THIS is no ordinary football team and you don’t have to look at the starting 15 to know why.
The management contains one current senior inter-county manager and one former while the backroom team brings together the strategic nous of a former county board chairman and a bold accountant who became a political animal.
Of the team that started against Laois in the Leinster under-21 semi-final, 10 of them had already played with the seniors. They looked like heavyweights during their 3-22 to 0-7 demolition of the O’Moore men and certainly no one would take their sideline personnel lightly. What county has ever had a former Finance Minster listed as a selector? Is there a sports team in the Union with a former European Commissioner in its ranks?
“He keeps the rest of us straight,” says Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney when asked about Charlie McCreevy’s role with the under-21 side. It may well be the first and last time anyone says that about a politician.
“He tells us a few stories about things in the past but we all have to swear to secrecy,” McGeeney joked about life with McCreevy in the fold. It’s not the first time the former TD has been involved having struck up a close relationship with previous manager Alan Barry. It’s been a shrewd move by the canny Fianna Fáil man, as his economic past is rarely mentioned among the squad.
“We deal with students, none of them want jobs,” says McGeeney.
But he also deals with serious footballers and that is why he is preparing for a Leinster under-21 final tomorrow night against Longford. Blessed by a squad rich with talent and experience, and a clean bill of health, McGeeney recognises his fortune to have taken the helm at the right time. His predecessor failed to get over the first game three times but the margins were tight, as they always are in a competition that only offers you one chance.
“You’d feel for the likes of Alan (Barry) over the last couple of years – when you take (Paul) Cribbin out of that (current) team and then Fionn (Dowling) was missing and Tommy (Moolick) was missing and it was always just getting beaten by a point. The first game’s always a struggle because you don’t have them together for competitive games – it’s not like the minors where you have a league-based system.”
After a mixed first half in their opening game against Meath, it took the introduction of Sean Hurley and a scoring blitz in the final quarter for Kildare to get up and running in Leinster. That win was like a weight lifting for they played with total freedom in a 24-point destruction of Laois in the semi-final.
“People get mixed up between what skills are and what talents are,” says McGeeney, beating a familiar drum. “I think they’re talented because they work hard and that to me is why they’re good. Kildare have never had a problem, in my five or six years, with skilful footballers but the talent to drive on and want, the desire – this lot (under-21) seems to have it.”
McGeeney has been so impressed with the under-21s that he has handed seven of them their senior debuts since the start of the year and three in particular – Niall Kelly, Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy – have played a pivotal part in Kildare reaching the National League Division 1 semi-final. Yet for all that, their opponents on Wednesday night are the ones with championship medals in their pockets.
“If anybody has a pedigree in terms of desire and want it’s them,” says McGeeney of Longford. “They were in the under-21 final two years ago. They won the minor three years ago and there are 12 of those starting from it. They’re a good team, they’ve great structure. The way they play, they get men behind the ball and they break at pace. They’ve got very talented full-forward line, a good half-back line and a big midfield.”
That 2010 victory came at Kildare’s expense when the midlanders beat the Lilies in a Leinster semi-final that blind-sided a highly-fancied team from the Short Grass. It means that Kildare’s last piece of football championship silverware dates back to 2008. The lack of success is perhaps no surprise given the county’s history but it has still been a constant carp against McGeeney.
“People will always use that as a stick to beat me with. I can’t do much about that. You prepare a team as best you can. In terms of change and personnel with this squad, I think we’ve brought it forward, we’ve been competitive every year in the championship – they weren’t before that. Although people in Kildare like to forget things outside of Mick O’Dwyer’s four or five year spell, Kildare haven’t been competitive in the championship. It’s for 60 years. Sometimes people need to take a reality check.
“It’s about creating a culture within Kildare. Whether I’m able to reap the rewards of that as a manager or some other manager does, I don’t really have much of a problem with that. I have the naysayers taking the swipes at me anyway. I would feel in terms of improvement, this team has gone a long way in five years.”
Buoyed the presence of so many under-21s, McGeeney’s senior team has begun to soar after a harrowing end to 2012 against Cork but the Armagh has given youth its fling in the past.
“I remember my first year I had Keith Cribbin in at 18. If they’re good enough, I’ll take them in. It just depends on whether they’re good enough.”
In 2011, McGeeney drafted Sean Hurley into the senior panel but the Johnstownbridge teenager was abruptly dropped when he attended the Oxegen music festival after a qualifier win against Laois. The towering midfielder didn’t make the starting 15 for the opening game of this year’s campaign but his impressive display as a substitute against Meath followed by a tour de force against Laois earned him a recall to the senior panel for their last league game against Tyrone.
“He’s a good fella Sean but it’s different when you get to senior level,” says McGeeney reflecting on Hurley’s rise and fall two years ago. “That’s all about the culture. Some people think that’s hard but it’s that old thing of, we train our senior footballers too seriously but if someone sees them out the night before a championship game, we’re giving out about them. You’re trying to create a culture within Kildare that, you hate to use the word professionalism but definitely you’re professional in your approach, you’re here to win things. It’s the most competitive edge of sport in the country, probably, outside of professional rugby. You need to be at a certain level to compete and sometimes when you’re young and you’re full of running you feel like you don’t have to be as disciplined as everybody else but that comes into it eventually.”
No doubt the return of Paul Cribbin from Aussie Rules has been a boost to Hurley, who seems to have a telepathic relationship with his Johnstownbridge clubmate. The pair were easily Kildare’s best players against Laois and it was no surprise that they both made an appearance against Tyrone five days later in the league.
“We haven’t seen as much of him as we’d have liked because he was injured when he came back (groin). He works hard, he works very, very hard,” says the manager of Cribbin, who scored four points against Laois and another three from play for the seniors against Tyrone.
That duo alone could tip the balance for Kildare, which is what makes Wednesday night’s final so exciting for Kildare fans.
“You don’t get to too many All-Irelands or Leinster play-offs, whether it’s National League or whether it’s under-21 championship, you don’t get too many chances at them. You have to take them when they come.”
Those words from Kieran McGeeney will probably be heard again, around about 7.29pm tomorrow night.
LEINSTER U21 FC FINAL
Kildare v Longford, 7.30pm, Portlaoise
Tickets – Adults €10, Students/OAPs €5, U16s Free