Season Review: A Ramble Through Kildare’s 2017 Season

2017 team huddle v meath

 

The lengths you go to. Forty odd years invested in it so a family holiday in remotest Canada is only a minor obstacle. An All-Ireland Quarter Final place at stake. Upward curve. League and Leinster Final goals achieved. Competitive against Dublin (discuss..?) for the first time in six years.

Scale one last hurdle and you can say the season has been an unqualified success. It’s “only” Armagh. Division Three Armagh. Beaten by Down Armagh. Very beatable Armagh.

Geezer’s Armagh.

You’ve screwed up though and managed to book accommodation with no wi-fi. With the world-wide-interweb disconcertingly off-limits you eschew the option to ring home for the result. You’ll wait for connectivity.

Three days pass in blissful ignorance. Finally, the opportunity presents itself. A hotel with an outdoor pool and the sun splitting the stones. Kids sorted. Armed with a good book and the long-suffering other half settles in beside you in the bar.

A Kildare Kind of Hell

GAA GO fee paid and Bob’s Your Uncle. Pint in hand. Stream only breaks down every 10 minutes or so. Otherwise perfect.

But it’s not. It’s misery. Pure and utter. The barman’s concern rises as you wince, grunt, swear, slump. “Pffft” is the mildest expletive during your 80 minutes of hell. A special Kildare kind of hell. The sort you’ve gone through so many times you should be immune.

Or maybe you should have just grown up by now. The wife decamps to beside the pool on the pretext of keeping an eye on the teenagers.

The vibrant team that asserted the natural order against Laois, blew northern neighbours Meath away in League and Championship, went toe to toe with Dublin for 60 minutes? That team stayed on the bus.

Instead it was the meek, submissive, passive, clueless bunch from the Division Two final who took to the field. Collective under-performance once more. Shocking decision-making. Poor intensity, even if you hate that phrase. Shot selection? Give me a break.

No leadership. Big players not doing it. Not up for it. Look like they don’t care but we know they do. They do, don’t they? Or are they satisfied to bow out now with their primary goals achieved?

Armagh are up for it. Up for everything. Whatever it takes. Whether Geezer put some extra “oomph” into them because it was Kildare who knows. But they’re pinging balls into their full forward line and everything’s sticking in there. Murnin almost collapses with shock when he realises he can gather, turn and shoot without a hand laid on him. Waved through almost. Is this Championship? It’s certainly not Ulster.

Armagh are pinging points from various angles. At will almost. Kildare sorely missing the leadership and organisation Eoin Doyle normally provides from centre-back. But why is no one else taking up the mantle? David Hyland and Keith Cribbin try to stem the tide at the back. But it’s washing over them.

Feely can’t get into the game in midfield. With workhorse Moolick left out, Paul Cribbin is asked to cover every blade. And does. But talented and committed as he is, his shooting remains his downfall. Unpredictable to be kind.

He and Daniel Flynn are among those to miss glorious chances to assert the expected upper hand. Flynn probably doesn’t appreciate Hawkeye confirming his glaring miss from in front of the posts.

Mark Donnellan emphasises that Kildare weren’t aren’t being “present” in the game as Jim Gavin might put it. A stupid block on Murnin as he returns from kicking a free wide down the Canal End could easily result in black. It doesn’t but it’s headless stuff really.

Armagh’s goal comes just as Kildare are getting a foothold with Niall Kelly finding his shooting boots and threatening to emerge from his shell after a disappointing summer. It is in keeping with Kildare’s day. Murnin advances into a goal-scoring position too easily and lady luck favours the brave as O’Grady’s attempted block merely delays the inevitable as the ball trickles towards the line out of Donnellan’s reach and the Armagh man applies a simple finish.

Hope the Tormentor

You fast forward through the half-time analysis, concerned that wifely patience will wear thin or you’ll be black carded by the hotel for foul and abusive language. Kids seem to be shivering as the evening sun sets. Newfie is not Majorca it seems.

Hope is a terrible thing. A tormentor almost. Kildare emerge from a dressing down (you hope) and claw their way back. The hard-working Paddy Brophy is getting into his stride and showing his class while still a bit too peripheral for your liking. Fergal Conway is putting his Leinster Final disappointment behind him and kicking points for fun.

