To witness the debut of a special talent is always a magical moment.
All the more so when it happens on a cold January night in a game that has little consequence. No doubt Niall Kelly will light up bigger stages throughout his career but to see a player make his first tentative steps on the inter-county stage and hardly put a foot wrong was something to cherish.
While he wasn’t quite swimming with sharks and the O’Byrne Cup is far from the deep end of inter-county football, he was still a teenager taking on a formidable opponent in the enemy’s backyard. And yet Kelly barely flinched, adapting to his new surroundings like they were as familiar to him as his own back garden. There was no trace of tension in his face and every time he got on the ball he was relaxed in the way you might be if you were kicking about with some friends. On a bad night for football, he made it look like fun. And boy was it a joy to watch.
Anyone who’s seen him play at underage level for his club and county knows how good he is at finding the target but on Saturday, surrounded by really good players, he showed just how effective he can be as a playmaker. He’s like a ready-made replacement for James Kavanagh and he scored off both feet for good measure, a trademark of the Ballymore man.
In the absence of Kavanagh this year, Kildare are already short a major creative talent so Kelly’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time. He is as comfortable operating out around the middle knitting the play together as he is in closer to goal, where his scoring exploits with Athy have been phenomenal. Against congested defences and swarm tackling, composure on the ball is one of the most vital assets. Time and time again, Kelly was at his ease in possession, holding off a man and always finding the room to get his pass away.
Donegal showed last year that if turn the ball over they will hammer you on the break. You can see why McGeeney hasn’t been afraid to throw the likes of Kelly, Jonathan Byrne, Paddy Brophy and Daniel Flynn into the mix so far. They have that fearless quality that is so invaluable.
A perfect example was the play that Jonathan Byrne made near the end of extra-time when he went down the right wing. At a stage in the game when Dublin were chasing scores and desperate for possession, Kildare were patient on the ball and moved it out to Byrne who was free on the wing.
Nowadays, with the emphasis on retaining possession, too many players are afraid to hold onto the ball for fear of getting caught with it. The hand-pass, while being the percentage play, can often be a cop-out too.
Byrne didn’t even think about off-loading the ball when he was tackled by a Dublin player. He had the confidence to hold onto possession and muscle his way past, eventually winning a free. Those passages of play tell you a lot about a player.
Equally the way that the team turned around the game tells you a lot about the team. Winning the O’Byrne Cup was a minor matter on Saturday night. For the second time in the competition, Kildare have turned defeats into victories. In the five games we’ve played so far this year, each has been won in slightly different circumstances. What’s encouraging about that is the sense that the team are able to adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in.
We can see in the players that McGeeney has used so far that flexibility is vital if you want to get on the team. Few players actually play in a specific position. Even the goalkeeper, Shane Connolly, is coming into the play more and more to act as a seventh defender. Hugh McGrillen played corner-back but came forward to score a very good point and it’s not unusual to see him or Ollie Lyons doing that.
When Daniel Flynn moved out to midfield in the second half, he tore into the game and had a major influence on Kildare’s comeback. Most telling of all, Tomas O’Connor came off the bench and scored 1-2. Last year the guy was afraid to shoot and yet he scored a goal and two points with his first three shots against Dublin. What does that tell you? Adapt or die might well be the motto of this team.
It’s funny to see, as the younger players come into the fold, how the older lads react. To me, Brian Flanagan has been the most consistent, and most improved player over the last month. I lost track of how many times he picked up breaking ball against Dublin but it’s something he’s been a dab-hand at for a long time. Like others, he’s added strings to his bow. What was a major weakness, his distribution, has improved beyond all recognition. A couple of times against Dublin he made as if he was launching a trademark long delivery but bounced the ball instead and created a bit of time for himself. His own weakness has become a source of strength.
With new players improving the team and older ones adding to it, Kildare will only get better as the season goes on.