herald

Thursday 26 April 2018

Lilies' time to make a stand in Croke Park

O'Neill's Kildare need to find their feet quickly in league's top-flight

Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton denies Kildare’s Daniel Flynn during last July’s Leinster SFC final at Croke Park
Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton denies Kildare’s Daniel Flynn during last July’s Leinster SFC final at Croke Park

The first Allianz League game for All-Ireland holders used to have a formalised sense of occasion attached, with the champions accorded a guard of honour as they burst onto the field.

Then, the pretenders hoped, they would dispense with fawning ceremony and leather into their rivals with indecent relish.

So, what will it be for Kildare on Saturday night? Applauding the Dubs beforehand or accosting them once the whistle is blown?

Truth is, there has been far too little of the latter over the last half-decade of Jim Gavin-inspired dominance.

Last year's Leinster SFC final was remarkable for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Dublin were confined to a single-digit victory in their province for the first time since the 2013 Leinster decider against Meath.

Quasi-victory

Secondly, the occasion of a still-emphatic nine-point defeat was viewed in certain quarters as a quasi-victory for Kildare.

In fairness, Cian O'Neill wasn't making that argument. He was pleased with their performance for periods but rued how they nosedived in others, lamenting the turnovers that led to 1-5 of Dublin's total.

"Their execution was just ruthless," the Kildare boss expanded. "It was the high standard you would expect of champions. Ours was well below par."

Still, the depiction of last July almost as the start of a revival in the Dublin/Kildare rivalry underlined the chasm that had opened between the two counties in recent years.

Back in 2011, only a hotly disputed late free propelled Dublin to a one-point win in the Leinster semi-final. That was the second consecutive summer showdown where Kieran McGeeney had pushed Pat Gilroy to the brink, Kildare having lost a pulsating Leinster final by three points in 2009.

But in the Gavin era it's been relentlessly one-way traffic. Is that attributable to Dublin's ever-upward progression and soaring confidence - or a relative collapse in Kildare self-belief?

Either way, Geezer's swansong campaign included defeats by 2-20 to 2-9 in the 2013 league and 4-16 to 1-9 in that year's Leinster SFC. Jason Ryan fared every bit as badly: 1-22 to 1-12 in the 2014 league, a galling 5-18 to 0-14 in the 2015 championship.

The above margins tale a sorry tale: 11, 16, 10 and 19 points. It wasn't all about the indomitable Dubs, either: back-to-back league relegations in 2014 and '15 saw the wilting Lilies crash from Division 1 into Division 3.

Thus, the more favourable reaction to last summer's 2-23 to 1-17 result.

Kildare's second-quarter response to a disastrous two-goal double-whammy, allied to the midfield heroics of Kevin Feely, constituted a major step forward on the summer implosions of 2013 and '15.

And yet, typically, they couldn't build on that promise. In their ensuing qualifier they suffered a deflating loss to an Armagh team now managed by McGeeney.

Which brings us to Saturday's league opener in Croke Park. For all the signs of incremental progress under O'Neill, who has overseen back-to-back promotions and a return to the top flight, inconsistency remains something of a Kildare byword.

"Division 1 teams, by right of being here for many years, are ruthless," the manager pointed out at last week's Allianz League launch.

"They'll punish every single, sloppy mistake you make. It happened in the Leinster final last year.

Defensive

"We had a good defensive performance in the league campaign, we only conceded three goals. But then, in a few minutes of madness, we conceded two soft goals because the top teams can be ruthless when they need to be.

"So, we'll learn. It could be the hard way, it could be just by progression, but we'll learn to be a more focused team across 70 minutes."

They could scarcely have asked for a tougher baptism on their top-flight return: Dublin looking to make an early-season statement in their northside fortress, a venue that has visited countless defeats and several horrors upon Kildare this decade.

The bookies aren't expecting it to be a pleasant night, or indeed spring, for the visitors. Boylesports are quoting 2/9 odds on a Dublin victory, with Kildare 4/1; more tellingly, Dublin are 4/5 favourites to reclaim the Division 1 title after a 12-month hiatus whereas Kildare are 4/9 favourites to be relegated.

But Kildare cannot allow themselves to be derailed by outside impressions; they must learn to do it themselves, even if it's the hard way.

As things stand, they remain the most likely contender to challenge Dublin's provincial monopoly over the next few seasons.

There is no quick fix to closing the gap, but at least Kildare's relatively decent underage record (Leinster minor titles in 2013, '15 and '16, plus an U21 crown in 2013) provides O'Neill with a solid base of talent at the right age to push on.

It remains a long shot whether that base can topple a collective that has never been stronger. But they can't rely on Sky Blue slippage or even the fanciful notion that the capital will be divided in two.

That hoary old chestnut received another weekend airing in the Sunday Independent, with Colm O'Rourke repeating his familiar mantra in favour of a split while Dublin 1970s star Robbie Kelleher debated vociferously against.

Perhaps Kelleher's most telling argument concerned the fall from grace of Meath and Kildare at a time when their populations have soared, by 81pc and 85pc respectively, in the 25 years between 1991 and 2016.

While Dublin have been lording it over Leinster, they have been repeatedly pushed to the edge by Mayo.

This is despite the latter's population actually declining between 2011 and '16, while many of their players face a far more onerous travel burden than those of Meath and Kildare.

"What are Mayo doing that Meath, Kildare and the rest of Leinster are not? That should be the focus of the authorities and the commentators," Kelleher concluded.

Hard to argue with that.

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