Jim McGuinness: Kildare the great white hope for the Super 8s
The ‘Newbridge-or-nowhere’ stance by Kildare has fuelled their season
Kildare’s manager Cian O’Neill during the game against Mayo in Newbridge. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Kildare are the outliers in the All-Ireland football championship. Just a few weeks ago the idea that they would feature in the Super 8s line-up would have been laughable. Logically they remain the outsiders to win the All-Ireland, and they are priced at 66/1 with the bookmakers. Yet logic does not make an allowance for the phenomenal metamorphosis Kildare have undergone over the past fortnight.
It’s not just that they beat Mayo and then Fermanagh, two sides that brought vastly different challenges and systems. It was the electrifying energy and honesty and confidence with which Kildare tore into both of those games. It has been exhilarating to watch, all the more so when you remember just how bereft they looked when they came apart against Carlow.
They are literally a team transformed, and throughout the county supporters are fired with a new-found belief and pride in the team. Watching them I had a gnawing sense that they could keep this going and emerge from this inaugural Super 8s series – which is, in effect, a brand new competition – as the great surprise of the new format.
They gave the impression of a team willing to discover just how far they might go if they keep playing with this burning self-belief and honesty. It has been an extraordinary turnaround: an internal revolution that took everyone by surprise, including, I suspect, Kildare.
How did it happen?
It is hard to get away from the emotional upheaval caused by Kildare’s refusal to play the Mayo game in Croke Park. Their “Newbridge-or-nowhere” stance changed everything. Consider the implications. Any team has to believe in itself in order to drive things on. Kildare had the roughest season imaginable. They conceded an average of 0-18.5 points per game in the league and didn’t win a single match.
But that baseline statistic disguised the truth that they were competitive in many of their games, deeply unlucky in a few; they even had a player sent off for not wearing a gum-shield against Donegal.
The heaviness that accompanied those demoralising series of defeats carried through to their game against Carlow, when the 2-14 they coughed up included 0-9 from frees, which was down to indiscipline. That day was a low point, and the season looked as if it was lost for them.
Then they managed to save or at least extend it with wins in Derry and Longford. But fate intervened in the form of drawing Mayo, the fixture announcement for Croke Park and the stance, led by a vocal Cian O’ Neill.
This changed everything: it sent their season hurtling in a new and unexpected direction. In a way Mayo were the victims of the standoff in that they were caught in no-man’s land. It meant that when they took the field they were facing a Kildare side that was psychologically in a very different place.
A cornered animal is a dangerous thing. Kildare had found their cause, and it fuelled and inspired them and, on the field, transported them. There was a moral obligation on them to deliver a performance and they certainly did that.
Suddenly we were watching a different team, and Mayo, one of the most obdurate and resilient football teams of the last generation, couldn’t live with them. Then Kildare met Fermanagh last weekend and the result was the same. They obliterated whatever was in front of them.
And it was brilliant to watch: a high-energy approach to the game underpinned by a huge honesty. Fermanagh had the bodies back and defended deeply, but, being honest, they couldn’t get a hand on those white shirts. Kildare moved the ball so quickly through the hand it was frightening.
They are a big, athletic team, and Fermanagh struggled with this. They are young. They have four ex-pro Aussie Rules athletes on the side. They are well conditioned.
The man on the ball always had one or two men supporting off the shoulder at high speed. So the ball was whizzing about. And even if there wasn’t a gap they bulldozed through, and broke the tackle and created the space to kick their points.
Fermanagh couldn’t force the turnovers on which they thrived in early summer: that had been the signature of their game. Fermanagh like to place a lot of defenders just inside the 45, but Kildare played Neil and Daniel Flynn inside, and they would rotate and look for the diagonal ball, which is where the goal came from.
It was a great fetch from Daniel Flynn, but his composure in rolling the ball into the net was a real bit of class. I felt he lit up the game. The speed and intelligence with which he played was exhilarating. One thing I noticed is that when the ball is kicked into him, he accelerates into the ball rather than slowing down, and it is almost impossible for a defender to get a hand on him then.
It is formidable because it has been unleashed so late in the season, and they are coming into the Super 8s with the momentum of a comet
They also excelled on their own kickout. And after they won possession up the field, their two corner forwards, the Flynns, played very far apart; almost in both corners. This made any sweeper redundant. If Neil Flynn, say, then ran down the line to win the ball it became a one-on-one situation for him. It was a way around the defensive system. So they looked well schooled and brought an honesty and intensity to the game.
