Kevin McStay: How badly do Kildare, as a county, want real success?

We need to see how badly Kildare want real success. How much do they want an All-Ireland?

Kildare’s Shea Ryan  after defeat to Dublin  in the Leinster  final in  Croke Park. Are Kildare   really the dormant giant many think they are? Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Kildare’s Shea Ryan after defeat to Dublin in the Leinster final in Croke Park. Are Kildare really the dormant giant many think they are? Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

In the early days of the professional rugby era in Ireland the jump from the amateur game of club rugby seemed to catch much of the sport by surprise. But that wasn’t the case with Munster. They stole a march on everybody, which resulted in two Heineken Cups in 2006 and 2008.

It was said at the time that the driving factor behind their domination was their greatest fear: Leinster with their population and schools and resources getting organised and taking over the joint. Munster had to make hay while the sun was shining. Because Leinster would eventually organise themselves.

A parallel could be drawn between the Munster team of the early professional era and the Leinster football championship at the same time. Back then Leinster was a little like the Ulster championship of recent years if it was ratcheted up a few decibels. There was Sean “the Herbalist” Boylan and his fascination with the powers of the Hill of Tara. There was Tommy Lyons and Offaly introducing the neutron diet into the world of GAA. And Mick O’Dwyer reinvented a thing called Kildare football before hopping on a different horse and doing pretty much the same thing with Laois.

And then there was Páidí Ó Sé arriving in Westmeath with his inspiring speeches. Who can remember him telling his players about a grain of rice tipping the scales? It was a magic period. At one point the championship had six different winners in the previous eight years.

If Louth had won the Leinster final in 2010, they would have been the seventh county to win the provincial title in 14 years. That’s what Leinster was like.

I remember making my only ever appearance on the Six-One News that evening to try and explain to the nation what exactly happened an hour earlier in Croke Park. For a few hours it felt like martial law would be required to quell the anger.

It looked like we were going to need curfews from the government and special interlocutors from the GAA to deal with the Louth rage. Meath were labelled “Dick Turpin without the mask” by Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick. That summed up the drama of Leinster at the time. It had the crowds and colour and pitch invasions and celebrity managers. It had smashing games live on TV. It had it all

No more hype

But Dublin inevitably got organised and the championship descended into the “great abyss”. Tommy “Teabags” Lyons, Paul “Pillar” Caffrey and Pat Gilroy led the Renaissance, each one adding a new layer of excellence, each one handing over a better organisation. No more hype. No more nonsense. No more bullshit.

That led to the machine we witnessed last Sunday winning their 11th provincial title in a row. But perhaps the colder and more sobering statistic is that their most recent victory means they’ve won 16 of the last 17 Leinster titles. Like Leinster Rugby, Dublin have taken over the joint.

Sunday’s game was my first venture into the one-way traffic that is the Leinster championship this year. I had been watching highlights from afar, satisfied that I wasn’t really missing anything of consequence and confident that Dublin would eventually emerge after some pushing and shoving along the way. And as they always do, they came out on top once again and cruised to an eight-point win.

But the build-up to this year’s final was a little different as there was talk of Dublin being vulnerable. Retirements, injuries and a few sabbaticals meant they have not been at their best, and may, therefore, have too many miles on the old clock. And since Kildare had won promotion to Division One, there was a feeling that they may put it up to the champions.

But the reality is this final had the feel of a Friday night challenge game in Abbottstown or Hawkfield – a gold medal match where Kildare had decided they were playing exclusively for second place.

A brilliant Daniel Flynn goal got Kildare a little excited towards the end, but the game was already over. Cantona’s seagulls were circling the stands as Dublin threw sardines into the sea. Much ado about nothing.

To my mind Kildare had decided to pull the plant and wash the shovels by the second-half water break. And that ultimately gave way to an easy win for Dublin.

Dormant giant

So, where does Kildare football sit this morning? It’s a study in itself. It intrigues me.

When I worked and lived at the Curragh, football was never really the only conversation to be had, which you could hardly say about counties like Mayo, Kerry, Monaghan and Tyrone. These counties think and talk about football and little else. But there were always other considerations in Kildare.

There would be days out at Punchestown, the Curragh and Naas – and there may be some time for football thereafter. They’ve won only two Leinster titles in the last 60 years, after all. Is the county really the dormant giant many think they are?

