As first games go, this was something of a damp squib.
An O'Byrne Cup defeat to Longford in St Conleths Park on a drab and chilly December afternoon is a world away from the highs that Jack O'Connor enjoyed with Kerry but every story needs a beginning.
Since his appointment last August, many comparisons have been drawn between O'Connor and the previous Kerryman to manage Kildare, Mick O'Dwyer. Micko went on to become Kildare's most successful manager in the modern era but even his time in charge had an equally inauspicious a start, a home to defeat to Leitrim in October 1990.
The result of Saturday’s game, 2-14 to 0-14, carries no real relevance to O’Connor at this stage of his tenure in Kildare. Since his appointment, he has been working away behind the scenes attempting to assemble as strong a Kildare panel as possible.
He handed nine players their first taste of senior intercounty football on Saturday and used a total of 25 players so that from that point of view he found it to be a valuable experience.
“The bottom line is that we tried out an awful lot of new players. We only had six or seven what you would call regulars from last year. Some of them did themselves justice and some of them maybe underperformed a bit. The nature of this time of year, we are just trying to try as many players as possible, I think we made 10 substitutions as well. It got a big ragged at the end but that’s to be expected when you are making that many changes to start with and then making 10 substitutions as the game went on. Overall, it was a good learning experience for the players,” said O’Connor.
That learning experience was a tough one at times and the Kildare players, some who have shone at underage level for their county and others for their clubs, found that even in the O’Byrne Cup senior intercounty football is a whole different ball game in terms of physicality.
“The physical side of intercounty football, they are probably not used to that,” agreed O’Connor.
“The pitch here in Newbridge is tighter as well so it becomes a bit more physical too because of the tight confines of the pitch. It was a big learning curve for fellas but that’s life at intercounty level, you have to get used to that kind of stuff,” he added.
While the majority of the very decent crowd that turned up at St Conleths Park were of a Kildare persuasion there to see the dawn of a new era under O'Connor, many were also hoping to see the return of Daniel Flynn.
The two-time All-Star nominee opted out of the Kildare panel for last season but has rejoined under O’Connor and has been training hard. Unfortunately he picked up a small hamstring injury that forced him out of Saturday’s game but it is nothing too serious.
“Daniel is okay, his hamstring was just a bit tight earlier in the week and we didn’t want to take any chances, it’s too early in the year to be taking chances on fellas. We’ve a good few others who are back running but aren’t ready for football yet. In the next three or four weeks I think our panel will be stronger,” said O’Connor.
Even allowing for those injuries there are still 50 or so players on the Kildare panel at the moment and those still fighting for their place (the panel will be cut to a more manageable 35 before the start of the National League) will get another chance to impress next weekend against Wicklow, a team managed by Kildare man Davy Burke. O'Connor said these the games offer the best chance for those hoping to catch his eye.
“The games give you a realistic view because sometimes there’s more space in training than you’d get in games. That was a good test against Longford and some fellas stood up well to it and other fellas probably found the going a bit tough. In general, I’m very happy with the attitude of the lads and I’m looking forward to next weekend and having another go in the O’Byrne Cup against Wicklow,” said O’Connor.
While the result of Saturday’s game won’t bother O’Connor too much, he is very much focused on a good start to the league when Fermanagh visit Newbridge on January 26th. Promotion to Division 1 is the first ambition on his list. Looking a further down the line, there are some who think that Jim Gavin stepping down could make Dublin more vulnerable in Leinster than at any time in the last seven or eight years and that Kildare could be best placed to capitalise.
O’Connor, however, feels that Dublin will be quickly able to put the loss of Gavin behind them.
“I wouldn’t take a whole lot of notice of that. Sometimes a change of management can freshen the whole thing up. Dublin are Dublin, they are still a good bit ahead of the rest of us,” he said.
That may be true for the moment but O’Connor’s CV suggests Kildare will be working hard to close that gap during the coming season.
O’Byrne Cup round 1 results
Longford 2-14 Kildare 0-14
Carlow 2-5 Wicklow 0-8
Offaly 1-17 Laois 2-12
Westmeath 1-11 Wexford 0-11
Louth 1-9 Meath 0-10