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Saturday 24 June 2017

O'Neill - I am all for shocks

Kildare 2-16 Meath 0-13

Cian O’Neill is congratulated by Kildare supporters after the game in Tullamore. SPORTSFILE
Cian O’Neill is congratulated by Kildare supporters after the game in Tullamore. SPORTSFILE

The air was thick with giddiness on Saturday evening while the sun finally set on a scorcher in Tullamore and the sparks cooled on a blazing Kildare performance and victory over Meath.

Kildare supporters can be a notoriously excitable bunch.

But as their new heroes posed for photographs and signed autographs after finally delivering the collective performance which their collective potential suggested was possible, talk turned to the Leinster final on July 16.

It's 17 years since Kildare beat Dublin in a championship match and in their two most recent summer exchanges, Jim Gavin's team - the one currently in the hunt for a third All-Ireland in a row and seventh Leinster on the spin - have won by a cumulative 34 points.

But such was the intoxicating nature of Kildare's win on Saturday night, it seemed only natural for their supporters to begin to think and talk big.

"I think, if we perform as well as we can, we can put it up to any team in the country. And I mean that," said Cian O'Neill, not dodging the question but not quite grabbing it by the throat either, as he added a qualifying statement.

"But that means doing it for 75 minutes. That's what the best teams do.

"Those crackers with Dublin and Mayo, Dublin and Kerry in the semi-finals," he reflected, "they were 75 minute matches, they never dropped for that period.

"And we haven't showed that, even today. There was a 10-12 minute period when Meath really got on top of us.

"That won't work against Dublin, or a Kerry or a Mayo, but I think that, if we really continue to improve and develop, we can be competitive. And, any one day, we've seen it in the last few weeks, there could be a shock there.

"So I'm all for shocks."

Daniel Flynn celebrates scoring his side’s second goal. SPORTSFILE
Daniel Flynn celebrates scoring his side’s second goal. SPORTSFILE

How great a shock would a Kildare Leinster final win be?

Their performance on Saturday suggested rather loudly they are the best-built team for some time to engage competitively with Dublin in Leinster.

Dublin, assuming they beat Westmeath next Sunday, won't have Diarmuid Connolly. Michael Darragh Macauley is likely to be missing and the players aren't physically at the customary levels for this time of year.

Whomever O'Neill has to convince, however, it won't be his players.

"It won't be a hard sell," he stressed.

"They're elite athletes and all they want to do is be successful.

Meath’s Cillian O’Sullivan is well marshalled by Kildare’s Eoin Doyle. SPORTSFILE
Meath’s Cillian O’Sullivan is well marshalled by Kildare’s Eoin Doyle. SPORTSFILE

"We have four weeks to a final, but three weeks knowing the opposition.

"So can we replicate that, and then some again? That will ultimately tell us where we're at."

On Saturday at least, they appeared to be occupying a different footballing realm entirely to Meath, a team that went into the match with similar ambitions and a comparable billing.

It has been said that Kildare have, since the retirements of Johnny Doyle and Dermot Earley, lacked something by way of an identity.

Against Meath, their new leaders unmasked themselves.

On an evening when the football flowed freely, Daniel Flynn and Cathal McNally were excellent in the rotation of Kildare's inside forwards, scoring 2-7 from play between them, bookending a Kildare performance in which their dominance only faded for a short spell early in the second half.

Kevin Feely, meanwhile, ruled the skies off both kick-outs and his ball use was akin to that of a wisened veteran.

Defensively, Kildare's excellence was in the collective, proof provided by the fact that Meath danger men Graham Reilly and Cillian O'Sullivan failed to register on the scoreboard.

"No excuses," shrugged a visibly deflated Andy McEntee afterwards.

"No excuses here. We weren't good enough. We were beaten in most areas of the pitch.

"Too many fellas didn't perform on the day and that's what happens. We're not good enough. When we don't perform to our maximum, we're there to be taken."

You could just as easily pick anywhere to start the Meath post mortem and find some evidence of trauma. Paddy O'Rourke's kick-outs were too slow and direct, for instance.

Kildare absorbed O'Sullivan and Reilly's runs rather than meeting them with force and it had the desired effect.

Routinely, Kildare's sharper inside men were left happily isolated with their markers, too.

But the reality, though it may be hard for them to digest, might just be that Meath don't have the same number of quality footballers just now as Kildare do.

"It's hard to know," McEntee mused.

"How much better they can be depends on how much they put in. You have to stick at it. 'I don't know' is the straight answer to that."

Given the pedigree of teams in their side of the qualifier draw, a run much deeper into summer may seem fanciful for Meath in their current guise.

"But, sure, what's the option? We don't have any other option," McEntee stressed. "They either want to play this game or they don't want to play this game. We just gotta go at it again and try and get ourselves right for the next match."

Cian O'Neill could relate. Last year, his team had big ambitions but failed to meet them on the pitch.

A season on and he admitted Kildare probably wouldn't have been ready for the sort of test they'll likely meet in four weeks anyway.

"I would estimate that 40 to 45 per cent of the panel are totally new," he explained.

"Of the team, it's probably 25, 30, 35 per cent, but in crucial positions that didn't play against Westmeath (last year).

"We wouldn't have been in the same state of readiness for a Leinster final last year. Without question.

"But it would have given us another four weeks to get to a higher place, if that makes sense.

"I just think that, with the squad we have, the quality of the backroom, it's a community effort that's made the big difference this year," the Kildare manager concluded.

"And that all starts with the players. It's all about the players.

Scorers - Kildare: D Flynn 1-4, C McNally 1-3, K Feely 0-5 (4f), P Brophy 0-2, E Callaghan, N Flynn (f) 0-1 each. Meath: D Lenihan 0-5 (2f), R Ó Coileáin 0-3, B Menton 0-2, M Burke, S McEntee, J Toher 0-1 each.

Kildare: M Donnellan 8; O Lyons 7, M O'Grady 8, D Hyland 7; K Cribbin 7, E Doyle 7, J Byrne 6; K Feely 9, T Moolick 7; F Conway 6, N Kelly 6, D Slattery 6; C McNally 8, D Flynn 9, P Brophy 7. Subs: E Callaghan 6 for Brophy (49), F Dowling 6 for Moolick (59), C Healy 6 for McNally (61), P Kelly 6 for Hyland (65), N Flynn 6 for Lyons (70), E Bolton 6 for Doyle (70)

Meath: P O'Rourke 4; C McGill 5, D Keogan 6, D Tobin 4; P Harnan 6, M Burke 6, S McEntee 5; B Menton 7, R Jones 5; J Toher 5, C O'Sullivan 7, E Wallace 4; G Reilly 5, B McMahon 5, D Lenihan 6. Subs: J McEntee 6 for Toher (28), R Ó Coileáin 7 for Wallace (h-t), B Conlon 6 for Jones (47), T O'Reilly 5 for McMahon (52), S Tobin 6 for Reilly (57), A Douglas 6 for O'Sullivan (68)

Wides - Kildare: 13 (10 + 3). Meath: 10 (3 + 7).

Booked - Kildare: (K Cribbin 54, Conway 56). Meath: (Burke h-t, O'Sullivan 65)

Ref: J McQuillan (Cavan)

Attendance: 12,702

Man of the match: Daniel Flynn (Kildare)

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