Kieran McGeeney still daring to dream
Kildare boss looking forward to the Leinster championship
Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney: “It’s a knockout situation, not like the league, where consistency will always keep the cream at the top.” Photograph: Inpho
It wouldn’t feel like the start of the championship without someone questioning the structure of the competition, or at least the merits of the old provincial road trip and, as if on cue, up steps Kieran McGeeney.
It’s not that McGeeney wouldn’t value winning a Leinster football title with Kildare: they’ve only won two since 1956, and a third “would be nice”, he says with a smile.
The problem for counties like Kildare is they have a slightly bigger mountain to climb compared to those in Munster or Connacht, especially with Dublin likely to be standing in their way, even before they get to a Leinster final.
“Well it won’t be changed, but what can you do? There are a lot of things that frustrate me, but there are lot of good things too. I’m very proud of the provincial championships I won with Armagh. It’s not something you throw away. That’s the way it is. You just get on with it. We don’t have that power, we’re not the only team. You can get round it. You just have to find ways.”
Not that McGeeney is losing much sleep over it either; speaking in Croke Park at the launch of the Leinster championship – and ahead of their quarter-final with Offaly on June 1st – the Kildare manager believes that now, in his sixth season in charge, he is beginning to put the lessons of the past into full practice.
Yet there is still that classic sporting Catch-22; the belief necessary to win trophies only comes when the trophies are actually won, which is why the likes of Kerry and Cork, or Mayo and Galway, possibly hold an advantage.
“You need the big games,” he says. “That is where some of the provinces have a strength over others. If you play for Cork or Kerry the chances are that you will play a big game every year. That does not happen in Leinster. You play a big game, you learn, and there is a 50 per cent chance you are going to win one of those games.
“You learn from it, you move on and that is where you get your belief from. It takes time for teams coming through, not having that. I know from being part of one of those teams (Armagh) that it takes time to build that. It took me 10 years to win one thing – and 13 years to win ultimately what you were looking for.”
The question of whether or not Kildare are any closer to winning a Leinster title this year will only be answered in time – and even if they get past Offaly, Dublin are likely to be waiting for them in the semi-final, on June 30th. McGeeney’s focus for now is getting the best out of his panel, and from that perspective, he feels progress is definitely being made. Indeed he could write a book already on what he’s learned from his first five years with Kildare.
“It’s not easy admitting your mistakes, especially when sometimes your ego can take over, but that’s what you have to do – you have to have that open type of mindset and hopefully learn all the time. I’ve made loads of mistakes, but that’s part and parcel of learning.
“It is tough, when you are trying to change a culture, a mindset. Although Kildare have fantastic footballers and a fantastic football tradition, results will prove otherwise.
“You are fighting against that but you have a group of players who are well capable of doing that and more. But it is like everything else, it is about getting them over that particular line. I’m hoping I will be part of that, but they are going to do it soon enough.”
There’s always the challenge, McGeeney also suggests, in overcoming the belief that counties of so-called greater strength will always have the greater chance on winning titles, provincial or otherwise.
“It is very hard to go into the amount of permutations in a winning team because there is no one thing that makes a difference. There are 100 small things.
“But it is no coincidence that over the last 20 or 30 years it is the bigger counties that are the ones that come to the forefront. They have the bigger pick, they have more money. You are not allowed to mention those things, Then you look at last weekend, with Wigan and Man City, you always have a chance, and that is what keeps us all coming back.
“But there is a reality in sport too in that you have to look at what goes into those permutations to put a team together, and Kildare should be one of those teams. It is not a tangible thing, I can’t tell you what that is. People call it tradition, history, so many things. Belief, confidence, that is a hard thing to give a player.”
All of which suggests that despite the apparent familiarity of the Leinster football landscape it can and often will change without warning. Dublin may look a class apart, but McGeeney has no fear of them running away from the rest.
“I don’t think anybody will ever get away in Gaelic football, because it’s a knockout situation, not like the league, where consistency will always keep the cream at the top. Somewhere along the line, you’re going to come a cropper in knockout competition.”
Let the good old knockout begin.