Clinical Kildare maintain their momentum
Kildare 2-10 Cork 1-9:The smile across his face fades slightly when Kieran McGeeney is informed that’s three All-Ireland champions Kildare have beaten in their last three games – starting with Dublin (in the O’Byrne Cup), then Donegal, and now Cork. As if he didn’t know that already.
The only danger with a run like that is trying to sustain it, given the time of year. With inevitably more meaningful games to come, may there even be the danger of peaking too soon?
“Well I wouldn’t be getting carried away with it”, says McGeeney. “It’s great to be where we are, don’t get me wrong, but I still think we have a lot of work to do in terms of where we need to go to.
“If you win, you are fit and if you lose, you are unfit. And we’ve played six games back-to-back, no fitness work, so it’s just games. You can’t train fellas hard to increase their fitness levels during games, but what we are getting for players is a lot of game-time, which is good.
“But then this time last year we hadn’t won any games and ended up winning Division Two. We have Kerry next, then Dublin, so you could be sitting bottom in two games very quickly.”
Still, McGeeney had plenty to be chirpy about, the Kildare manager perfectly in tune with his panel of players, and the overall performance here on Saturday night illuminated by a couple of teenage substitutions. Niall Kelly deftly finished their first goal, bang on the hour, which put Kildare in front for the first time, before Paddy Brophy did likewise, three minutes from time, to seal their fine victory.
It helped that they played against 14 men for the last half hour, Cork’s Damien Cahalane shown a straight red card for some silly “afters” on the young Kelly, and that Cork’s overall challenge burned brightly at first, then faded, just like the misty rain around Páirc Uí Rinn.
It was their first defeat to Kildare in 20 years, their first defeat in Páirc Uí Rinn under manager Conor Counihan.
More worryingly it was the second successive defeat for the reigning league champions, and only an urgent reversal of form will see them challenge for a fourth successive title.
“It isn’t the place we wanted to be,” says Counihan. “But I suppose the reality is maybe it isn’t a bad place to be either, and when I say a bad place, maybe there are lessons to be learned down there too.
“Maybe we have to graft a little more, maybe we were a bit spoilt in the past that we were getting on top. Now we are at the bottom and we have to fight our way out of it and that takes character. And we are going to have to find that.”
Both Counihan and McGeeney agreed Cahalane’s sending off marked a major turning point, stretching Cork’s defence to breaking point, and affording Kildare’s forwards that extra yard of space they’d earlier craved.
“I was 13 metres away, didn’t see any reaction from any player,” says Counihan, “and I thought it was a dubious free. Next thing I saw the red card. But look, we’re not a thousand miles away, as we showed for 35, 40 minutes of that. We were still playing reasonably good football but we have to just pick it up, be a bit more positive and back ourselves at this stage.”
There were some positives in Cork’s game, Ciarán Sheehan’s goal on 20 minutes beautifully set up by Fintan Goold and brilliantly finished, with Graham Canty showing plenty of life in the old legs – and leading 1-5 to 0-6 at the break, they couldn’t quite keep Kildare at safe distance.
Then when it came to the showdown, more Kildare players stepped up, especially Pádraig O’Neill, his colossal work at midfield backed up by Gary White. Mikey Conway made some powerful attacking runs, and Tomás O’Connor, when introduced, showed his uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, and helped set up Kelly’s goal.
Others, such as Seánie Johnston and John Doyle drifted in and out of the game, but there is an undeniable momentum about Kildare right now.
“I just felt we were a wee bit slow at getting the ball up to our forwards,” adds McGeeney, “and in that time they got men back. The defence was coping well but then they fell asleep for two minutes and we had 1-2 scored against us. Then I suppose then we were lucky enough they got a man sent off and things opened up and we made use of it.”