Kildare's wild geese return for a gander at a Leinster title
Paul Cribbin, Kevin Feely, Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy all tried their hand at pro sport
Paul Cribbin during a Collingwood AFL training session in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012: he was approached by AFL scouts at the end of the Hogan Cup final in 2009. Photograph: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images
They would have been a lot to go without. Kevin Feely, Paddy Brophy, Daniel Flynn and Paul Cribbin. It wouldn’t have taken much, either. If the wind had blown more kindly for them, if they’d caught the right eye at the right time, if misfortune had visited a player or two stationed a rung or two further up the ladder, Kildare might never have seen them again.
They’d be names on the outer reaches of the sports channels or in tucked a poky corner of the internet. A generation lost in space.
But here they are. Feely, Brophy and Flynn line out for Sunday’s Leinster final, with Cribbin only missing out with a foot injury. All in their early- to mid-20s, all core elements in a Kildare side that anyone can see is on the rise. And all back home having had a go at making it in professional sport.
Three of them went to Australia, Feely went to England. Different journeys, the same journey. They were good, they weren’t good enough. They were lucky, they weren’t lucky enough. They had a go and it didn’t work out. But they had a go. That’s the thing.
A bit of homesickness got in on them all somewhere along the way, but not so bad that it would have stopped them if the sporting side of things was working out better
Cian O’Neill thinks on it for a second before parsing what it all means for them now. As Kildare manager, he knows his luck in this area. The two who went before him got a flash of the other side of this coin. Kieran McGeeney lost Cribbin to Aussie Rules and Feely to soccer before either of them had turned 20. Jason Ryan had Brophy and Flynn for a while and then he didn’t. There was never any guarantee any of them would return, so O’Neill doesn’t need telling he’s in clover.
“We’ve been very fortunate with the four guys we have on the squad in that every one of them came home wanting to play football for Kildare,” O’Neill says. “And that was irrespective of the experience they had over there. They would all tell you that they had positive many experiences – sometimes it just doesn’t work out for whatever reason. But they all came back with a real positivity, and with real intent when it came to playing football for Kildare.
“It’s very different for each player. It’s a very individual thing. They have obviously been influenced by the experience they had in Australia – or in Kevin’s case in the UK. But also, their level of maturity and acceptance of how the experience went would have an effect on them.”
Each of them has a story that is unique on to them. Same-same, but different. A bit of homesickness got in on them all somewhere along the way, but not so bad that it would have stopped them if the sporting side of things was working out better. Kildare was part of the reason they came back but none of them went out to come back.
Cribbin was the first to go. He was literally in short trousers when the Aussie Rules childcatchers came with nets swooping. Walking off the pitch at the end of the Hogan Cup final in 2009, he was approached by AFL scouts before he’d even made it back to the dressing room. He’d starred in defeat for St Mary’s Edenderry against Coláiste na Sceilge – by the following year, Collingwood had taken him in the fifth round of the AFL rookie draft.
In between, he was a mainstay of the Kildare minors’ run to the 2010 Leinster semi-final. They took three games to get over the Dublin of Ciarán Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey but even though they fell to Longford in the semi-final, it was obvious that they had potential Kildare seniors in their midst. Feely was in midfield alongside Seán Hurley, another future AFL convert. Tommy Moolick was at centre-back, Niall Kelly at wing-forward, Mark Donnellan in goals. The full-forward line had Cribbin, Fionn Dowling and Padraig Fogarty in it.
Flynn and Brophy were too young for that team but by the time the under-21 grade came around for that team in 2013, they were both in harness. Kildare won Leinster that year and should have beaten Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. Whatever Kildare achieve under O’Neill, that 2010 minor team was the first step along the Lily Brick Road.
“Some of them would have made an immediate transition into senior within the next couple of years after that, some others took a bit longer,” says O’Neill, who was part of Brian Murphy’s back-room team in 2010. They were kind of the dream, an age group to come through like that.
“There were guys who were just a year younger, like David Hyland who is a real leader on the team now, like Daniel Flynn. Those guys weren’t ready at minor level, they weren’t selected. But by God they were ready at under-21 level.
“Very often you see that at club level, when a club really invests at under-eight or under-10 and you’re hoping that come minor or under-21s, those guys are still together. We just had that particular crop at that age and that was the basis of the Leinster under-21 team of 2013. You could tell, no question, that a good chunk of these guys were going to go on and play senior inter-county.”
They did, in time. But if a good harvest from a minor or under-21 team is usually reckoned to be in or around a half-dozen, imagine what it looked like Kildare had lost along the way. Feely, Cribbin, Brophy and Flynn – a midfielder and three forwards, athletes all. Hurley was another huge loss and, if time and medicine heals, is potential another huge recoup next season.