By the 58th minute Kildare have edged ahead by a point and you assume they’ll kick on. Are you mad? Have you learned nothing in 40 years? Did they kick on against Galway in the league final?

No, they fall back into the shell. Led by will-of-the-wisp Jamie Clarke, Armagh kick on again and play the sharpest, most intelligent football. Three points on the trot and Kildare are visibly wilting. Mentally. Physically. Panic sets in, minds fuzzy.

And yet they still claw it back to a point through Feely.

But you’ve seen this script before. It’s Armagh who rise to the occasion when it counts. Division Three Armagh. Failed to gain promotion at the death Armagh. McGeeney’s Armagh. And Kildare revert to type. A missed free from their player of the season. Dowling with a wild shot to nothing. Leper, on the field for his experience, miss-places a simple hand-pass. Panic stations when cool heads needed.

Armagh kick two more points and it’s gone. Painfully, miserably gone. All that good work.

The most Kildare performance ever.

Thank god for family, holidays and not being in Ireland. Thank god you don’t have to take the walk of shame down the Clonliffe Road. You don’t even have to shell out for GAA GO for the Quarter Final.

Newfoundland is highly recommended by the way. Scenery, whales, kayaks, lovely people and their disconcertingly Irish accents.

Just have some sense and call home immediately for the bad news.

Tighter Squad

Up until that point the season has largely gone to plan. Or, more accurately, above expectations. You enter the year thinking about consolidation when it came to Division 2. Cian O’Neill’s first year in charge had brought a laboured exit from Division 3, a somewhat embarrassing Final failure to an emerging Clare side and then two of our worst Leinster performances (saying something) against lesser lights of the province for some time.

O’Neill shuffles – or is forced to shuffle depending on who you listen to – his management team, with Brian Flanagan, Brian Murphy and Padraig Brennan stepping back and Roli Sweeney and Enda Murphy jumping into the breach.

The squad is tighter and less experimental as the O’Byrne Cup kicks off. You were disappointed not to get a call up yourself in O’Neill’s first year in the job but now he’s had a good look around the county and settled on a smaller crew. Consistency of selection will be a feature of the year, particularly through the league campaign.

The main curiosity in the pre-season competition is Ben McCormack, the Sarsfields youngster not long out of minor. A different type of Kildare forward on all the evidence of his underage days. Quick, powerful and economical with his point-taking. A James O’Donoghue in white you’d hope.

January offers plenty of hope on that front with McCormack rattling off three points against Longford and a further five in the training spin against an out-classed Carlow IT. With Eoghan O’Flaherty taking a year out, Alan Smith fading out of the picture, Adam Tyrell on army duty and no sign of Darroch Mulhall or Podge Fogarty returning, Kildare are looking weak in attack. We need new talent to emerge in that sector for sure.

Niall Kelly is in a rare vein of form though. He raises green flags in two O’Byrne Cup group games and looks the part in a roving central role. Conor Hartley also looks lively in his debut campaign, playing on the half-forward line.

Kildare ease out of their group with a comprehensive win in Tullamore against Offaly, making it ten on the spin against their former rivals.

But a third-string Dublin arrive in Newbridge and bring angst to the social media airwaves as they come from behind to destroy a listless Kildare, despite the home team being bolstered by their college contingent. Niall Scully uses the opportunity to lay down a marker to Jim Gavin and Kildare have no answer to his direct running game.

First-half goals from Johnny Byrne and Daniel Flynn put Kildare in the driving seat but they have no answer to a barrage of second half points. Kildare fail to score in the last 15 minutes of either half.

It’s a defeat that cuts to the bone. As a fan you’re horrified, embarrassed, disillusioned. You write them off once more. Same old story. No guts. Afraid of the blue jersey.

Cian O’Neill is “disgusted that we lost a game we should have won”. The forum comments were a sight to behold.

From the Blocks

You never envisaged then what transpired in Navan two weeks later. Meath have Andy McEntee in the hot seat after years of… nothing much really. And their supporters clearly expect him to wave a magic wand and resurrect the Meath spirit of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Good luck with that.

O’Neill picks an experienced team with Mick O’Grady back from a year out to bolster the full back line and Paul Cribbin and Daniel Flynn back from an injury-ravaged 2016.

McCormack is the newcomer to the ranks and within 14 seconds he announces himself on the senior stage as Kildare burst from the blocks. Feely wins the throw in, Cribbin eschews the safe option of a point attempt and plays in the lively youngster who is wheeling around Keogan and buries it in the net.

