the team putting Fermanagh firmly in their place.

We’re now everyone’s second favourite team with Mayo gone and the quality of our attacking football, embellished by three excellent goals, has some pundits drooling.

Daniel and Neil Flynn and Healy all hit the net as we blow Fermanagh away from the off, although we do take the foot off the gas a bit earlier than O’Neill would like.

Close but No Cigar in Super 8’s

As the Super 8’s beckons we’ve certainly moved into the ‘very good’ territory as a team. But now came the real test. Are we happy to be good or can we be great?

We would re-acquaint ourselves with three of our League conquerors in our Group; Monaghan, Galway and Kerry. The first game will be critical. Win that and you’ve Galway in Newbridge (or Nowhere) and the feeling is we could take that with the wind in our sails.

But Monaghan is in Croke Park. And the rains come and wash away the feel-good factor. Suddenly the legs are heavy and the brains dulled. We take the ball in static positions and every pass needs an extra thought in the wet.

Our half-forwards are lost. Keith Cribbin works like a trojan but brother Paul can’t get going and nor can Paddy Brophy. Playing Brophy on Karl O’Connell, Monaghan’s marauding wing back, reminds us why we doubted Cian in the first place.

Daniel finds some inspiration though and his goal is another ‘worldy’. He slaloms rather than runs at times and here he jinks towards goal before sneakily lifting it across and over Beggan’s shoulder. Meant it too, of course he did.

Despite a decent defensive performance, we just don’t have enough in attack and score just two points in the final 27 minutes. Monaghan edge home by two. Cian blames ‘mental fatigue’ and maybe there’s something to that.

It’s now an uphill battle against Galway, who’ve edged Kerry in the worse advertisement for Super 8’s you could ever see. But we’re back in Newbridge and the summer returns.

It’s not quite on the level of the Mayo game but again Conleth’s brings out a better performance as we go toe to toe with a team now regarded as number two in the country.

We’re proving competitive in the quarter final series. But still not quite at the right level. Feely is struggling and spending too long for our liking at full forward, but we’re also executing shots badly and making poor decisions. That’s what’s losing these tight games.

Daniel has a bad day at the office. Little do we realise we won’t see him in the white jersey for god-knows-how-long when he’s harshly sent off for a flailing arm after being harrassed all day long by O’Ceallaigh.

Before all that we’ve more than held our own in the first-half but a poor spell just before the break sees Galway edge ahead 0-11 to 0-10 at the break. When Daniel goes it seems the game is up.

To be fair, the boys dig deep and Galway go off the boil as well. But we’re still struggling to close down scoring opportunities and the Tribe hang on for yet another victory over Kildare. Same as it ever was.

Kerry in Killarney is a nothing game for us but the Kingdom have to win. So our first-half performance is remarkably positive and another hint at what these players could be.

Cribbin is magnificent as he crowns his best year in the shirt and notches 1-5 from play. A deserved All Star nomination beckons alongside Daniel and Doyle.

But having dominated the first-half we lose Neil Flynn to a ridiculous red and it all goes haywire in the first play of the second period when Donnellan’s kick out goes astray and the boy wonder Clifford gets in for a goal.

We collapse in the second-half but it’s an artificial environment with nothing to play for and a man short.

To Next Year

A rollercoaster?  I’d say. How can you retain any positivity when you smash the record for defeats in a season (thirteen to the previous record of nine). Are we even good, forget about great?

And yet, those five glorious weeks when we put together our four wins of the season, showed what Kildare can be. Even under the dead man walking. Can we be great? There’s always next year to find out. Same as it ever was.

Happy Christmas to one and all. We’ll keep up the good fight in 2019.

Cill Dara Abu