The harsh orange glow of the scoreboard, cruel in its neon efficiency, stood starkly against the black sky. It glared down at the Kilkenny players, illuminating their dejection as they trudged, hobbled and limped their way to whatever sanctuary the dressing room could afford.
On the rain-drenched pitch Bryan Murphy debriefed his Kildare team after their mauling of another sacrificial victim offered up by Kilkenny football. As he directed their cooling down exercises, a few Ballyragget children used the glow provided by the floodlights to eke out a couple more minutes of practice before darkness fell and they would be forced to return home. The noise wasn’t of balls being kicked but the unmistakeable sound of ash and sliotars leathered against the walls and that, not Kildare, was Kilkenny football’s real opposition last Thursday night.
The game was a contest only in the ink that spelled out the heading on the match programme. Kildare were in a different galaxy from Kilkenny and from the moment Monasterevin’s Wayne Fitzpatrick buried a second minute penalty in the Kilkenny net, it was a question of how high they could push those orange numbers on the scoreboard.
Jamie Connolly of Moorefield raised Kildare’s second green flag midway through the opening half to stretch their advantage to 12 points, 2-6 to 0-0. They managed to add six more points before the referee blew for the interval. Kilkenny advanced just twice beyond the halfway line in the 30 minutes.
Kildare’s leading margin could have been beyond Kilkenny’s reach even more but their shooting in the first half was not undertaken with laser-guided precision and the wide count increased in tandem with the points tally. Murphy’s half-time tutelage ironed out the kinks in his young team’s radar and the second half brought about a noticeable improvement.
Kilkenny began the second period brightly and mounted their first attack of the match. When half-back Jason Byrne of Clara kicked his side’s first, and only, score after 35 minutes the away supporters cheered as enthusiastically as the small crowd of Cats.
Kildare upped their scoring rate in the second half, adding 17 points. Their dominance was so complete that fullbacks Diarmuid Hartley and Cian McConnell’s marauding runs from defence were a feature of the half and both players got themselves on the score sheet.
What nuggets could Murphy glean from the opening round of the Leinster championship, played during intermittent torrential downpours?
“It’s very hard to assess it. We just asked the guys to do the job they had to do which was come down and play what was in front of them and they did that. In that sense it was satisfactory but there’s a lot to learn as well,” Murphy reflected. “You learn something with every game you play and the wides would be disappointing but conditions were slippy and a lot of guys were making their debut tonight so you take those factors into account but it is certainly an area that we can work on and improve before our next match in five weeks.”
Giving young players their first taste of championship action was one aspect of Thursday’s game that pleased the manager.
“I’m not sure there is any benefit to playing these matches. It’s not fair on Kilkenny but what can you say? You have to play it so you do but there is no great pleasure in beating Kilkenny. We’re happy enough in that we came down and did the job and 15 new players that hadn’t played minor before that have now so that’s important,” he said.
The quirks of this championship have been cruel to Kildare and Murphy in the past but the manager refuses to dwell on what has already been, preferring instead to focus on the future.
“If you’re good enough to go all the way you will beat the opposition. You could say we have been unlucky but we have to figure out how to beat them too. You have to learn how to win and perform at this level. That’s what the guys have to take from it. If they can learn from what they did poorly and bring an improvement then you’re going to be better for the next day.”
Kildare: Richard Dromgoole Maguire (Two Mile House), Cian McConnell (Sarsfields), Eoghan Bateman (Naas), Diarmuid Hartley 0-1 (Sarsfields), Jamie Flynn 0-1 (45) (Round Towers), Niall Fleming 0-1 (Round Towers), Jamie Connolly 1-1 (Moorefield), Mark Sherry (Two Mile House), Rory McDermott (Naas), Ryan Houlihan 0-2 (Moorefield), Conor Davin 0-2 (Maynooth), Ben McCormack 0-4 (Sarsfields), Wayne Fitzpatrick 1-4 (Monasterevin), Mark Byrne 0-2 (Round Towers), Aaron McConville 0-6(Round Towers). Subs: John Joe Mahon (Castledermot) for Sherry, 35; Matthew Kelly 0-2 (Round Towers) for McConville, 41; Cein McMonagle 0-1 (Balyna) and Luke Flynn (Balyna) for Houlihan and Fitzpatrick, 44; Chris Healy 0-1 (Two Mile House) for McCormack, 54.
Kilkenny: James Rafter, Tom Kenny, Barry Hennessy, John Hanrick, Aaron O’Neill, Jason Byrne, Jodie O’Dwyer, Padraigh Ó Fearghail, Darragh O’Shea, Brandon Sheehan, Maurice Costello, Dermot O’Dwyer, Paul Coss, Eoin Purcell, Mark Dowling. Subs: Cormac Connolly for Costello, 28; Aaron Doherty for Dowling, 51; Aaron Coogan for Jodie O’Dwyer, 53; Aaron Doherty for Rafter, 54; Darren Close for Ó’Fearghail, 59.