Meath are agricultural and can’t put one foot in front of the other it seems as the Kildare attack moves fluidly in a dominant first-half. The excellent Cribbin set up Kelly for a second goal.

The Royals are floundering but to be fair they keep driving at Kildare and Cillian O’Sullivan’s pace is causing the away side problems and Graham Reilly starts picking off the points as they hit a purple patch with five unanswered points during the run up to half-time. Kildare are grateful for a Donnellan block from an O’Sullivan effort on half-time and Kildare go in with six to spare.

That’s never a big enough lead between these two great rivals and when Lenihan and Reilly bring the gap down to four Kildare are wobbling slightly.

Step forward skipper Doyle though. Outstanding in pre-season and taking on a real leadership role, the Naas man sallies up the field for a Glen Ryan-esque steadying point and Kildare begin to move in the right direction again.

When Fergal Conway bull-dozes his way through and sets up Kelly for his fourth goal in five games, it’s game over and Kildare exit Navan with a ten-point margin and two points on the board. With the teams likely to meet at the semi-final stage in Leinster a marker has been laid down.

Digging Deep

On to Cork in Newbridge and this time you expect a real test for the newly-promoted side. Cork had slipped out of Division One and have been held to draw by Galway in their opening game, so you expect them to be right “at it” if they are to justify their tag as promotion favourites.

This is in many ways a more impressive show from O’Neill’s charges. No first minute goals to sooth the nerves. This time they grow into the game, establish a lead, suffer a calamitous and controversial concession of a goal twelve minutes from time but recover their nerve and take control again to emerge six points winners.

This doesn’t feel like normal service. This feels different. Normally we’d lose this one under these circumstances and be cursing referees, bad luck or our own naivety.

Cormac Reilly seems determine to succeed where his countymen failed the week before, intent on lowering Kildare’s colours almost single-handedly, with a little help from Maurice Deegan. Daniel Flynn has a contender for goal of the season ruled out when Deegan decreed that he had double-hopped en route to a fine finish.

That would have put Kildare six clear but they pick themselves up and McCormack adds to his growing reputation by smashing home his second successive goal.

Reilly intervenes though and ignores the loitering Ian Maguire doing a passable Benny Coulter impression in the square as Luke Connolly’s long high ball sails over a distracted Donnellan into the net. It is our first goal concession of the season.

Cork, who have taken 40 minutes to score from play, are now back in business and reduce the gap to two. Kildare being Kildare, you fear the worst.

But Hyland and Doyle seem to take it in turns to shut the door on the rebels with tackling of a rare ferocity and corner forward Neil Flynn shrugs off some poor early season form to score three on the spin to open up another comfortable lead. Almost as importantly Kildare show enough “maturity” for Feely and the elder Cribbin to take black cards for the team as they see it out with six to spare.

Two wins out of two is beyond all expectations.

A Kick in the Derry Air

Kildare reach for reverse gear in Derry. You succumb to referee-bashing in the aftermath of a crushing last-minute defeat that brings back painful memories of those Tyrone and Down games in Newbridge. But on reflection you realise they only had themselves to blame.

Celtic Park is intimidating. The surroundings can seem bleak and infused with menace, even in peace-time. Ghosts of darker days in those parts. It seems unwelcoming for the molly-coddled Free Stater.

Amid the gloom and frustration there are positives. Feely is emerging as real presence in midfield, Kelly takes the game by the scruff of the neck when we are floundering. Conway is everywhere.

But the fade-outs. Oh the fade-outs. Maybe it was the enforced reshuffle caused by the absence of Paul Cribbin and McCormack?  Chris Healy wasn’t found wanting though and Peter Kelly isn’t the worst back-up either.

But the defence is at sea, turned too easily all day and we have no one strong enough to handle James Kielt, their star man. No one can get close to him. Gaping holes in defence are all too reminiscent of Dublin and Kerry in 2015.

This is no dogged affair. It’s helter-skelter and from the 16th to 20th minutes we have taken a firm grip. The goal that puts us in the driving seat is totally un-Kildare like. We win a close-range free but instead of tapping over, Neil Flynn sees Healy free and sets up the Two-Mile-House man with a quick tap to emphatically finish to the roof of the net.