The lines they ran, the interplay, the understanding and the speed was so slick and sharp that there was no way, to my mind, that all of this happened within a fortnight: that they have been working on this on the training ground over a long period.
Yet clearly they struggled to release it in games. The missing link was the energy created by the mood of anarchy. It was that which gave them the high energy, which has become an absolutely critical part of the game.
Energy and power
All of the top teams have it. And now Kildare, almost accidentally, have stumbled onto their own reserve of energy and power. And it is formidable because it has been unleashed so late in the season, and they are coming into the Super 8s with the momentum of a comet. That’s why I have this feeling maybe they can do something.
All of the teams will be trying to feed into their internal energy for what is a strange new environment: the All-Ireland quarter-final stage of the season but the knock-out element no longer there.
Monaghan-Kildare is a massive game for both counties. Monaghan have a similar style and an excellent goalkeeper in Rory Beggan. But I feel Kildare have an exceptional ‘keeper themselves in Mark Donnellan. A new trend has appeared in the past few weeks. The ball is kicked out and the receiver is fisting it back to the goalkeeper straight away: he has become the plus-one; the seventh defender. It is high risk but it is another way of retaining possession.
A lot of things in sport are about patterns. When I was with Donegal in 2011 and 2012 we almost always scored 0-6 in the first half and then opened up in the third quarter. We found a pattern almost subliminally. Look at Dublin now: they are almost programmed to try and score goals early in every game.
Kildare have had their dark days, and now have undergone this reawakening. They almost bottlenecked themselves into a situation that you imagine would have led to very hard, honest words among themselves: a realisation that if they were going to take this unprecedented stand then they had to make it count.
What the Kildare turnaround says to me is that there is huge capacity within us all to be better that most people don’t tap into
And after that, once they make that commitment and transfer it onto the field of play and suddenly everyone is watching this Kildare team bring its abundant athletic power to bear through the way they tackle and move the ball and work and, most of all, the collective intent of their play, everything is different.
Why did it take this extraordinary situation for Kildare to locate this inner demon?
Drive you on
You have to believe in something in order for it to drive you on. That belief was stripped away from Kildare over a series of months, and it became very hard to maintain confidence. You need something to show for your efforts. And it begins to feel as if the season is locked into a certain predetermined conclusion.
The Newbridge saga was like a rope dropped down, and they have grabbed it with both hands.
What the Kildare turnaround says to me is that there is huge capacity within us all to be better that most people don’t tap into. I am not just talking about sport here but every walk of life.
People go through life unaware that they have this huge untapped reserve that could be driving them on at double their current rate of functioning and fulfilment.
Players come in and train and are diligent and follow diet and physical programmes and they play the game. But there is so much more to it than that. There is a glass ceiling of awareness of why they are doing this. And when they break through that ceiling they create a new space for themselves. This is how teams get better – and how people improve in general.
This thing pushed Kildare on – whether they liked it or not they had to react. It pushed them higher.
The Dublin and Kerry players have that dynamic because it is born of tradition and expectation and entitlement – it forces them psychologically to reach a higher level of performance. Kilkenny hurling teams have had that, particularly over the last 20 years.
In Donegal we were trying to find that space in those years when we were trying to win an All-Ireland. And that was the hardest part. You have all the work done and you are sharp and everything is ticked. But it wasn’t until we unlocked the issue of self-belief that we could really tackle the task of winning an All-Ireland title.
Shot in the arm
And it is fear. That’s what it comes down to. It is the fear of the unknown. And then once you are through it you get that shot in the arm and you find yourself in a completely different place. And the ironic thing is that it can feel very comfortable and natural because all you are doing is releasing the potential that is inside you.
That is the sense I get now from watching this Kildare team. Obviously I don’t know what they are thinking or feeling: this is just observation. My sense is that they are in a mindset now which is fearless and rid of the self-doubt and anxieties that plagued them.
An attitude of: let’s just go with this and see if we can take it to another level. Can we go beat Monaghan and Galway? Can we put ourselves in an All-Ireland semi-final – a place that, I’m sure, would have felt like another planet just a few months ago.
The difficulty for all teams facing Kildare from here on in is that they are facing a team reborn.