You can tell that Glenn Ryan is ever-so slightly tiring of the post-match routine at this stage. Kildare have broadly done okay so far in Division One, certainly better than their last visit in 2018 when they lost all seven games. But unless and until they're safe in Division One, it's all half-a-loaf to Ryan. Better than no bread, yes. But not what he came for.
So he bristles, in his way, when it is put to him that Kildare are plainly getting there, that they’re holding their own at a level most of the players have never performed at before. He knows there’s truth in it but he’s restless at the thought that anyone might consider it enough. So he sighs and he pauses and in that accent that’s as flat as the Curragh, he dispenses with all fripperies.
“We didn’t get the win,” he said after the draw with Kerry, in which his side scored the closing four points in front of a rocking Newbridge crowd. “And if we’re happy with just the fact we didn’t get wins and we’re competitive, then we’re not going to go too far. We’ll find ourselves back in the same place again.” By which he meant Division Two.
It has been a theme of his throughout the league. After coming up a point short against Tyrone in a game where they could easily have beaten the All-Ireland champions: “We know it’s not good enough to be able to say that we are competitive because we need to be winning.”
After losing to Armagh last weekend: “[the players] should not be getting pats on the back for attitude.”
There is, of course, no other way to be. The manager of a Division One team is at nothing if he isn’t restless and cranky and difficult to please. Kildare have beaten Dublin, drawn with Kerry and go into the last two rounds of games with their relegation fate in their own hands. Ryan would surely have taken that in January, much and all as he wouldn’t like to let on.
What isn’t in doubt is the fact that the Kildare public have latched onto their team again. St Conleth’s Park has been stuffed for both home games so far, despite the rotten weather and the fact that TG4 were carrying live coverage. Undoubtedly, part of it is the buzz created by Ryan gathering up old soldiers Dirty Dozen-style for his backroom team. But part of it too is the fact that Kildare are playing like they belong.
“It’s lovely to see a massive buzz about the team,” says Andriú Mac Lochlainn, the doughty corner-back from the McGeeney era. “People are talking about them again and looking forward to games. That’s down to the players and management and the way they approach games and their attitude. There has been a huge shift there.
“We were in the Leinster final last year and you would not have known it in the days running up to the game. There was more buzz for O’Byrne Cup games this year than there was for the Leinster final last year. That comes from the top – the management, the players and the county board. There’s an inclusiveness with the team now, there’s a bond there and the people can feel they are part of it again.
“They’re out in the community, they’re trying to raise funds, they had an open day – which hadn’t been done since Kieran’s time. That makes players more approachable, it gets everyone invested in them.”
All of which raises the stakes for tomorrow’s encounter with Monaghan in Newbridge. A win Victory would simplify things no end for Kildare – it would mean a draw would suffice in their final game against Mayo and even losing it might not be fatal. But to get to that point they have to treat Kildare supporters to a sight they haven’t seen in almost a decade and a half.
Incredibly, you have to go back to March 2008 for the last time Kildare beat an Ulster team in a Division One game in Newbridge. They overcame Donegal that day in one of Kieran McGeeney's early games in charge, so long ago that the Kildare team contained three of their current coaching staff – Johnny Doyle, Anthony Rainbow and Dermot Earley. Their only Division One win over an Ulster team since then was in 2013, when they beat Donegal in a league-opening double bill in Croke Park.
In general, Kildare’s league record against Ulster teams has been abysmal over the past decade. Since beating Donegal in 2013, they’ve lost 11 straight Division One games against sides from the north. Overall, their league record against Ulster opposition in all divisions since 2013 reads: played 23, won six, lost 16, drawn one. And of course, they’ve already lost to Tyrone, Donegal and Armagh this time around.
Looked at from that angle, Mac Lochlainn’s talk of there being a buzz around the team might seem a little strange. But already this has been a league for changing the way Kildare see themselves. Of the side that faced Dublin at the end of February, only Mick O’Grady and Paul Cribbin had ever been on a team that won a game in Division One. Beating Dublin for the first time in 22 years that day laid more than one ghost to rest.
“As a supporter now, you’ve got something to shout for,” Mac Lochlainn says. “You can see the level of effort they’re putting in. More importantly, you can see they’re trying to win games. They’re not going out trying not to lose. That’s a big difference.
“Before, if we had been playing the likes of Kerry in the first game in the league, we would have looked like a team that was going out with the attitude of, ‘Lads, let’s not get beat here.’ I could be being very unfair on them in saying that but that’s what it looked like.
“You go back to the Leinster final last year and every Kildare person coming out of Croke Park that day was saying the same thing – it looked like we were trying not to lose by too much. We didn’t change our style of play when we were losing, we stayed trying to contain Dublin even though they were winning easily. We played as if we were ahead.
“And the idea that was put out by Jack O’Connor after it was that Kildare have had a good season because we got promoted and we got to the Leinster final. But the reality was that the Leinster final was a hammering. We got a late goal, otherwise it would have been 11 points. That’s not a good way to end any year.”
From the off this time around, Kildare have played on the front foot a lot more than last year. In the closing 15 minutes against Kerry, they poured forward and decimated Shane Murphy's kick-out. Ryan Houlihan has been a revelation bombing on from defence. The introduction of Paddy Woodgate at corner-forward has given Daniel Flynn another foil to go alongside Jimmy Hyland. Their shooting has lacked precision and poise at times but they can't be faulted for intent.
Flynn is still the focal point of the attack and has noticeably developed his game to bring others into it a lot more. There has been less heroball than before, fewer attempts to attach a signature Daniel Flynn score to every game. It hasn’t been perfect – he should have won the Tyrone game but blazed an injury-time goal chance over the bar from close range – but his movement and his distribution have been a step up.
Maybe it’s a bit glib to infer Johnny Doyle’s influence on him in such a short period of time but whatever coaching Flynn is getting is having an effect.
“I always loved marking a fella who loved shooting,” Mac Lochlainn says. “It was only the best forward on every team who was allowed to shoot every time but that never bothered me because it actually simplified everything for me. If I knew he wasn’t going to pass, that took away 50 per cent of what I had to worry about.
“The more Daniel brings the rest of the forwards into play, the harder he becomes to mark. If he passes off the first three balls he gets, then he’s going to get a bit more space to shoot when he does go for the posts. You can see that progression in him this year, no doubt about it.”
Here they are then. Two games to go, four points on offer, their relegation - or avoidance thereof– a matter for them alone to take care of. Kildare have done well enough to be in a position where they don’t need anyone to do them any favours, they just need to handle their own affairs. If they’re good enough, they’ll stay up. If not, it won’t be all bad. Annoying, yes. Disaster? No way.
“At this moment in time, I think there is actual merit to moral victories,” says Mac Lochlainn. “I genuinely do. A couple of years down the line, it won’t be. But just at the minute, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of expecting too much from them. If they stay in Division One, it will be a fantastic achievement. If they go down narrowly and then have a good championship - including a Leinster final where they have a proper go – then I think that’s progress.”
An entirely level-headed assessment from someone who has been in the arena and knows what it takes. Just don’t mention it to Glenn Ryan.