Struggling Kildare back in another valley period

Twelve years ago they faced Laois in a Leinster final but since then both counties’ fortunes have waned

Twelve years ago Laois and Kildare contested the Leinster football final. On Saturday they're in the provincial quarter-final, possibly wondering whether a bridge of a dozen years is enough of a span to lead to the transformed landscape they now occupy.

They spent spring in Division Two of the league, largely without distinction. Laois survived relegation but Kildare didn’t.

Which ever team wins this weekend have the dubious prize of a semi-final with Dublin whose annihilation of Longford a week ago prompted calls for the championship to be restructured.

In the 2003 semi-finals though, Laois had beaten Dublin and Kildare had defeated Meath. The early years of the decade had been a flowering of democracy with five different Leinster champions in successive years. Prague Spring before the tanks rolled.


Border rivalry

Laois and Kildare had featured in only four previous Leinster finals, all but one being won by Laois. As a border rivalry there was a lively atmosphere, added to by Mick O’Dwyer’s first season in charge of Laois – a position he had assumed straight after ending a 10-year association with Kildare.

Pádraig Nolan was Kildare manager that day. He was rebuilding after the success of the O'Dwyer years – a couple of Leinsters and a first All-Ireland final in 63 years – but was aware that his team were up against it, particularly in the absence of two of the most experienced players, Dermot Earley and Anthony Rainbow.

“Mick O’Dwyer had left Kildare and taken over in Laois and they had the Micko bounce. Even though we’d beaten Meath in the semi-finals they had beaten Dublin and were the form team,” recalls Nolan

The fates weren't kind to Kildare. Within four minutes Alan Barry had been sent off for two yellow cards acquired within the space of 10 seconds. Two more players would follow him – Kildare's Mick Wright and Kevin Fitzpatrick from Laois – and in general Laois controlled the match.

Even when Kildare almost miraculously levelled the match with minutes to go, Laois reeled off the three points of the winning margin to secure the county’s first senior provincial title in 57 years.

“It was disappointing to lose but it was an exciting game,” says Nolan. “The new Croke Park had only been opened the year before and we finished with 13 players on a very big pitch, requiring huge levels of fitness.”

He also felt optimistic about the future.

“I was very positive at that time. The team of ’98 was breaking up and new players were coming through so we had a rebuilding project with some experienced players and some new players.

Senior football

“At the time I was also under-21 manager and a lot of young lads were coming through. The team that won Leinster in 2004, almost all played senior football. (Kieran) McGeeney got the benefit of it rather than (John) Crofton (Nolan’s immediate successor) and got to a lot of All-Ireland quarter-finals and a semi-final.”

He is philosophical about the county's current travails under manager Jason Ryan, now in his second year.

“All that’s really happened Kildare at the moment is that we’re starting over again. The 2003 team are finished playing football – it’s 12 years ago! – so you’re talking about a base of the 2008 under-21 generation (Glenn Ryan’s 2008 All-Ireland finalists) coming through.and new players being introduced.

“Jason’s unfortunate with the age of the current panel, which is still young.”

Nolan thinks Laois are farther down the road at present in terms of team development but he is unswayed by all of the anxieties expressed about Dublin’s ongoing monopoly of the Leinster championship.

“I think the Dublin dominance is overstated. The Dublin phenomenon has always been there. I started following football in the 1970s when Dublin won six Leinster in a row.

“The difference is that while in the past there was always some county – mostly Meath but also Kildare and Offaly – to provide opposition, there isn’t at the moment and they’re really dominating now.

"There's been a myth that Leinster is a strong football province. In fact it's generally been Dublin and someone else and the odd time another county comes through but in general it's like Kerry and Cork in Munster and Galway and Mayo in Connacht."

He does feel however that Kildare are not punching their weight given that in the most recent census, the population of the county was shown to have risen to more than 200,00, making it the fourth most populous county after Dublin, Cork and Galway.

“Kildare are doing what they always do – coming through for a while and then fading. The county tends to talk itself up in terms of where we are but we’ve two Leinsters in over 50 years. That’s just one more than Laois and Westmeath. Offaly have a lot more and have won All-Irelands as well.

“We’re a big county population-wise – there’ll be 40,000 in Naas shortly – but we’re completely failing to deliver.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times