That cleverness inspires those around them and Niall Kelly, Byrne and Keith Cribbin (playing wing forward in his brother’s absence) fire over quick points. Kildare are coasting and Derry’s poor start to the campaign looks likely to continue.

But Derry obliterate Kildare’s five-point half-time within 10 minutes. Kielt swans around the place kicking points for fun and they go two ahead. Nip and tuck for a while after that.

With 10 minutes left though, and with echoes of Cork, the away side show the initiative to wrestle the game back their way. Good signs. Four points in a row, kick-started by the impressive Daniel Flynn who ends the day with three.

73 minutes on the clock and calamity Kildare re-emerge. Feely fumbles a straightforward free in midfield and Derry sub Ryan sends a long high ball dropping under Donnellan’s cross-bar. He’ll punch it clear to the side surely with McGuckin loitering underneath him?

But no. The Maynooth man attempts to catch the ball and the ball is on his finger-tips long enough for the Derryman to push it through them and into the net. Your first thought is square ball. Your second was foul on the keeper.

Thankfully referee Sean Hurson (what is the story with referees from neighbouring counties being appointed?) seems to agree with you and clearly awards a free-out. We have to assume his better judgement rather than the roars of the home crowd convinced him to seek second opinions from his umpires but the up-shot was predictable. Goal stands. Game over.

We can have few complaints though and we’ll unfortunately revisit this type of performance as the season goes on.

Fermly Back on Track

What you need when your season can go either way is for a struggling Fermanagh outfit to come to Newbridge. Particularly one not enjoying life this year (as becomes clear later in the summer) under Pete McGrath.

Overcoming a sluggish start, Kildare are irresistible at times, playing at a pace that the Ernemen are unable to match. Kildare take 13 minutes to edge ahead with their first goal – Moolick palming home after a slick move involving half a dozen.

We tag on a few points before Moolick is on hand for a second goal, which owed much to the impressive work-rate of Paul Cribbin who retains possession despite a few robust challenges on the left wing.

Fermanagh have no answer – their deployment of the not-so-svelte Quigley as a lone attacker clearly not a tactic geared for dramatic comebacks.

Remarkably Neil Flynn and Healy reprise their quick-free routine from Celtic Park with the same end result. Fermanagh do get a run on the home side heading towards half-time though and the lead is down to six – 3-6 to 0-9.

We re-assert our grip though and another quick free – Healy this time – sees Daniel Flynn making a run and side-stepping Snow to drill home a fourth goal and extend the lead to twelve. It stays that way with eleven different scorers on target in our biggest win of the league campaign.

Time to Believe?

As a Kildare supporter you’re always expecting calamity to follow joy. Totally understandable. How many times have you begun to believe only for hopes to be dashed as soon as they’ve been raised. Forty years of it if I’m honest. Even ’98. That was the ulitmate let-down and it is still raw.

Newry on the Saturday night of Paddy’s week end shouldn’t live in the memory long. A horrible night, a patched-up Kildare team, and a Down team with two wins behind them to arrest their seemingly interminable decline. But a marker is laid down.

Kildare are carelessly losing corner forwards at this stage. Every other line of the field has been stable to date but Neil Flynn and Healy join McCormack on the sideline for this one and you do wonder would we come unstuck.

O’Neill opts for square pegs in round holes. McNally shows no hint of his later Tullamore form here and is called ashore at half-time. Hartley tries hard but is outmuscled as Down swarm the defence.

The word “turgid” may have been invented for the first half which ends with us leading 0-4 to 0-3. Most notable aspect of the half is Feely slotting frees for fun as a more than decent stand in for normal placekicker Neil Flynn.

David Slattery has had a low-key introduction to the team so far this season but he is the unheralded match-winner here. Daniel and Feely are involved in a sweeping move down the right before Slatts drills a low shot into the net and we have daylight at last.

On 49 minutes the Confey man delivers the hammer blow. The tightly-marked Kelly plays an insightful ball and Slattery shows a real forward’s instinct to spin behind his marker and sidefoot past the Down keeper.

Feisty exchanges follow and Slattery ships some heavy treatment before being withdrawn but what a 30 minute cameo!

Kildare show a new maturity with a controlled performance from here to the end, running out five points winners on a 2-9 to 0-10 scoreline. It isn’t pretty but that’s four wins from five and the “P” word is now very much on the agenda.

