Cork scalp would be a prized one for focused Kildare
GAA:This evening in Páirc Uí Rinn, the holders of the Allianz Football League’s top two titles meet in the competition for the first time in four years. Cork have been perennial winners and are in pursuit of a fourth successive Division One title – a sequence that extends to winning Division Two in 2009.
Kildare on the other hand won the first significant silverware of Kieran McGeeney’s management, now in its sixth year, the Division Two trophy, last season on the same afternoon that Cork defeated Mayo.
The counties have been linked during that time. McGeeney took over in the same year that his counterpart this evening Conor Counihan stepped in to restore stability after the Cork players’ strike of early 2008.
Their paths crossed in that year’s All-Ireland quarter-finals when Kildare rallied after a poor start to finish respectably and redeem a season that had started with defeat in Leinster in McGeeney’s first championship match against Mick O’Dwyer’s Wicklow.
Both counties also found themselves in Division Two when the league was organised on an hierarchical basis at the end of the 2008 competition. From that parity of status their paths have diverged. Cork added the 2010 All-Ireland to their pile of leagues and Munster titles.
During that time Kildare have been to one All-Ireland semi-final and all of the quarter-finals but have done no more in Leinster than reach one final. Significantly the county has also spent until now moored in Division Two at a time in the game’s history when the link between league and championship has never been stronger.
Since the league moved to a calendar-year basis in 2001 and the championship qualifiers were introduced in the same year, Armagh are the only county to have won the All-Ireland when not in Division One and out of those 12 years the champions have on seven occasions been involved in that season’s league final.
So why has it taken Kildare so long to reach that level and why are hopes rising in the county that this year could be significant? As it happened, in the first year in 2009, Cork were lucky to draw with Kildare through a last-minute equaliser that ended up determining the difference between the counties in the end-of-season table: Cork on 11 points and Kildare on 10.
Since then Cork’s consistency has seen them involved in each season’s Division One endgame while Kildare have continued to – if not languish – stagnate at a level below.
Last August the disparity reached its widest when again at the quarter-final stage Cork annihilated them.
Three years ago, as he contemplated a third stretch in Division Two, McGeeney was nonetheless clear about what he saw as the benefits of the league: “I do think there’s a difference in the mental strengths. Playing more big games can lead to that. When games are in the melting pot some players respond and some players don’t. I suppose that’s the difference between greatness and also-rans. Teams need to get to league play-offs on a regular basis.”
When deliverance arrived it wasn’t free of caprice and took a last-minute penalty, converted by John Doyle, to snatch a draw – as well as a place in Division One – from Galway. But Kildare weren’t complaining.
Another stroke of fortune saw the standardised off-season rearranged to allow a staggered return to training and as a result Kildare have been able to do physical work earlier and eliminate the compromises that have resulted in poor starts to some of the Division Two campaigns.
“Kildare are very fit at the minute,” according to former manager Pádraig Nolan, “and anxious to pick up points. This year I doubt if Cork give two fiddlers about the league – it’s more All-Irelands that they want, not another league.
“The start of the year has been promising for Kildare with the introduction of younger forwards Daniel Flynn and Niall Kelly. It’s early days yet and we’ll see how they adapt but at the moment they’ve been very successful and I’m delighted to see a little variation in the forwards because there hasn’t been much in the past few years.”
Former Wexford manager Jason Ryan has arrived as a coach and he is said to be well regarded by the players.
A win this evening would be a tremendous prize for Kildare, avenging the championship humiliation of 2012 as well as accumulating maximum points from the opening two matches, which would go a long way to preserving their place in Division One.