Thin Lilies are back in town
Kildare's strong finishes validate Jason Ryan's training methods
YOU'D be forgiven for developing something of a complex earlier this year if you were a Kildare player. Or 'body issues.'
As a group, their bulk was subject to more scrutiny and comment than the collaborative waistlines of the red carpet on Oscar night.
It had become de rigour to witness Kildare in the flesh this year and note just how much less flesh there was than before.
And then in May, when the county board announced the opening a new purpose-built gym in Newbridge Industrial Estate, kitted out to the specifications of Jason Ryan, as advised by Barry Solan; Kildare's head of Strength and Conditioning, Ryan explained the thinking behind the great bulk reduction.
"We want to be able to get around the pitch and we want to be able to move faster for longer," he outlined.
"And to do that, some guys have had to lose some bodyweight. And they've worked really hard on that. They deserve great credit for it.
"We have five or six strength and conditioning fellas under Barry and they're brilliant people."
"We needed space. Barry Solan is the head of strength and conditioning and the point he made is that gaelic football and hurling are played on your feet."
Ryan's logic was simple.
For a player to do good things with the ball, he must first be able to get to the ball. He must also comparable sufficient ball-reaching capabilities late on in a game as starting off.
Pointing to the example of Paul Flynn, Ryan noted that despite being a wing-forward and thus in a state of perpetual motion during a match, the Dublin man was still able to get to the action in the final passages.
All of which is why their closing sprints in the last three matches have been so illustrative.
Last week in Ennis, Kildare trailed by six points in the 45th minute (0-12 to 0-6). They endured 25 minutes of the first-half awaiting their third score of the match.
Gary Brennan and Shane McGrath had given their midfield a hard time and only a Mark Donnellan save on McGrath - the Thomas Davis player - stopped Clare transforming their lead from commanding to irretrievable.
Yet Kildare kicked the last seven points of the match and won by one in Ennis against a team already hardened around the belief a promotion and the pushing of Kerry strictly closer than anyone expected can grant.
"You just try to keep plugging away," reflected centre-back Fergal Conway.
"And we got the last couple of scores which were vital. You have to keep thinking positive and keep going."
It's an example which, in isolation, constitutes proof of very little.
Yet it came just a week after their win in Down, a game seemingly designed to consign Kildare's 2014 to the scrapheap. Yet a trip which ultimately had redemptive powers.
The installation of Benny Coulter to full-forward wiped Kildare's relatively puny half-time lead yet when the wheels began to look a little rickety, they went and kicked 1-6 to no score in over the final 12 minutes or so to win by 10.
"I suppose you think the margin is going to be tighter than that but going in at half-time, we knew that they were going to get a purple patch," Conway admitted.
"The first 10 minutes of the second half they came at us and got five points, six points in a row I think and really put us to the pin of our collar. Luckily we came out with a win."
Surprised? Anyone who had seen their performance against Meath was positively gobsmacked by the inherent positivity of the Kildare push late on in Páirc Esler.
Even in their lowest moment of the season, in Croke Park on June 29th, there were little signs that Ryan's reconstruction of some of his team's physiques was having the desired effect.
When Meath scored 2-6 to 0-1 in the ten minutes before to the ten after half-time, they led by 2-13 to 0-7 and Armageddon beckoned.
But Kildare scored seven points without response to reduce the deficit to five, then kicked two more wides and hit the post.
So in the last ten minutes of each of their last three Championship matches, Kildare have outscored their opponents by 1-15 to 0-2, almost enough proof now to suggest that the physical template Ryan has chosen for his players has paid more immediate dividends than maybe even he had expected.
And certainly enough evidence to suggest that mentally, they're just as fit.
"Football is evolving in that way," Ryan reasoned. "You need runners. Don't get me wrong. It's football. You need a footballer that can run. That's the key. Today we have guys that are able to do it.
"The middle eight are just machines. But machines that are able to use the ball as well."