The first thing that struck me about Saturday night’s win in Cork was: how the hell did we manage that?
The first half passed by in a red blur and even when we started to get our hands on the ball for more than a few seconds in the early stages of the second half, it wasn’t long before we were handing it back to Cork again. Possession isn’t measured in a GAA game but you didn’t need a calculator to know that we managed to win in Pairc ui Rinn with a minority stake in the department.
It’s hard to imagine previous versions of this Kildare team achieving the same feat, certainly not against the same quality of opponent. Kieran McGeeney’s side haven’t always made the most of their chances, they just tended to make the most chances.
That was never likely to happen away to a Cork side that played Gaelic football like reprogrammed soccer players. Their default setting is to hold onto the ball at all costs, which is no doubt part of the reason why their own supporters struggle to warm to them. Playing against that style of football must be incredibly frustrating too and you could see the evidence of that in the way that Kildare played in the first half. Whenever they managed to get the ball they were so eager to make the most of it that more often than not they gave it straight back to Cork.
Mikey Conway had a nightmare first half and you suspected his unusually ill-judged and poorly executed passes were borne out of frustration. We all know how good he is with his left foot but he should have known that a soggy Saturday night in Cork was not the time to try 80-yard passes across the width of the field. Even his hand-passing let him down although he wasn’t the only one guilty of sloppy distribution.
Even John Doyle wasn’t immune to that virus and a couple of times he left you scratching your head in the first half. One hand-pass was to no one while his decision to attempt a point from a free on the left sideline was questionable. Again, like Conway, we know he can point them from there but given the underfoot conditions was it the wisest shot to attempt? Even to kick the ball dead from that position would have taken a very good strike. His free in effect became a pass back to Cork and when you pay such a high price for turnovers at this level, attempts like that are unforgivable.
If Kildare had a gameplan in the first half, it was hard to know what it was. Cork left Eoin Cadogan sitting in front of the full-back line and whenever we attacked we made it easy for him to mop up by kicking low ball into the corners. It was a night for ball carriers like Emmet Bolton, Daniel Flynn and Padraig O’Neill to punch holes in the centre of the Cork defence but we didn’t do it often enough. Flynn spent too much time going down the right wing while Bolton wasn’t in the play often enough.
After a shaky start our defence did well. Mick Foley, Peter Kelly and Ollie Lyons all made vital interceptions and brought the ball forward with confidence while Shane Connolly made a couple of invaluable plays and saved our bacon when Colm O’Neill played that delightful ball through for what would have been a second Cork goal if Connolly hadn’t been alert.
Cork’s Arsenal-like approach, where it seems like they’re trying to get perfect scores, was ultimately counter-productive because they should have been further ahead at half-time. As they showed during that passage of play when they scored their goal, their attack can be devastating when it wants to be.
If Kildare are going to translate this type of win in the league into a championship victory we will not do so with Mikey Conway being asked to double-up as a central defender when the opposition are on the attack. He needs more support when a team is coming through the centre because we cannot let a team get a run on us like Cork did in that spell on Saturday night. We saw the effect of that in championship last August at Croke Park.
It’s hard to say if we would have won against 15 men in the second half but we were in contention and making life difficult for Cork up until Damien Cahalane’s red card. His kick on Niall Kelly was maybe a reflection of how Cork were feeling at the time: the little man from Athy was making them nervous.
Why he didn’t start is a mystery. He was ideally suited to run the Kildare attack from centre-forward if only for his ability to take on defenders and draw fouls. You would also have thought that a rainy night in Leeside was made for Tomas O’Connor. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for O’Connor to have been scrapping for the balls that Seanie Johnston was fighting for in the first half?
Maybe the management were hoping to contain Cork first before unleashing their big weapons. Given they’ve won two out of two, they’re entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
Those half-time switches were as crucial to the outcome as Cahalane’s dismissal. O’Connor played a vital part in both goals while Kelly netted the first, which put us ahead. Cork are like Donegal in that regard, you have to get ahead of them to have a chance and given the laboured way that Conor Counihan’s side normally play, they struggle when the onus is on them to up the ante. Even Colm O’Neill, their best forward on the night, missed a handy free from in front of the posts when the Rebels went behind.
Granted we weren’t playing Cork at their best but this was an important win for Kildare. Like against Donegal, we got over a poor start and to head into the break with four points will do wonders for the mood in the camp. This time last year we had lost our first two games and were contemplating the possibility of relegation from Division Two before we headed to Navan to take on Meath.
The Royals have lost to Monaghan and beaten Wicklow so far in Division Three. The league might not count for much come championship but I know I’d much rather be welcoming Kerry to Newbridge at this time of the year.