Micko reinvented the game following his arrival in the 1990s and did a lot of good work into the 2000s. More recently Kieran McGeeney kept the county ticking over nicely, but they never really pushed on and there doesn’t seem to be any concrete plan. I read Brendan Hackett’s observations in last weekend’s Sunday Times and he nailed the issue surrounding Kildare football.

He said: “Dublin started out with a vision a long time ago which was about developing players and winning All-Irelands. I’m not denigrating the good work of people, but Kildare don’t have a vision around where they’re going with football. It just happens.”

McGeeney left the team in a positive place, but the type of slobbering that was on display at that infamous meeting seems to have continued since then

A county with no vision and no plan – that’s exactly the sense I have of this county with vast potential.

They have a big population with close to a quarter of a million people, and when they’re going well they command a massive following. Their facilities are excellent. They have plenty of clubs, plenty of players, plenty of employment and a university in the local community. Keeping a group together should never be a problem.

They produce a lot of tall, athletic and rangy players, but very few of them are what we might call natural ballers – a Johnny Doyle-type player or a talent like Dermot Earley.

Instead many of Kildare’s players tend to be a little formulaic: not always two-footed or two-handed, but powerful runners who are strong in the air and the tackle. They’re noted for consistent inconsistencies. They’re well capable of failing to turn up, losing to teams they have no business losing to and shooting terrible wides under little pressure. They shot seven balls into Evan Comerford’s hands last Sunday. Is that a modern-day record?

New culture

But it would be unfair to place all the ills of Kildare football at the feet of the players. They’re not the ones who decided to get rid of a young energetic manager in McGeeney, who had created a new culture around the place. I’ll never be able to fully figure out how a botched county board meeting got out of hand and somehow led to his removal when players, supporters and perhaps many officials were keen to hold on to him.

McGeeney left the team in a positive place, but the type of slobbering that was on display at that infamous meeting seems to have continued since then. All their efforts towards creating a winning culture by attracting the best players, an impressive backroom team, top-class fitness levels and an authentic feel to their set-up was let slip away without any real fight or desire to call halt.

Following the meeting that saw McGeeney removed, I was linked to the job. And I had a genuine interest in it too as, post-2013, there was a very solid foundation from which to build on.

I received a call from one of the county board’s officials one morning in mid-autumn, and I was informed of a meeting that was happening that evening where it was hoped a candidate would be chosen to take over the senior football panel. I was told that my name had been included on a list that had been drawn up a few weeks earlier, and this call – the first call I received from the board – was to check if I had any interest in the position.

A full Covid-free league season and a rejigged championship format should benefit the county enormously

But there was a caveat. I was told that they had already settled on a candidate and that they were simply carrying out a box-ticking exercise. It was a case of needing to ring everybody on the list so delegates could be told all candidates were contacted.

Fair enough, I thought. Thanks for ruling me out.

That administrative incompetence sums up the recent history of Kildare football. And so it’s hard to be convinced that they are authentic about winning big championship games, about winning Leinster titles or even about competing strongly in the All-Ireland series.

They must know that they should be doing much better for a county of their potential. They should be regularly achieving at schools, underage and intercounty levels.

Slivers of hope

Nevertheless, there are some slivers of hope. Under Jack O’Connor they have made decent progress this season after a poor opening campaign under his watch in 2020. And their recent underage success, most notably their All-Ireland under-20 triumph in 2018, bodes well for the future – if it is built upon.

A full Covid-free league season and a rejigged championship format should benefit the county enormously. They have a successful and experienced manager, and they will need to hold on to him over the next three years if they are to develop the potential they have at their disposal.

But above all else, we need to see how badly Kildare, as a county, want real success. How badly do they want an All-Ireland? How badly do they want to relive some of their best days in recent years?

Think back to the evening in 2010 when they lost to Down in an All-Ireland semi final. Think of their magnificent quarter final against Donegal a year later. Think of the “Newbridge or nowhere” campaign spearheaded by Cian O’Neill and that momentous win over Mayo.

During all of those events I began to understand how much football really meant to the county. It was their “grand obsession”. But we don’t see enough of it.

One of these days Kildare will need to dig into the book of Leinster Rugby.

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