Bryan Murphy: I'd love to see these Lilies blossom
IF recent history is to be repeated, Kildare footballers will bang their heads against a glass ceiling tomorrow night and depart the championship nursing that familiar throbbing sensation: this is what it feels like when you crash into a top-tier county.
During the Kieran McGeeney era when All-Ireland quarter-finals were a summer staple (until his swansong season), back door redemption after provincial purgatory was a given.
They would storm through the qualifiers, earning the pejorative tag of 'flat-track bullies' ... until they got back into HQ to meet a heavyweight rival. And there, shortcomings would be exposed. Sometimes cruelly.
As SFC form graphs and back-to-back relegations underline, Kildare have fallen from their 2009-11 peak even if Jason Ryan came within a minute of reaching another quarter-final last year. But they lost, eventually, to Monaghan after extra-time. Now he has another shot in Thurles tomorrow evening. Only one problem: it's Cork.
Bryan Murphy knows all about both counties. This son of Bishopstown became an adopted Lilywhite hero in 1998, propelling Kildare to a first Leinster SFC title in 42 years by scoring the winning goal against Meath. He managed the Kildare minors to Leinster glory in 2013 and brought their U21s to another provincial final last April, pushing Dublin all the way.
Murphy "absolutely" agrees that victory this weekend would transform the perception of a difficult second season for Ryan. But he cautions: "Historically, this is where Kildare have come unstuck over the previous years. Even under Kieran: when they played the top Division One teams they came unstuck.
"There's no question they've a big challenge ahead of them. But so too have Cork, in the context that since the qualifiers began, I think only three beaten provincial finalists have won a week later," he adds, the trio being Dublin (2001), Down (2012) and Donegal (2013).
"So Brian (Cuthbert) has a big job on his hands there - and I think he's alluded to that, saying that it won't be a physical challenge, it will be a mental one. If Cork aren't psychologically ready for action … then it might give Kildare an opportunity to go and knock them. But Kildare will have to be at their best, there's no doubt."
That one-week turnaround adds to the intrigue, although Murphy warns: "Kildare are not as progressed as Cork in terms of integrating the young fellas. Cork are a bit further down the road than Kildare in terms of their development of what essentially are two new teams.
"On all known performance criteria, you'd have to say Cork are operating at a much higher level. They're performing more consistently this year than Kildare - albeit Kildare were extremely unlucky. In a couple of games in the league, they were within a minute or two of closing out the games and things went awry for them."
Yet, while Kildare are in a "heavy transitional period", you can't use that excuse forever. "These guys are all getting to 22, 23, 24 and they've got to set their ambitions," says Murphy. "Dublin are the benchmark so that's what you've got to go after, certainly in Leinster. You're only young for so long; you've got to stand up to them as well."
Harking back to last month's Leinster mismatch with the Dubs, Murphy surmises: "They obviously licked their wounds but they've also had to go away and learn, and learn quickly. To understand what the gap is and try and close that gap.
"If they were to beat Cork and and (then) play Dublin, what better learning opportunity?"
Last word: whatever his head may say, what about Murphy's conflicted heart tomorrow?
He was in Killarney for the Munster final replay, proof that "a savage loves his native shore", but he adds: "I'm up here for the last 20-odd years, I've thrown my hat in the circus with Kildare, and I'm trying to do everything in my power to improve the situation.
"I've put enough of those guys through my hands to want them to do well. I'd love to see Kildare do it."