THERE is a very clear division in the McConnon house in Palatine, Carlow this week in the lead up to Sunday’s Leinster Championship game.
As you would expect, Peter is leading the Kildare side of the household. He made his debut for the Kildare senior footballers in a league game against Roscommon in October 1988, was one of Mick O’Dwyer’s most trusted lieutenants during his first spell in charge of Kildare and then played for two years under Dermot Early before his final game coincided with Earley’s last game in charge in 1996.
It was that year that his work as a Garda brought him to Carlow and he eventually met and married a Palatine woman, Aisling. Ahead of Sunday’s game, the couples’ son Cormac, a staunch Carlow GAA fan, was never going to be persuaded to abandon his Carlow roots but daughter Éabha is siding with her father.
“Cormac and Aisling have the Carlow jerseys but Éabha came over to me the other day and said ‘Daddy, I’m in your camp but there’s only one problem, my Kildare jersey is too small’. So that was the hint to get her a new one so I went online to order that,” laughed McConnon, clearly enjoying all the banter in the build up.
“Cormac was getting on the school bus the other day and I told him instead of getting on at the front of the bus that he should go through the back door because he will have to get used to that after Sunday, he wasn’t impressed with that,” added the Round Towers club man.
McConnon wasn’t long over the border before immersing himself in Carlow football. He managed Palatine to a county final in 1997 and again in a second spell in charge in 2012. More recently, he managed his adopted club to a minor success and in 2016 and 2017 managed the county under 21s. Not that he has forgotten about Kildare football either. Most famously of all, he led the Kildare under 21s to a Leinster title in 2004 and keeps a close eye on all footballing matters in the county in his role as analyst on KFM.
As somebody who has seen a lot of both teams in recent years, he is well placed to talk about how the game might play out on Sunday.
“I was with the Carlow Under 21s when Steven Poacher came in with the seniors and they’d train alongside us at times. They are very organised. The gameplan from the outset was to not concede scores at one end and win games by shoring up the defence first of all and then work off that. I think they have steadily improved and the last day against Louth was probably the best football performance I’ve ever seen from a Carlow team,” he said.
That win over Louth was all the more impressive as from the outside, a lot of people would have assumed that the loss of star player Brendan Murphy would have hit the team hard.
“Brendan Murphy is a very good footballer but whereas down through the years they might have been feeling sorry for themselves after losing a player of that quality their attitude these days is just to get on with it. They aren’t totally reliant on one player anyway and their heads didn’t drop just because one of their more influential players wasn’t available. I think they proved that there is good quality right throughout the panel,” said McConnon.
Elsehwere on the team, McConnon picks out forwards Diarmuid Walsh and Paul Broderick as two to watch.
“Walsh and Broderick are two quality forwards but I think their work ethic is a big thing. You saw them against Monaghan last year in the Qualifiers when they were very hard to break down. They will play a very defensive game. They are very big and physical, they are as a big a team as there is around, there are an awful lot of guys 6’2 plus on the team, and they are mobile with that. They are very focussed on defence, Poacher’s attitude and that of the management team is ‘let’s not concede first, if we’re not conceding we are in a game and if we are in a game we have a chance of winning it’. They will be very defensive but what they have developed over time is the ability to turn defence into attack very quickly. They like to drag the opposition forward and drag them out of position and then hit them on the counter attack, they did that very well against Louth. Broderick’s ability off placed balls is phenomenal too. He has the capability of putting the ball over the bar from 55 metres out from both sides of the field,” he said.
“Kildare will have difficulties with certain players on the Carlow team, no doubt about that. The two boys in the forward line can score. I think Sean Murphy is very pacy, an unbelievable ball carrier from the middle of the field and whether Kildare have the mobility in the centre of midfield to deal with that is open to argument. Cian O’Neill was down at that match against Louth though and I’m sure he will be looking at potential weak spots on the Carlow team too and try to exploit them. They will have to patient because they will meet a wall of resistance and it won’t be easy to break down,” added McConnon.
One thing that Carlow won’t lack after a tremendous 12 months or so is confidence and McConnon is fully aware that Carlow believe they are capable of causing a shock.
“This is Championship and I’ve been the target of a lot of banter down here over the last week and the reality is that Carlow see themselves as being in with a right good chance. They see this as a vulnerable time for Kildare, they are without a win in almost a year while Carlow are on the crest of a wave and they see this as a golden opportunity. The talk is would Kildare have beaten Louth by any more than Carlow did and why should Carlow be afraid of Kildare? Kildare will have to be very mindful of that. They need to realise that this is not the Carlow of old. This is a Carlow team rejuvenated and a Carlow team full of confidence.
“When everything was done and dusted against Louth there was no great jumping around the place. It was as if they had a job to do and they went out and did it. They were happy to get the win and happy to get a crack at Kildare the next day,” he said.
But despite that, and despite Kildare’s woes in Division 1 this year, McConnon is confident that if Kildare play to their ability that they will come out with the win.
“At times we were critical of Kildare during the league but they have been playing at a completely different level to Carlow and they were unlucky not to win one or two matches. I thought they played very good football at times during the league, even though there were other times when they didn’t. They have to bring a level of consistency to their game. They need to be a little bit meaner in defence. In a lot of the games Kildare racked up some decent scores but I think they allowed the opposition to score a little too easily at times.
“There are players who had various degrees of form during the league. Every player worth their salt wants to play for their county on the day of Championship. That’s the day that you really want to express yourself and to be at your best. Each player has to have that mentality, it’s not going to work for every player on the day, some might have an off day but the reality is that you have to be totally self motivated going into a Championship game. Kildare need to discount that this is a Division 3 team, this is a potential banana skin. They have to be individually focussed, individually motivated and ready to shoulder a bit of responsibility to individually get the better of their direct opposition and then that comes together as a team,” he said.
That would at least give him bragging rights within his own house.