One more win could be enough.

Flawed, Frustrating but Fabulous!

We didn’t dare dream of winning promotion with a game to spare but as Clare arrive in Newbridge that’s the scenario in front of us.

Clare of course had given us two searching tests in Division 3 and are showing no fear of the higher division either.

We produce a flawed and at times frustrating performance and Clare are perhaps unlucky not to take something meaningful from the game.

Daniel Flynn is the latest pre-match casualty in the full forward line – a hamstring injury ending his league campaign. Healy is back to start though and Slattery joins him on the teamsheet.

It’s a similar performance to the Derry one though, disappointing after being so tight and controlled in Newry. A nip and tuck opening quarter before we open up and garner a five-point lead by half-time.

It’s not all goodness though. Cleary and Shane Brennan are punching alarming holes in the Kildare defence and are disappointed no doubt not to have taken four clear-cut goal chances in that half. Donnellan makes two point-blank saves as we teeter on the edge.

Cue the lull after the break as Clare reel us in and go ahead in double quick time. Their goal is the result of yet another high ball with Shane Brennan punching to the net with Donnellan in no-man’s land on this occasion.

To be fair to the Maynooth custodian he makes a customary one-on-one save from Brennan just three minutes later and that would prove crucial.

Feely’s free-taking helps us stop the rot (he scores seven from eight attempts) and the likes of Doyle, Conway and Paul Cribbin show plenty of leadership as we emerge from that sticky patch.

McCormack returns to action and equalises on 57 minutes with a sweetly-struck point and Dowling edges us ahead. Cleary and Cribbin swap points before the Clareman equalises and a share of the spoils looks likely. The calculators show a point would guarantee us promotion.

Cribbin has other ideas though and a surging run and point with the game entering injury time seals our return to the top flight after a tour of the divisions since relegation in 2014.

We’d come a long way during the campaign, certainly further than you’d expected. Positions 1 to 12 seem settled for the championship:  Donnellan – O’Grady, Hyland, Lyons – Byrne, Doyle, Cribbin – Feely, Moolick – Conway, Kelly, Cribbin.

The inside line looks like McCormack, Flynn and Flynn depending on fitness with Healy as a strong back-up option, not forgetting Slattery as a springer from the bench.

So many players have upped their performance in the higher division. In fact it’s hard to find a player who hasn’t.

Nagging doubts remain of course. The fade-outs still re-surface, the under-par performances still surprise you when they arrive (Derry, Clare). They shouldn’t really. And how come the defence still parts like the Dead Sea at times. What would Dublin do to it? Work in progress.

Edgy Galway Survive

A dead rubber for us in Salthill but you fear for us when O’Neill names a hugely experimental line-up against a Galway team that we’ll likely meet again in six days time in the Div 2 final. Galway still need a result against us and having scored 8 goals in their previous two games you fear we’re in for an almighty hammering.

None of our full-back line has started a senior inter-county game. Three of our backs have been dismantled by Longford at under-21 a few weeks ago.

But Galway are edgy, paranoid and mentally hamstrung it seems. And we’re strong. Surprisingly so.

Galway find McCormack hard to handle in the first half but gradually they feel their way into the game and – inspired by Shane Walsh – they have edged three points ahead by half-time. They’ll pull away now.

But no, it remains a tight, nervous encounter for the Tribesmen and you start to dream of a first win over them since 1985.  Yes 1985 folks.

Galway though do push five points ahead with 17 minutes remaining before a kind of paralysis kicks in with their own finishing line in sight. O’Neill throws on a few more first teamers and we start to get a grip.

Dowling and Kelly share four points between them to narrow the gap to one before Walsh eases their nerves.

They should be jangling though as Feely has a rare miss from a free and Cribbin then kicks weakly into the goalie’s hands.

Right on 70 minutes though McNally scores a magnificent point and keeper Shane McNamara has a chance to level it with a Hail-Mary attempt from a 55 metre free. Galway survive though and unconvincingly return to Division One after seven years in the wilderness.

For us it’s a positive occasion despite the defeat. If our second team can get within a point of them (etc…).

Feckin’ Croke Park – Hate the Place

And so to Headquarters. For a normal county it would be a meaningless jaunt. The job is essentially done at this stage. Promotion secured. Goal achieved. A gloried exhibition match.

