Posted by Ewan MacKenna

2012 Johnston Kildare fix 520x280

It all began here. A game against Cavan in the qualifiers on 19 July 2008.

It all could have ended there too had Mick Foley not been allowed to saunter up from centre-back without so much as a cynical hand being laid on him a minute into injury-time, had he not been given the chance to unload to Dermot Earley, had the midfielder not looked up and picked a pass, had James Kavanagh’s awkwardly-struck left-foot effort not found a way to the back of the net. Kildare 1-16 Cavan 1-15.

These were the inches Kieran McGeeney grew up around in Armagh and they were the inches that set his managerial project off. It was more like a banger than a bomb, but it made some small noise all the same

I wasn’t at that game. The sports editor of the late Sunday Tribune would often allow me to put pleasure before work when it came to Kildare, but it had to first constitute pleasure. 

And besides, working the desk that night, there were much bigger and far better stories hanging around the back door. Derry and Monaghan was live on television and rightly so while Ian Ryan had taken Meath apart in the most startling result the qualifiers have ever seen.

Yet despite deadline approaching, despite copy arriving from grounds all over the country, and some copy not arriving, a friend still saw it fit to call.

I picked up the mobile to background screaming from St Conleth’s Park. The place had erupted. This was where Kildare football was at ‑­ a fluky win against an also-ran at home was enough for the place to go wild and for phone calls to be made to a man under serious pressure.

But here we are now and it shows the interest in the Kildare story that this time their qualifier is the biggest show pitching up along the back roads. Kerry and Galway and Tyrone are there too, but for one reason or another (most likely one reason) this is the game of round two. Kildare against Cavan on 15 July 2012.

But if progress can be measured by expectation and by relative achievements, it can be measured by how both a team and a manager have improved too.

There’s no doubting that Kieran McGeeney has made giant leaps since that night - to the extent where a five-point handicap this weekend despite this game being away from home seems ludicrously generous - and he’s done it with much the same players.

Five seasons ago, Morgan O’Flaherty, Emmet Bolton, Foley, Kavanagh, Pádraig O’Neill, Eamonn Callaghan, Alan Smith, John Doyle, Mikey Conway, Earley and an artist then known as Andrew McLoughlin played a part. At least nine, if not all 11, will play a part on Sunday and it’s a sign of the coach McGeeney is that he’s taken that same group from there to here.

But coaching your players is all well and good. You need to coach yourself too to cover those final inches and it’s an area where McGeeney has fallen down to date.

The match report in the Kildare Nationalist following that Cavan qualifier in 2008 read as follows: “If there are to be criticisms of management they would have to focus on the length of time it took to repair the full-back line and the fact that no obvious attempt was made to breathe new life into a tiring midfield.”

Had those exact same words been written about this year’s Leinster semi-final, no one would have disagreed. In fact at times during their latest defeat you got the feeling Kildare’s management didn’t believe in the team as much as supporters and reporters did.

Kildare had reached a point in their development after beating Tyrone in the Division Two final where they should have been able to take the game to mid-tier teams like Meath, the same way they took it to bottom-tier teams like Offaly.

Yet from the off a couple of weeks back, there was a negativity in the match-ups and a negativity in the tactics. Graham Reilly may well be a 2012 All Star, but Emmet Bolton is a current All Star so to sacrifice his natural go-forward game just to man-mark seems a case of burning down the house to get the flies out of the kitchen.

It was the same with the full-back line as they were pulled out of position in order to maintain match-ups rather than maintain shape. A team thinking big consider how they can trouble the opposition, not just limit them. But Kildare’s approach reeked of the latter and showed up a lack of trust.

Indeed it would be impossible to let this weekend pass without mentioning Seánie Johnston. Some say, there’s an injury. Some say he’s fit but it’s unlikely he’ll play for his own safety and that’s every bit as wrong as the transfer itself.

Some say he trained and was flying off Tomás O’Connor and might well start. Whether he does or not will make the news but that’s not the real issue when it comes to Kildare's project under McGeeney. The real problem is, by even allowing him into the set-up, the manager again showed a lack of trust in what he already has.

And in shaming Coill Dubh and embarrassing the Kildare hurling championship a day before the Meath match, when Johnston didn’t even tog out, it showed a desperation and a neediness that undermined the players he already had.

John Doyle was right in suggesting that Johnston pucking around a small ball didn't effect the team during the Meath game, but what about the other forwards before and after the game, whose places would be at stake and are now at stake.

It's impossible to block out that issue completely when it could directly affect what you've spent your life working towards. Doyle is safe. Others aren’t and even the likes of Pádraig Fogarty who has yet to start a game - despite his huge influence in the win over Tyrone - must have considered that he was being bumped down another rung by an outsider despite his own commitment and his own performances.

Kildare have improved because of McGeeney, there is no questioning that. But now McGeeney needs to improve himself as a man-manager and sideline operator. The problem is, he’s never been forced to in those 11 qualifier wins to date and he won’t be forced to in a 12th qualifier win on Sunday.

The back door have seen Kildare’s players grow but not their management as you’ve to play the best to learn from the best, and you’ve to beat the best to be the best.

And for all Kildare’s achievements since that game against Cavan five years ago, they’ve yet to become the best and they’ve a long way to go.