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Lilies in bloom for Cork

THERE are certain well-established ground rules when it comes to Kildare's meandering marches through June and July.

Rule number one: they always, by hook or by qualifier crook, make it to the August bank holiday weekend. Rule number two: then either malign fate or their footballing shortcomings conspire against them.

The first of these time-honoured rules recurred on a wintry Saturday evening in Roscommon, where Kildare were collectively rock-solid and yet deciphered nothing new about their All-Ireland credentials, such was the pathetic resistance offered up by Sligo.

And rule number two? Tune into Croke Park next weekend for the answer, but already the footballing gods have delivered an early hammer-blow to grandiose dreams of Lilywhite deliverance.

Put bluntly, what transpired in the RTé studios roughly half-an-hour after Kildare's 0-13 to 0-4 cruise past Sligo constitutes the draw from hell for Kildare.

It's not just that they've been paired against Cork at the last-eight stage; that, in itself, constitutes a leap from Carrauntoohil to K2. Suffice to say, if Kildare are to finally scale Everest in the fifth year of Kieran McGeeney's stewardship, they will have to topple first Cork, then Donegal or Kerry in the semis, and finally maybe Dublin.

For a squad constantly reminded that it has never beaten a top-four team in summer combat, this is the ultimate challenge. To defy the doubters and their 14/1 odds, in such circumstances, would surely make this the sweetest All-Ireland of all.

Not that McGeeney can be consumed by thoughts of September with Cork coming down the tracks. He was already in the midst of his post-match media debrief at Hyde Park when the breaking news of the draw was delivered.

"The most consistent team in the past three or four years," the Kildare boss responded. "I know (selector) Gerry O'Sullivan and Conor (Counihan) fairly well ... I'm sure they had someone watching. They've been at every other qualifier."

Whatever transpires next, you've got to admire the bloody-minded resilience of Team Geezer. Five summers running, they've come up short in Leinster. Five years running, they've refused to slip away quietly. Their qualifier record under the Armagh man is now a pristine 14 victories and one draw.

McGeeney conceded that, on some of their big provincial days, "things have got on top of the players and they have been a wee bit flat." But he added: "They have been able to dig deep, go back into their reserves and prove that they are a capable team. I would agree with most (opinions). We haven't made it to the finals yet; we haven't beaten All-Ireland champions."

But surely that qualifier record is a mark of something? "You can't talk too much about it," he countered, "because the last couple of weeks we've been called paranoid and whingers and criers and everything."

This, presumably, was in reference to recent spats over Seánie Johnston and CCCC venue choices. "You just knuckle down," McGeeney continued. "Even though I have yet to hear anything coming from our particular camp, whatever comes from other sources seems to be attributed to us.



Slog

"But the boys put their heads down and work. Credit has to be given to them for that. It's a hard slog, keeping coming back year after year. There are only a couple of teams that are fit to do it. You're just hoping that we'll have enough in the tank, probably up against the biggest team in the country now."

Belief, according to McGeeney, is the "fundamental difference between the top teams and the also-rans". He hopes that his players now truly believe, while warning: "You are only a headline away from going the other direction.

"Next week is a big game. Out of what's left, I would say probably Cork would be the favourites to win the All-Ireland again this year."

In truth, we learned little about Kildare's credentials on Saturday for one unpalatable reason: Sligo were shocking. The stats are damning. Four points in total. None from play until veteran sub Eamonn O'Hara broke their embarrassing duck in the 71st minute.

Just one in the entire second half (that injury-time effort) when backed by a semi-gale. All of this made it difficult to gauge Kildare's true worth. Obvious positives included their power-packed start, when they scored six unanswered points inside 12 minutes, pressed high up the field, dominated Philip Greene's early kick-outs (winning six of the first eight), tackled aggressively and forced turnovers.



Work-rate

"I would probably say it was one of the best (recent displays) in terms of work-rate and everything else," McGeeney surmised.

More worryingly, Kildare went walkabout late in the half and when Adrian Marren made it 0-8 to 0-3 on the cusp of half-time (with a 'converted' free that everyone in the stand was convinced had screwed wide), you wondered if the Lilywhites were about to revisit back-door squeaky-bum time for the second weekend running.

They needn't have worried, as Sligo's capitulation was crowned by a straight red card for former All Star Charlie Harrison after 66 minutes.

While manager Kevin Walsh kicked to touch on his own future, he wondered aloud if losing a provincial final (as Sligo did to Mayo) takes more out of the smaller counties.

"I thought this week was good for us. Lads were buzzing," he revealed. "But certainly the second half just tapered out completely.

"It was very, very soul-destroying."

And the victors? "I'm sure Kildare won't be going home saying they had a savage performance," Walsh cautioned, "because they probably don't even know."