But meaningless? No. Cian O’Neill says as much beforehand:

“Listen there’s no point in denying that. It is important. It’s a National title, it’s silverware and Kildare haven’t won a huge amount in recent years.

Not important enough clearly. We are lacklustre, pedestrian, spiritless. Galway have all the energy and you wonder should we have put out our reserve team again. The mould is cast for the Armagh performance later in the summer.

Galway dominate possession in the opening period with Kildare looking immobile in midfield and lacklustre in shoring up the centre of defence. But the westerners are wasteful with their chances.

Niall Kelly is Kildare’s class act and with his prompting we hang on and somehow are level at half-time six apiece.

Galway come out of the blocks almost Derry-like after the break and go two clear and it’s ’98 all over again it seems. Paul Cribbin limps out to compound our worries followed by Ben.

Somehow Kildare find some rhythm though with subs McNally and Slattery making an impact and they reel Galway in before moving into a three-point lead with only 17 minutes to play (0-14 to 0-11). Midfield are getting on top and the forwards begin to find room to manoeuvre.

But with the winning line in sight, the team collectively remember they’re in Croke Park and take the foot off the pedal. We go 12 crucial minutes without scoring while Galway find inspiration from their bench. One of their subs Michael Daly fires them ahead and Silke is then allowed to fire over unchallenged from 40 metres as Kildare stand off him.

Feely scores his only point from play to stop the rot but we’re hanging in there a point behind.

Bradshaw restores their two point cushion before Feely and Moolick work a score from a short free.

But again we neglect to lay a hand on a Galway attacker as Daly rounds off the scoring and secures the win for Galway. Needing a goal Slattery is pulled down outside the box and Feely summons up the spirit of Rob Kelly but no dice. Game over.

Same as it ever was. You stay for Dublin – Kerry if only to prolong the funeral march down Clonliffe Road.

Victory for the Lilies would have been a travesty of justice. Galway had most of the possession, fashioned the only goal attempts and, most disconcertingly, played at a faster pace and had the stronger bench to call upon.

It’s not easy supporting this team.

Confidence Rising

Such is the nature of the GAA calendar that you get two whole months to stew on a League final loss. And it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it’s the same old story. You look around the corner and it’s our dear neighbours Laois that await in a Leinster Quarter Final.

Once more Dublin have been avoided in the draw so we’ll try for a seventh year in a row to make it beyond a semi-final.

But first to Tullamore. The first 12 on the team-sheet are as signalled throughout the league with Paul Cribbin recovered from his league final injury. At least for now. But the full forward line hokey pokey continues as Neil Flynn and Ben step out and Slattery and McNally step in.

Daniel Flynn is at no.14 for his first championship game in four years. You forget how much he missed between injuries and his Aussie jaunt.

Of course the big talking point is the return of Paddy Brophy from his own Oz stint. Barely a couple of weeks back he is on the bench but isn’t needed and his return is on the back burner for a couple of weeks.

The opposition are abject. If it were a boxing match etc etc. Donie Kingston’s opening minute goal is a shock for Kildare and a huge worry considering three players were close enough to stop him, but the performance soars after that.

Daniel announces himself on the stage. All raw power, pace and no little finishing ability. He scores 1-3 and is man-of-the-match in a dominant all round performance from the team. One shoulder knocks a Laois defender back over the border somewhere around Portarlington and to rub it in Flynn fires over with the outside of his boot.

At the back, opening aberration aside Kildare look solid, mean, intent. Nothing like the league final. Doyle leads and half-back colleagues Byrne and Cribbin in particular have their best days in the jersey.

Feely is dominant at midfield. The art of fielding is back thanks to the mark and his two in the second half are masterful.

In attack Conway is a contender for man-of-the-match with a powerful and energetic display although he is not one of 13 scorers. McNally is though, producing three excellent points and putting in a big first-half performance. Of course we all knew he was a ready-made corner-forward. Honestly.

Kildare run out 14 points winners but it won’t be anything like as easy against the Royals.

Royals Rumbled as Reputations Soar

If Croke Park is hell then Tullamore must be our Xanadu. It wasn’t always so but O’Connor Park has become a veritable Pleasure Dome for the Kildare seniors over the last decade.