Hurley, by the by, is back recuperating with his club Johnstownbridge, which is also the club of Cribbin and Flynn – and Flynn’s younger brother Luke. That’s one village club, with four players who all tried their hand in the AFL. No wonder they look askance when they see newspaper columns crying about one Kerry player being lost Down Under every couple of years.
Feely went another route. Though the distance from home wasn’t as brutal, the gamble was far bigger. The global playing pool for the AFL is nothing like as deep as it is for pro soccer and after two seasons here with Bohemians, Feely had the choice of either Peterborough or Charlton to join in 2012. He chose Charlton but his face didn’t fit. A few loan spells came and went, a longer stretch at Newport County was happier but ultimately fruitless. He came home in 2015, glad he tried it but glad to leave it be as well.
“A lot of it is luck,” he told the Sportsjoe Football podcast earlier this year. “The Charlton under-21 manager was the reason I was signed and then he left after my first year so I didn’t have any coaches on my side. I had a choice between Charlton and Peterborough and maybe should have chosen Peterborough because I would have been straight into the first team rather than getting stuck at under-21. That’s what happened, I got stuck.
“I sat down for a meeting with Chris Powell, the first-team manager to see where I was at. And I asked him was I in his plans. And he just said, ‘No, you’re not in my immediate plans. If you can get out on loan, you should go for it.’ So that was a bit of a setback but at least I knew where I stood. But that was all happening was when the Kildare under-21s were going well at home.
“Probably the main reason I came back from England was for football. At the time I put it down to wanting to finish my college degree and stuff like that but the truth of it really was I was missing out on playing with Kildare. I missed the under-21 Leinster championship, missed out on a club championship with Athy so that was a real pulling factor in coming back from England.
“While it was happening, I was following it so closely and at the time, things weren’t probably going so great with Charlton. I do remember that time being tough, seeing how well the boys were doing and even seeing how close they came to beating Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and realising I could have maybe made a difference there.”
Flynn and Brophy both played in that under-21 team. Within a year, they were on the other side of the world. O’Neill remembers being at a Moorefield game around that time and being approached by a young lad who was heading to Australia in six months to try and make it in the AFL. He was looking for advice. He was Daniel Flynn.
“What really struck me that day was, I didn’t know the chap and he didn’t know me and yet he came over and asked to have a chat and he was really inquisitive. I was really surprised by this because I knew he was a physical specimen just by standing alongside him. But I’d never seen him actually play because I was down the country for a number of years.
“So he was asking what should he do from a training perspective to get himself prepared for going out to Australia and asking me for recommendations. I was incredibly impressed by that because for a young guy to ask those questions, especially when he didn’t know me personally. He just came up to me and introduced himself and we started chatting.
“So I knew from then that this guy not only knows what he wants but isn’t afraid to ask questions about it. A guy who was into performance improvement from an early age, who was into preparation. And that continues to be the case. Daniel is always a voice in team meetings, he’ll always throw up a question that makes you think, a question that will make the team meeting better. He’s had that since I first met him four or five years ago.”
Flynn’s time over there was brief and stop-start. He came home after five months when his grandfather died and though he went back later in 2014, he was back in Ireland by the middle of 2015. Between one thing and another, this is the first year Kildare have had him fit and firing from the start of the season.
Of them all, Brophy is the most recent returnee. He’d been considering coming home for a while and when O’Neill met him in the off-season last year, the Kildare manager got a sense that he might have him back before too long. But the best he hoped for was the end of 2017. To get him back in time for summer has been a huge bonus.
“That was an unbelievably positive thing to happen for us. He contacted me to say he’d be home and that was fantastic news to get in the middle of the season. As he said himself, he’d been thinking about it for some time but it was only when the decision had been made that he let me know. I found out when everyone else found out.
These guys are not just athletes, they’re not the typical cliché of a GAA jock
“His transition has probably been faster than anybody. The key thing there was that because it was mid-season, my concern was on a human level rather than a football level. You don’t want to burn a guy out and then find out he’s not going to be around for the next couple of seasons. So we made sure he took a couple of weeks’ break before he came in with us. Mind you, he was back playing with his club with 24 hours of landing back in the country. Which was phenomenal.”
Same-same, but different. All four of them returned to their studies as well as their football. Feely is about to graduate with an honours degree in athletic training. Cribbin and Flynn are in Maynooth, Cribbin doing a masters in education, Flynn in the third year of a finance and accounting degree.
“I just think it shows that these guys are not just athletes, they’re not the typical cliché of a GAA jock,” says O’Neill. “Every one of them, they’re well-rounded individuals who can see the big picture which is life alongside football, life with football. Individually, every one of them are rounded and grounded and humble young men. That’s always the starting point.”
Where they go from here is up to them. They have a lot of life lived already but plenty more to go all the same. Kildare, it seems, will see the best of them.
Going the long way round isn’t always the wrong way.