Dublin and Kildare have gone in opposite directions since 2011
Leinster champions hot favourites but four years ago only a disputed free separated teams
Andriú MacLochlainn disputes referee Cormac Reilly’s decision to award a free to Bernard Brogan and Dublin in the dying moments of the Leinster semi-final in 2011. Kildare moved on to the qualifiers and did not get a second bite at their rivals that year. photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
It was on this weekend four years ago that an injury-time free was all that separated Dublin and Kildare. Not just any injury-time free. A riotously disputed, intractably debated stunner of an injury-time free. But we’ll get to that anon. For now, concentrate on the four years.
That’s four – FOUR. Not a half century ago, neither yore nor yesteryear. Four years is all, since Dublin and Kildare met in a Leinster semi-final and could only be cleaved apart on a referee’s whim. Yet when they face off tomorrow in Croke Park, we may as well have the Red Cross on standby.
It’s almost hard to fathom but back then, they were equals. Or as near as dammit. This was Dublin before they’d won an All-Ireland, remember. Dublin who’d given up five goals to Meath on the equivalent weekend the year before. Who’d lost an epic All-Ireland semi-final to Cork and been mown down by the same side in a league final that spring. They were nobody’s sure thing.
And Kildare? Kildare were much the same. Just as susceptible to an off-day (see Louth 2010) but by common consent just as close to a breakthrough (see All-Ireland semi-final 2010). When The Irish Times did its championship preview that summer, we polled the collated genius of Joe Kernan, John O’Mahony, Seán Boylan and Darragh Ó Sé and each of them to a man mentioned Kildare as a possible bolter in the All-Ireland race. Put up as 2/1 outsiders against Dublin, they were value at the price.
100 per cent certain
“A lot of the time when a smaller team is playing a bigger team, it’s obvious the bigger team has them beat before the ball is thrown in. It’s reputation, it’s media coverage, it’s hype and it gets inside lads’ heads. You can see it on the field, with fellas holding back and being tentative and doubtful. It’s so obvious and Dublin teams have always been able to sniff it out.”
MacLochlainn had no truck with that. As an under-21, he’d captained Kildare to a Leinster title in 2004, beating a Dublin side containing nine of the team that had won the previous year’s All-Ireland. When they’d met in the Leinster final in 2009, the sides were level with four minutes to go before Bernard Brogan alakazamed a finish in the way special players sometimes do. But by no measure did Kildare see Dublin as their betters.
“We never bought into that,” says MacLochlainn. “I was fortunate enough that any time we met Dublin at underage, we always beat them. Or more times than not, anyway. We had no fear of them at all. And we carried that through to senior. When you added that to what Kieran [McGeeney] brought, we knew we had the beating of them.”
The closing four minutes that day were like subliminal advertising. They came in flashes, leaving you unsure what you saw. Dublin four points up, game dying. Eamonn Callaghan scuttles in a goal from 23 metres. One-point game. Callaghan levels it with a point on the swivel. Replay, surely. No time left. Dublin pump it forward.
Brogan races out, MacLochlainn at his back, arms spread wide. Cormac Reilly whistles. In the commentary box, Kevin McStay goes, “Oh no! Oh no, no, no.” Brogan doesn’t even go to ground. Doesn’t matter. Free in. You could watch the replay 100 times and come down 50 on each side. If it was a free, it was barely so. Brogan popped it. Dublin 1-12 Kildare 1-11.
“The most frustrating thing that day was that afterwards, the free was the only thing anyone talked about. The team has goals obviously but, individually, you have goals as well. One of mine would have been to have finished my playing days with an All Star. I knew I didn’t have many chances left. I had three kids at that stage and you can’t go on being selfish forever when you have a family.
“In that game alone, I had picked up Alan Brogan, who at the time was a bigger force for Dublin than Bernard, and then when Ollie Lyons went off, I picked up Bernard. I thought I handled him quite well. And when the game was in the melting pot, I cleared a goal off the line and then later I fed Eamonn Callaghan for his goal.
“You usually only need two or three big performances to get into All Star contention but you need people to remember them. What the free did was it meant that all anyone remembered the following day was this free that I gave away. There was nothing about performance level over the course of the game. That was very hard for me to take.”
He couldn’t let Cormac Reilly leave the field without having his say.
“I walked off the pitch with him after the game. People asked me did I abuse him but in all honesty, I never even cursed at him. Not once. What I said to him was, ‘I don’t think you understand the gravity of your decision. My family are here and what they’ve given up for me is frightening. When you go home and watch the game, you’ll see that you made a wrong decision. I’d appreciate a call or a text just to say, ‘Look, I’m human, I got it wrong.’
“That’s why it made it even harder to take that the head of refereeing came out the next day armed with the fuzziest TV clip in the world to say there had been contact when there hadn’t. I know he had to stand up for his man but that was hard to take. I met Cormac in other games but I never said anything about it and he never did either.”
Kildare moved on to the qualifiers where they met Laois, Meath and Derry before finding drawing Donegal in the quarter-final. All the while, they had one goal in mind.
“We would have said among ourselves and been pretty up front about it – we wanted to get back to meet Dublin later in the year. That was driving us through the qualifiers, the chance to play them again. We wanted to get back and to right a wrong. Obviously, we took each game on its merits but the carrot that was dangling there the whole time was another game with Dublin.
Got out of jail
Four years. Dublin have gone on to win two All-Irelands. Donegal have won one. Meanwhile, Kildare have watched them both bound away across the horizon. McGeeney got dumped, messily and to nobody’s credit. In the league, they slithered to successive relegations. When they met again in 2013, Dublin won 4-16 to 1-9. Oblivion.
“Kieran not being involved any more is a factor,” says MacLochlainn. “A lot of the senior players going is a factor. Dermot [Earley] went, Johnny [Doyle] went, Ronan Sweeney went, a few lads went travelling. It wasn’t that the wheels came off, it was just a lot of different little things.
“Jason [Ryan] is a good manager and he’s obviously a very good coach. He was involved with Kieran so his transition was easy enough. But I would feel that the panel is there and he hasn’t got as much out of them as he should have.”
As for MacLochlainn, he moved on himself within a year. He set up on his own as a financial adviser in Kildare town and his family grew to four. There just wasn’t time for intercounty football, other than as a spectator. What he sees for Kildare tomorrow is much the same as what everyone else does.
“I think that the players need to believe they can win but, realistically, if Kildare can perform well and stay within five or six points of Dublin by the end, it will be a good result. It will set them up for Offaly and give them momentum that’s going to be badly needed in Tullamore. Kildare need a performance to build on going into that game or it is going to be a very sticky one.”
Needing a performance. To build confidence for a game against Offaly. Four years feels like a lifetime ago.