And here we are again, shades of Laois in 2011, knocking the living daylights out of Meath. Enthralling Sky viewers and analysts alike and starting to dream that maybe, just maybe…

It’s the most comprehensive Kildare performance since Cork two years ago, by some distance O’Neill’s finest hour in the job.

The sun borrows some heat from the Med just for this night and the Lilies are clearly superior from start to finish, the Kildare crowd buoyant. The Meath crowd dumb-struck. Shocked in a way only Meath fans can be all these years after their glory days. That slow-cooked realisation that Biggy  having a Smally day, neatly padlocked into Hyland’s back-pocket. A furrow-browed McEntee carrying the surname of legend but the tactical awareness of Roy Hodgson. Semi Finals away from Croke Park are the best thing since sliced Brady’s.

Mick O’Grady summoning up the long-forgotten tradition of “thou shalt not pass” Kildare full-backs (Paddy O’Donoghue, Davy Dalton in my life-time). Tapping one ball down to himself over the head of Donal Lenihan is one of many moments when you know nothing Kildare-like is going to happen to derail us today. Eoin Doyle and Keith Cribbin having the games of their lives operating the half-back line barrier. Keith can tackle we learn. Boy can he tackle.

Ollie Lyons is operating is “skip-mode”, carefully but at pace weaving a route through half-assed Meath challenges.

Cathal McNally has 1-3 on the board by the 17th minute. “He’s never a corner forward” was my expert opinion offered for free to my neighbour twenty minutes previously. Seriously considering changing seat.

McNally’s goal, plucking Hyland’s precision ball from the sky above Donnacha Tobin and putting enough power in the shot to push it through Paddy O’Rourke’s outstretched arms, gives Kildare the confidence to drive on to half-time in total control.

Feely and Moolick dominate midfield. And Paddy Brophy, thrown in to start with Paul Cribbin ruled out, gets into his stride with his first point on 24 minutes after a couple of rusty efforts.

Daniel, being Daniel, improvises a magnificent point, having used that wide ball-hop of his take him into space away from a defender.

Meath are struggling for air and troop off nine points behind: 1-10 to 0-4. This is worse than Navan for them. It could have been worse but an off-key Niall Kelly squanders a perfect goal chance, shooting himself when Flynn is appearing like a juggernaut in open space to his right.

The Royals rattle off four successive points at the start of the second half and you’re a tiny bit concerned but a quick look at the subs list reveals no Jody Devine in their ranks and you settle again.

Slattery goes on a few pacy sorties into enemy lines and earns a vital (if soft) free that Feely converts to stop any panic setting in.

From here to the end it’s really about Daniel. He poetically adds two points from the right hand side, both improvised, and then he wraps it all up by flicking Slattery’s pass to the net. Flynn has owned the second-half in a man-of-the-match performance. Feely, Hyland, O’Grady, Doyle and even McNally can make a case as well.

Competitive

Which brings us to Dublin.

Debates before-hand centre on how close we could get. Only the seriously deluded think we can win. They are soon carted off for their own safety. Your author is settling for anything under 10 points as he settles into the usual poor seats (Davin End, almost level with the end line) reserved for season ticket holders. Why do we bother but that’s for another day.

We just wanted to be competitive. Dublin blew off some seriously dirty diesel fumes as they struggled to put Carlow away but the engine (sans-Connolly) was purring back in the Croke Park surrounds against Westmeath. Any notions of a Kildare victory put soundly where they belonged.

Our chances are rocked by news of a thumb injury to Eoin Doyle. It’s broken we hear during the week and we’re somewhat taken aback to see him line out. But it’s so heavily strapped and about as useless to him as a chocolate teapot. The one-armed bandit will play though. You sense if he’d have had one leg hanging off he’d have trundled around the centre of defence on crutches.

We lose by 9 points.

Brophy’s late goal gets the deficit into single figures so it’s “job done”, “damage limited” or whatever you’re having yourself.

As you process it there are plenty of positives:

By and large we do turn up. In Croke Park. Or at least about 13 of them do. That’s reasonable for any final.

Some give it a right rattle, which is what we asked for. Feely, Keith and Johnny Byrne stand out in that regard. And Slattery, surprisingly. No fear with that lad. Come from nowhere this season. Pace to burn. Troubles the Dublin defence all day.

We shade midfield. Or to be precise Feely does. Over-shadowing Brian Fenton is not to be sneezed at. Good to see Feely dominate on the big stage. It will earn him an All Star nomination.

