A lot can happen in the space of 51 weeks.
Going into the final game of Division 2 last year, Kildare headed to Salthill to take on Galway on the first Sunday in April pretty content with their lot. With a game to spare they had achieved a promotion that not many had even considered them for and with all eyes on an upcoming league final in Croke Park, Cian O’Neill was happy to give some of his fringe players a run out.
Fast forward almost a full year, and Kildare will take to the field with a very different mindset on the last Sunday in March 2018.
The Kildare team of 12 months ago was brimming with confidence and there was giddy talk that this young and developing squad could prove to be at least an obdurate opponent for Dublin in Leinster and go on to have a good Championship.
A promising display in the 2017 Leinster final, albeit after a nine point defeat, was seen at the time as a platform for Kildare to push on but instead, it’s just been disappointment after disappointment since.
Division 1 football was where this group of young ambitious players wanted to play so that they could show they belonged at that level but that hasn’t happened unfortunately. Kildare have done some good things and played some good football in patches but they lacked a ruthless and clinical touch to win the close games and the longer the winless streak has continued the bigger an issue confidence and belief has become.
The losing run now stands at ten games in all competitions and failure to halt that on Sunday will match the last time Kildare were on such a run, when they lost 11 games in league, championship and O’Byrne Cup games between June 1980 and November 1981.
Results and relegation have been disappointing but the most frustrating thing about the campaign is the failure of the players to grasp the opportunity and really show that they deserve to talked about in the top bracket of player in the country. Given that many of the squad have won underage Leinster titles and looked so good in marching through Divisions 3 and 2, the timing felt perfect coming into this season for their development to continue with that progress.
The reality has been different and too many players have found Division 1 too tough to handle. Daniel Flynn is one who has taken his chance, scoring 3-10 in the league so far, but how many of his team mates have revelled in playing against the best teams in the country on a regular basis?
The hope is that while Kildare have been losing games, they have at least been exposed to the best teams and best players and that will stand to them come Championship. It’s only in the summer that we will get the answer to question of whether Kildare’s preparations are better served by building confidence from winning games at a lower level or by playing regularly, but losing, at a higher level.
Learning lessons has been the mantra for this squad under Cian O’Neill but they haven’t been learned fast enough. In their last two games, Kildare have converted less than 30% of their shots from play in the first half. It might be possible to overcome such dismal shooting at a lower level but when you are shooting like that against Mayo and Kerry you have no chance. In other games, most notably Tyrone and Donegal, Kildare were better in attack but were let down by a leaky defence. The league has at least highlighted these deficiencies and big improvements are needed all round in the summer if Kildare are to take their place in the inaugural Super 8 series.
The fact that Sunday’s opponents are Galway brings into sharp contrast just how Kildare have failed to build on their successful Division 2 season. Like Kildare, Galway were promoted last season but unlike Kildare, Galway have taken to Division 1 like a duck to water. They got wins on the board early in the season and were able to build momentum from there but it’s far too simplistic to say that Galway have simply benefitted from the confidence that winning brings. After their promotion, they came up with a plan to alter their game to suit Division 1 football and crucially, have been able to take their chances when they have been presented.
They are the very last team that Kildare would chose to play when in the midst of an almost record equalling losing streak. Since they last beat Galway in a competitive game, on 3 February 1985, Kildare have beaten every one of the other 31 counties at least once in a league or championship game.
There have been three draws between the teams, including when a late Johnny Doyle penalty earned Kildare promotion to Division 1 in 2012, but 12 games between the counties have passed since that win in 1985. The fact that Larry Tomkins was Kildare’s star player that day and finished with 1-5 in a 1-13 to 1-9 only adds to the feeling that it was from a different lifetime.
Nevertheless, Kildare have 70 minutes on Sunday to obliterate all those depressing stats and end the talk of winless runs. This time around, it’s Galway who will have one eye on the league final and that may or may not mean they field some players who have found gametime hard to come by so far this season.
It matters little to Kildare which players they will be facing because Sunday’s game means nothing and yet at the same time is hugely significant. A win would be too late to avoid relegation and too late to rescue the chance of making a significant mark in Division 1 but it would be a big boost for everybody involved ahead of thoughts turning to the Championship season. Heading into a Leinster quarter-final late in May just a few weeks short of a full calendar year without a win doesn’t bear thinking about.
It’s been a year of missed opportunities so far for Kildare, they can’t afford to miss another one on Sunday.