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High time Kildare stepped up and challenged Dublin dominance in Leinster

We should be holding Kildare to a better standard, and see them challenge Dublin’s iron fist over Leinster.

Kildare clash with all-conquering Dublin at Croke Park on Saturday night with the affair likely to give us a taste of what is to come in this year’s Leinster championship, if anything.

Cian O’Neill’s side were on the end of stinging criticism from pundit Eugene McGee this week who claimed that the Lilywhites “have been failing for 80 years, apart from the Mick O’Dwyer era.

However much Kildare fans might not like to hear it, the Shortgrass men have not produced anything to the contrary in recent years as Dublin’s dominance in Leinster goes on unabated.

One has to go back to the 2011 Leinster final to recall when Kildare were in the same realm as their Metropolitan counterparts when a disputed injury-time free awarded by Cormac Reilly allowed the Dubs to prevail on a 1-12 to 1-11 scoreline.

Since that game Kildare have shipped several beatings at the hands of Dublin in league and championship to the tune of a 13-point average over five meetings.

Last year’s Leinster final defeat by nine points meant Kildare became the first team in the province to stay within ten points of Dublin since Meath in the 2013 provincial decider, albeit with a late late goal improving the complexion of the scoreboard.

While many of the remaining Leinster counties may have just cause to acknowledge a massive gap between themselves and the Dubs, Kildare should have cause for more optimism in 2018 that they can close the gap further.

Underage and club success
While the likes of Meath, Laois and Westmeath have continued to fall away in terms of underage success in recent years, Kildare have experienced something of a revival.

The Lilywhites secured Leinster titles in 2013, 2015 and 2016 defeating Dublin on two occasions in the process. Dublin prevented their neighbours from completing a three-in-a-row with a victory in last year’s competition.

Both sides too have been fighting it out at under 21 level, albeit with the Dubs maintaining superiority, however, there was no evidence of the gap we see at senior level.

Minor success and three finals over the past five years at under 21 level have seen the likes of Paddy Brophy, Daniel Flynn, Neil Flynn and Ben McCormack make the step up to senior level, a source of optimism for coach Cian O’Neill as he spoke at the launch of the Allianz football league.

I think the key with any county is when you have success at an age grade you need to be looking at in terms of the purpose of that is to prepare them to be elite footballers or elite hurlers, whatever the case may be.

That may mean just one or two coming through per year as opposed to the expectation that we need seven or eight coming through each year. So a lot is being done right in Kildare in terms of trying to develop the underage structure.

In addition to recent underage success, Kildare club Moorefield made a significant breakthrough in 2017 capturing a first Leinster club title for the county since 2006.

While Cian O’Neill may have to play the opening stages of the league without the Moorefield contingent who face an All-Ireland semi-final against Galway’s Corofin, he acknowledged the positive effect the success has had on the county.

“A rising tide does lifts all boats”, remarked the Kildare boss who hopes that his home club will lift the profile of club football in the county and reinforce their efforts at inter-county level.

Returning internationals
The Kildare squad has been bolstered with the return of Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy from spells with AFL clubs in Australia as well as that of midfielder Kevin Feely who joined up with the inter-county set up after finishing a professional soccer contract with Newport County.

The latter almost immediately found his feet upon his return, taking full advantage of the inception of the “mark” with a series of impressive performances seeing him nominated for an All-Star last year alongside Flynn.

The Irish Times graphical breakdown of traveling players.

While Brophy impressed in patches over the course of the season, with a full year’s football under his belt, he is likely to offer more to the Lilywhite cause in 2018.

Logistical advantage
While much has been made of the home comforts that Dublin benefit from, having a squad largely based around the capital, research published by the Irish Times last week indicates that Kildare too are in a privileged position compared to the majority of other counties.

Along with the Dubs, Kildare are the only other team in the country that have all their players based in their home county. With the scale, frequency and intensity of commitment required now at inter-county level, managers are pulling their hair out as they attempt to solve these logistical problems.

The same managers often talk about “marginal gains” and the fact that Kildare do not have to burden the inconvenience nor the cost of shipping players home for training must be factored into more ambitious results on the field.

Kildare boasts a population of 220,000, and while there is a major competition from several other sports it is a solid platform for the Lilywhites to assemble a squad to at least be competitive in Leinster.

Mayo – an unlikely benchmark?
Dublin have justifiable received plaudits from all sectors of the sporting world for a remarkable three-in-a-row haul of All-Ireland titles.

Equally, Mayo have been both lambasted and applauded for their efforts against the Dubs that has seen just a single point separate the sides in the previous two deciders.

Mayo have not done enough to get over the final hurdle but consistently test the resolve of Jim Gavin’s side.

Kildare have unquestionably suffered psychologically from a series of heavy defeats at the hands of Dublin, which has resulted in regular implosion at the sight of a blue jersey. Despite this, when they take on a side like Mayo who must be considered to have the blueprint to beat Dublin, there is no such evidence of a 13-point average gap between the sides.

In fact, the Lilywhites recorded league wins over the westerners in both 2013 and 2014 before falling to them in the 2016 championship qualifiers on a 2-17 to 0-14 scoreline in what was a competitive game.

Mayo’s ability to match Dublin’s athleticism throughout the field has enabled them to come within a hair’s breadth of toppling the current champions. Kildare showed a similar level athleticism in long passages of last year’s Leinster final even if they lacked the wherewithal to mount a serious challenge.
While the one point margin means we don’t speak of Mayo in terms of “untouchables” as we may do about Dublin, Stephen Rochford’s side are a realistic benchmark for aspiring counties.

Saturday night’s game undoubtedly represents a mammoth task for Kildare but if they are serious about challenging Dublin’s dominance they will have to hit the ground running in Division 1 as they embark on a first appearance since 2014.

“If you look at the successful teams in the last number of years winning provinces and most certainly All Irelands they are all Division 1 teams for the most part. The correlation is quite strong and striking,” said manager O’Neill.

Looking at the bigger picture, league form may not count for much down the line, its high time that Kildare took stock of the positives and dispelled Eugene McGee’s assertion that “their image is that when the chips are down, they rarely win the big ones.”

Speaking ahead of the league opener against the Dubs, O’Neill says “they won’t be backing down from seeing Kildare coming up the M7 and I’d like to think we won’t be backing down just because we are playing the All Ireland champions.”

Senior columnist for GAA Wrap.

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