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As Kildare and Glenn Ryan brace for a season-defining moment, where has it all gone wrong for them?

Former Division One side currently find themselves in a relegation spot in Division Two and have yet to become a significant force at senior level, as hoped for under Ryan

The road to Carlow was never envisaged as part of the journey, but the destination has now become uncertain for a Kildare team in danger of losing its way.

Sunday’s fixture against Armagh feels like a fork-in-the-road moment for the Lilywhites. It might only be the third round of the league, but the difference between victory and defeat could be season-defining for Glenn Ryan’s side.

Kildare’s league report card so far: defeats to Cavan and Fermanagh, plus a public chastening from the county board chairman.

All this on the eve of facing their former manager Kieran McGeeney, who brings Armagh to Netwatch Cullen Park where Kildare are playing home games this season as redevelopment work continues at St Conleth’s Park. It’s all got very stark, very quickly.


Kildare have played 16 National Football League games under Ryan. They have won only five.

There have been 10 defeats, and a draw. Ryan’s first league fixture was that 2022 deadlock against Kerry, in Division One. Kildare’s last game was a defeat to Fermanagh, in Division Two.

Kildare would have expected be in the promotion conversation after two rounds, but instead they find themselves occupying a relegation spot.

Andriú Mac Lochlainn spent a decade in the Kildare dressingroom before stepping away after the 2012 campaign.

“From my own experience over the years, if you lost your first or second game in the league you were nearly always dragged towards a relegation battle of some sort,” he recalls.

“You could get yourself out of it after a couple of games, but at the same time it’s not where you want to be starting the season from.

“Because with relegation knocking on your door it’s very hard for a management team to have the freedom to work on certain tactics or structures they might want to use later in the year. The pressure is there to get results, so you don’t have that luxury.

“No matter what way you dress it up, a bad start makes your league campaign more difficult, and I would even go further and say it impacts on your preparations in terms of championship too.”

Which of course is the far more ominous wrecking ball dangling over Kildare here – the potential to miss out on the All-Ireland and wind up in the Tailteann Cup this summer.

The All-Ireland B competition wasn’t created with the likes of Kildare in mind, but tell that to Meath. Tradition might seem like a buttress but just because you think it can’t happen, doesn’t mean it won’t.

So, what has gone wrong for Kildare?

Firstly, at the start of the league Ryan indicated nine players from the 2023 squad would not be involved this term – among those are David Hyland, Neil Flynn, Jack Robinson, Darragh Malone and Paul Cribbin. There have also been several injuries within the squad.

Kildare’s championship form under Ryan has been okay. Nothing hectic, they haven’t yanked up any trees, but nor have they been felled by any slight breezes. They’ve pretty much won and lost the games they were expected to, save perhaps a victory over Roscommon and a draw with Sligo.

They’ve played 10 championship games – winning four, losing five and drawing one. Their victories came against Louth, Westmeath, Wicklow and Roscommon. Their defeats were against Dublin (three times), Mayo and Monaghan.

But their league form has been worrying. Of the eight Division One teams in 2022, none are lower than Kildare in the current league rankings. They have been a sack of rocks in the ocean, sinking slowly.

The most blinding flashing light is a lack of goal-threat. In only three of the 16 league matches under Ryan have Kildare managed to score a goal – one v Donegal, one v Dublin (both in the 2022 league) and three v Limerick in the 2023 league. They conceded goals in 12 of the 16 matches. In total, Kildare have scored five goals and shipped 20.

Between March 2022 and March 2023, they went eight consecutive league games without a goal. They are searching for a first league goal since March 19th of last year.

Mac Lochlainn, a director of Murray & Spelman Financial Services and head of office at Fairstone Ireland, was one of Kildare’s tightest man-markers during a period when they regularly contested All-Ireland quarter-finals.

“From a defensive point of view, in preparing for teams if you look at their results and see their scores are all based on points, it allows you to mark a team and a player that bit differently,” he says.

Should they lose on Sunday, the Leinster SFC may ultimately prove a more likely fire ladder out of the Tailteann Cup, because as Meath found out last year even finishing above the relegation spots in Division Two is no guarantee of playing in the All-Ireland.

Kildare are on the opposite side of the provincial championship draw to Dublin, but to progress to a Leinster final they would still need to beat either Westmeath or Wicklow in a quarter-final, and then Louth, Carlow or Wexford in a semi-final.

