Jason Ryan has a big rebuilding job on his hands in Kildare

Easy wins in the O’Byrne Cup gloss over the fact that his panel is shorn of the services of 19 players

When Jason Ryan totted up the list, he arrived at the sort of number that would make a man have to go back and tot it up again. Of the Kildare panel he had hoped to be able to call on for January, he was down 19 names. Nineteen. It's not that the cupboard was bare, more that it was missing a couple of shelves and the door was hanging loose on a wonky hinge.

Some were injuries, some were college-tied, some were taking time out from the game. Johnny Doyle is immersed in the world of newborn twins, Morgan O'Flaherty is taking a year out to let his body heal after back-to-back nightmarish seasons. Dermot Earley and Ronan Sweeney have left their intercounty days behind. Daniel Flynn is an Aussie Rules player now, Seánie Johnston is a Cavan Gaels player again.

Nine players are either preparing for or recovering from operations. Brian Flanagan is out for the year. Niall Kelly, Peter Kelly, Eoin Doyle, Alan Smith and Eamon Callaghan will all miss the start of the league as they heal after surgery. He's not trying to dampen expectation – he's laughing at the notion that there should be any. At least for a while.

More success
"Kildare are in a period where the big priority is rebuilding. It's going to be a matter of bringing through these players that won the Leinster under-21 and hopefully getting more success at under-21 and minor.

“People might have considered Kildare contenders at a certain point but a lot of the big players who were around when they were so-called contenders aren’t here anymore. Any expectation that people have for us is in the immediate future is probably unrealistic.”


The smartarse riposte, of course, would run something along the lines of maybe his side could ease up on the 23- and 24-point hammerings they've been sticking on teams in the O'Byrne Cup. Athlone IT took a shelling last Sunday before Longford were damned to the same fate on Wednesday night. They have a points difference after two games of +47, which is one more than the combined total of all the other teams in the competition with positive numbers.

All of which proves nothing in the wide earthly world other than that we shouldn’t be taking the cold black type of the O’Byrne Cup too seriously.

Ryan has been in the job since October and has run the rule over the thick end of 60 players in the meantime. All of it was theory work before last weekend. The practicals have gone well so far but the league is three weeks away and there is much to be done.

"A lot of the work at this time of year is like trying to reprogram computers. A lot of guys come back from their clubs and they don't even realise until they play an actual game how much more switched on they have to be. We've played two O'Byrne Cup games this week and each of our forwards has been caught out at one stage or another by a quick kick-out.

Switch off
"Stephen Cluxton has totally revolutionised how goalkeepers play the game and everyone you play against now at intercounty level has the ball in his hand for a kick-out as soon as the shot goes over the bar or even as it's going wide. At club level, a forward can afford to switch off because most club goalkeepers will take their time. That's just a small example – you can apply it all across the field in all positions."

Ryan is in the slightly strange circumstance of taking over a panel of players who had a deep affection for the manager who just left. The Kildare squad were vociferous in their opposition to Kieran McGeeney’s removal last autumn and although Ryan knows them having coached them last year, the potential for awkwardness was there. At the very least, there must have been a bit of compare and contrast going on in the players’ minds.

“I don’t think it was any different really to when I took over Wexford after Paul Bealin,” he says. “You’re there to do a job, you’re there to prove a point. That’s the same whenever anybody starts a new job. Doesn’t matter if it’s in a school or a bank or an office – you’re trying to make an impression.

“But there was nothing odd about it. There’s pressure, for sure. Kieran McGeeney is an icon in Gaelic games and he had a very successful six years here. If you go down the route of how many All-Irelands or Leinsters he won it’s unfair because Kildare haven’t had that tradition.

“But Kildare have been very competitive in all the competitions they’ve played and all the way through his tenure Kildare were contenders no matter what competition they were in. There was and there is pressure involved in achieving and living up to the standards he set here.”

Given the messy way it ended for McGeeney though, he’d have been forgiven for taking one look at the position and turning on his heel. The Kildare job means a lot of push-and-pull with the clubs, with a good ladle of county board politics thrown in. McGeeney insulated the county set-up from a lot of it and it did for him in the end. Was there not a part of Ryan that was reluctant to wade into those waters?

“No, not at all,” he says. “The only reluctance I had was the effect the job would have on my family. That was the only thing that gave me any pause for thought. I have two young kids and that’s a big consideration. I’m lucky to have a wife who’s very supportive and we’re lucky to have families that are very supportive.

"When you get involved in an intercounty team and you're keeping a full-time job going as well, if you don't have a family situation that is very understanding and that works then there's too much strain on the whole system. I had to be sure I could do it. That was the only hesitation I had.

Unfinished business
"But the main thing was, I was only dying to get the chance to work with the players again. We have unfinished business, no doubt about it. We didn't look on last year as a disaster at all. We were favourites to get relegated from Division One and we ended up in a league semi-final.

“We didn’t perform to the level we would like in our two matches against Dublin and unfortunately Tyrone were the other team to beat us over the course of the year. Other people might have thought it was a disaster but we certainly didn’t.”

Whatever happens in the O’Byrne Cup, Kildare have a pig of a schedule to begin the league. Mayo at home, Cork away, Tyrone at home, Dublin away. Ryan knows they can’t afford to limp into action. Down 19 or not, relegation from Division One would be unacceptable.

He never got to play in the top division with Waterford, never got to manage there with Wexford either. But his brief exposure to it last year as McGeeney’s right-hand man confirmed to him the utter necessity of Kildare’s continued presence.

“There’s a consistency in the performances of players in those counties that are routinely in Division One. Their standards are very high. That’s just an attitude that players in those counties have to have if they’re going to make it as far as the county team. Whether it’s in the schools or in the clubs or wherever it is, you don’t make it into a county jersey in these places without it.

“And if you don’t perform when you’re there, you lose your place. It’s as simple as that. The young lads who come in are there to take your spot and they’re openly ambitious about it. There’s none of this this turning up and hanging around for a few years hoping to get a shout. That’s not how they’ve been brought up. They have belief, they see themselves as contenders. They’re there to get into the team, not just to hang about the senior panel.”

No other way to be. No other place to be.