Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Monday 1 July 2013
Then, one weekend in July 2008, a hectic workload and a few missing bodies meant I was caught for work in the Sunday Tribune office as Kildare clashed with Cavan in the first round of the qualifiers.
The run ended and I was forced to keep tabs on the score via a dodgy online steam from KFM and a raft of texts from my father. Then, suddenly, there was a phone call. It was him. He was shouting and St Conleth’s Park was erupting and James Kavanagh was celebrating a goal in the last seconds to help Kildare win by a point. It was pandemonium.
It was Kieran McGeeney’s first season in charge and after losing to Wicklow in the Leinster Championship, this poor effort was enough to bring about pure delight. That was the team the Armagh man inherited and those were the standards by which we judged Kildare football. Nowadays it’s far too easy to forget that.
The previous season Kildare had been taken apart by Meath before having their season mercilessly ended in a home tie with Louth. A year earlier it was Offaly and a nine-point defeat to Derry that accounted for another wasted summer. Kildare people should try and dredge those games up from the back of their minds this weekend before commenting.
Yesterday, in Croke Park, I watched the majority of second half of Kildare-Dublin with my face plonked onto a desk in the press box. It was tough to see a Dublin team that good and a gulf that wide. Afterwards it was tougher still to see Kieran McGeeney wander to the side of the press room, root out a chair for himself, pulling it up to a desk, before sitting there despondently and blaming the pathetic nature of his players’ contact-work in the middle third.
But toughest of all was to listen to others question what exactly McGeeney has done for Kildare and suggest it’s time he did the decent thing and walk, as if to ignore all the good and all the good days he has brought.
There’s no doubt McGeeney has made mistakes. His handling of the Seánie Johnston situation was pathetic. Tactically he can be poor and his in-game management is probably his greatest downfall. He struggles to adapt to what’s going on in front of him and that much was obvious yesterday. Dublin created 13 goal chances yet at no time did he alter Kildare’s naïve defensive system of going man-to-man or change things in the centre where the opposition were getting a foothold to overrun his backs.
He stood there and watched Kildare concede four goals to Dublin for the first time since 1897. But none of that means Kildare football isn’t in a far better place than when he took over or that he shouldn’t be given far more time to continue to build.
Those who criticise McGeeney point to a lack of trophies. In his time, even Meath have won a Leinster title while he has failed to beat Dublin and fallen to lesser sides. But in a footballing world populated by elite teams that never slip up anymore, that cannot be the only measure of success.
Fewer and fewer counties will win provincial titles as time goes on. Back in 2008 when my father rang to celebrate that Kavanagh goal, we wouldn’t have dared dream of four quarter-finals and an All Ireland semi-final.
We were also-rans who could barely compete with the middle-tier. Now we hardly ever lose to the middle-tier, even if the very best are beyond Kildare for the moment.
A lot of that is down to McGeeney and it’s wrong to slay him with the same standards he and nobody else set. Besides, it’s not just senior results that count for so much, but the structures that have been put in place.
For all Mick O’Dwyer did in Kildare, he never saw the bigger picture. After he left for the first time, it was left to Dermot Earley snr to put things back together before O’Dwyer returned. After he left a second time there was a dearth of players and underage systems and plans.
Thanks to McGeeney and several others who have worked tirelessly, Kildare from under-14 all the way up can compete with the best and there’s a conveyor belt of players now that only Dublin could claim to better.
There’s always a snigger about Kildare being constantly in transition and having endless excuses but that’s a false argument too. In 2008, McGeeney did well to get a poor group to an All Ireland quarter-final and come within a goal of a far superior Cork team.
In 2009 we travelled back to the last eight with far more hope and gave a Tyrone team that had visited the pinnacle a serious game. Then there were the ones that got away. In 2010 we should have won a semi-final with Down and given it to a nervous and underperforming Cork in the final.
In 2011 only Kevin Cassidy’s miracle point stopped them getting another shot at Dublin when there was nothing between the sides. Plenty of disappointments but nothing to complain about there, indeed the only real mark against McGeeney was last year’s defeats to Meath and Cork. They were the only inches given back after the yards he’s made in giant strides.
Which brings us to this year and if in the past he could be criticised for being too loyal, this time around he did what he had to.
He took charge of the under-21s, won a Leinster title at that level, and throughout the season populated the senior team with a whole pile of those kids. He realised he’d gone as far with the older players as he possibly could and this was a new start. That is the definition of transition and this is the first time since he took over that Kildare have been in transition.
They had their eyes opened by possibly the best and certainly the most entertaining and ruthless Dublin team we’ve ever seen (and there have been plenty of Dublin teams that have beaten us navy and blue over the years) but that doesn’t alter the fact that nothing should have been expected of this year and this group will be judged on the future and not the present.
Oddly, there’s a perception out there that Kildare are a great football county and McGeeney can only win if Kildare win it all. But consider this – only two managers have guided Kildare to a Leinster title in the last 78 years. Dublin have won 30 in the time we’ve won three. We haven’t won an All Ireland since before the Wall Street crash. Our only under-21 All Ireland was in 1965.
Eighteen counties have gone all the way at minor level and Kildare aren’t one of them. Brian Lacey said during the week that Kildare fans need to be harder on their teams but remember his home county of Tipperary have as many Sam Maguires, more underage success and what standards do their fans judge them by?
Yet because of McGeeney, all of that is suddenly redundant and Kildare are judged by the standards of the very elite when that has rarely been the case in the lifetime of anyone from the county. For that he deserves endless praise, not angry questioning.
Nobody’s saying Kildare weren’t inept yesterday. It was so bad that it reminded me of an experience from my own last season in football. Playing for St James’ Gaels in Crumlin, I found comfort at corner-forward as it hid my pace that would have seen an Olympic walker fly by me. But one day, with 20 minutes left, I was moved to wing-forward and found myself marked by a teenager that had come close to the Dublin minors.
Time and time again he took off, I couldn’t keep up, so eventually in an act of desperation I just threw myself at him, grabbed his legs and hauled him down. The ball wasn’t even in our half of the field. That was Junior C, but that Dublin could do it to Kildare’s very fittest and fastest and finest is mesmerising.
Leaving McGeeney’s press conference yesterday, the Kildare bus was parked under the Hogan Stand and not a word was spoken on board. Instead a long line of dejected players had their faces pressed against the glass and stared out at nothing. They were shocked as they had just seen what the best looked like and realised it looked nothing like them.
And the truth, Kildare will probably get back to an All Ireland quarter-final and have as little hope there as they did in McGeeney’s first season of 2008. That’s a little disappointing after all the near misses in recent years but remember, this really is transition for the first time in his tenure.
And as bad as yesterday was, it’s still a whole lot better than a county going wild because a last-minute goal helped them scrape past Cavan at home in the first round of the qualifiers after years of being taken apart by similar opposition at a similar stage.
Did you predict the outcome of the weekend's matches?
How many times have you called a game, and seen your predictions come true? Well now you can set your expertise in stone and show the pundits, and your friends, just how much you know about the game.
© 2016 eir. All rights reserved