If there wasn’t already enough pressure on Kildare, Kildare chairman Mick Gorman’s comments at last week’s county board meeting really increased the wattage of the spotlight.

“I spoke to the management for a long time today about the situation and the necessity that performances and results have to greatly improve,” he said. “We are fully aware that results are not good enough, not good enough for the county, and the players and the management are all fully aware of the situation.”

Tommy Callaghan, the esteemed sports editor of the Leinster Leader, was in attendance and wrote: “I have been going to these gatherings now for longer than I care to remember and, if my memory is correct, last week’s proceedings was the first time a chairman, not only allowed discussion on the fortunes of the senior footballers but actually instigated the debate.”

Gorman had poured petrol on the fire.

“There’s no getting away from it, it is a difficult position for all involved because it does add pressure,” says Mac Lochlainn. “The chairman’s comments, that doesn’t help the situation, everybody knows results and performances aren’t where they should be.

“It does test the character and camaraderie in the group, their resolve and how they respond to the management team now.”

And yet just below the surface remains a county waiting. Waiting for significant underage success to become significant senior success.

Kildare won an All-Ireland under-20 title in 2018, they lost the 2022 final at that grade but last May they captured the 2023 crown. No county has played in or won as many under-20 finals over the last six years.

Kildare have also advanced to eight of the last 11 Leinster minor football finals, winning in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019. Only last Saturday Naas CBS won a third successive Leinster schools title. Naas have played in all of the last six finals, winning five.

“I would be an optimistic person by nature but things only happen when you make them happen,” adds Mac Lochlainn. “For me, it has been a worrying pattern that we haven’t been able to convert our underage competitiveness and consistency into silverware at senior level.

“I’m not aware of any root and branch report that Kildare football has done from a systematic approach to see how can we improve as a county, to address these issues.

“I’m not saying there hasn’t been something done I’m not privy to, but if I was involved I’d want to let the county know these are the changes we are making here.

“There are very good people involved, mostly on a voluntary basis, but if you look at the most successful counties they have implemented professional structures, the likes of Kerry, Dublin, Mayo have commercial managers or CEOs.

“We have the seventh or eighth biggest population on the island of Ireland, we have phenomenally good athletes, large athletic players, very skilful, and there has been a lot of success at underage level in recent years. So you have to ask why has all that not produced success at senior level?”

The fact McGeeney is in the opposition dugout on Sunday adds another layer to the day.

Gorman voted against McGeeney remaining as Kildare manager in 2013, a ballot that went against the current Armagh manager by the slenderest of margins, 29 votes to 28.

Ryan managed the Kildare under-21s to a Leinster title and an All-Ireland final appearance in 2008. Given his standing within the county as a player, he was seen as a senior manager in waiting. Not if, but when.

But McGeeney spent seven years in charge of Kildare, between 2007-13, and on each subsequent occasion when the position came up, Glenn Ryan was not the man handed the keys – instead it went to Jason Ryan (2014-15), Cian O’Neill (2016-19), Jack O’Connor (2020-21).

When he was eventually appointed in October 2021, Ryan arrived with a stacked backroom team of Kildare heroes – including Dermot Earley, Johnny Doyle and Anthony Rainbow.

Earley has stepped away this year after taking up a position in Brussels with the UN, but former Meath trainer Colm Nally has been added as head coach while former Kildare player Ronan Sweeney has joined as an attacking coach.

In the bigger picture, and aside from impressive underage results, Kildare have something else not many counties can claim – accomplished homegrown managerial options waiting in the wings.

Brian Flanagan, who managed the under-20s to glory last year, is in charge of a Kildare under-23 development squad, while Davy Burke, Kildare’s under-20 manager in 2018, continues to enhance his reputation in his current role as Roscommon senior boss.

Ryan will be back on the sideline on Sunday after serving a two-match ban for criticism of the officiating in Kildare’s All-Ireland SFC defeat to Monaghan last year.

His appointment and that of a Kildare management dream-team in late 2021 felt like a crucial piece in the jigsaw that would see the county’s footballers become a significant force at senior level.

It might yet turn out that way, but equally it might not.

The road to Carlow awaits. Kildare can ill afford to return home empty-handed.

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