The typically calamitous defensive period arrives on cue and we concede 2-4 without reply after a promising start. But heads don’t drop and by half-time we’ve clawed our way back into it to trail by just 4 points. Our straight-line route through the Dublin defence is causing them alarm. It’s “game on”.

Daniel has a goal chance one-on-one with Cluxton. But it’s one of those “if-only” moments which hopefully he’ll learn from. Dublin have stretched out to six points again at this point and this was our chance to stop the runaway train in it’s tracks. Cluxton denies the Johnstownbridge man and dreams of glory die with it.

After that it’s damage-limitation once more as the Dubs continue to rack up scores in a ridiculously high-scoring game.

But Brophy’s goal puts a semblance of respectability on it, particularly when you realise that for 60 of the minutes played Kildare have equalled Dublin on the scoreboard.

If only we’d been tighter at the back… the achilles heel returned, and maybe Doyle’s thumb played a big part in that, if you’ll excuse me mixing my body parts. There don’t seem to be enough bodies around the danger zone as Ciaran Kilkenny puts Dean Rock through for a smart finish for their first goal.

Then the right-side of our defence is exposed as James McCarthy plays a one-two with Con O’Callaghan before edging un-encumbered across the Kildare goal area before side-footing home after stopping for a few selfies along the way.

All the defensive solidity we displayed against Meath evaporates as the step up in pace and class is evident.

But overall it’s not our worst day in Croke Park, strange as that may seem with a glimpse at the scoreboard and 2-23 conceded.

The qualifier draw pits us with Armagh and that seems eminently winnable. We’re on course surely for a Quarter Final with in-form Tyrone.

Sadly not.

Onwards and Upwards to Division One

With Division One on the horizon and the most favourable route imaginable to another Leinster Final with Dublin in 2018, there has to be cause for optimism.

O’Neill has brought the team forward significantly in 2017 and is probably ahead of most supporters’ schedules having clinched a second successive promotion.

Players like Hyland, Byrne, Keith Cribbin, Feely, Slattery and Flynn have clearly developed under his tutelage. The fears over the loss of some key forwards such as O’Flaherty proved largely unfounded and the return of Brophy is a massive boon. He’ll presumably get better in his second year back as Feely did.

With McCormack and Neil Flynn hopefully injury-free the attacking options look better than they have for a long-time. If only we could find a way to get Niall Kelly influencing the bigger games more. Now is his time surely?

A stable midfield partner for Feely remains a question mark. Moolick can consider himself in some ways unlucky to be dropped for the Armagh game but he suffers from the same lack of pace as Feely and perhaps the thinking was that you can’t carry two players with that impediment. Pascal Connell has similar attributes. We’ll keep a watchful eye on young Aaron Masterson’s development. Paul Cribbin may have to be the answer for now.

If I were O’Neill I’d focus most of my attention on the defence in the lead-up to Division One. Improvements were made but not consistently. On too many occasions we were opened up easily. Derry, Galway, Dublin and Armagh are obvious examples but even Clare were wasteful not to convert any of their goal chances in Newbridge and Donie Kingston’s goal was embarrassingly easy in Tullamore.

Mark Dempsey and Ruairi O’Goillean have been added to the defensive roster but whether it’s personnel, tactics or training that’s where the focus must lie.

And then to the other elephant in the room: mentality.

For some reason we still aren’t breeding winners in Kildare. Not in senior football at least. Not yet.

I can’t explain the performances against Galway and Armagh. Eminently winnable games both. Compare and contrast with the way we rattled into that Meath jersey in Tullamore.

A switch just seems to go off on certain days in Croke Park in particular and the answer can only from within the panel. Are there enough leaders? Is there enough desire to truly be winners and not just lads who wore the county jersey for a few years?

Does the management have the ability to identify the flaws and find the extra percentages within those players to go beyond being just good. To be great in the way Glenn Ryan, Dermot Early, Johnny Doyle and the likes were great before them.

Do we want to be a Mayo or a Dublin?

The answer is within.

Our Player of the Year:  Kevin Feely   Runner-Up: Daniel Flynn

Best Newcomer:  Ben McCormack Runner-Up: David Slattery

Kildare’s Results for 2017 (From our Results section):

2017 results

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kildare’s Player Stats for 2017 (From our Player Records section):

 

Player Stats 2017