IF you were in St Conleths Park on 30 June 2001 then you won’t need too much reminding of how the game went. Six days after losing to Meath in the Leinster Championship, Kildare played their first ever Qualifer tie in the first year of the newly restructured Championship.
Donegal were the opponents and reports say that 13,000 were there that sunny evening but many in attendance swear it was closer to 20,000.
One thing that can’t be argued whatever the attendance, whoever was lucky enough to be there that night witnessed a classic, one of the best ever games at the Newbridge venue.
It was a glorious sunny evening but Kildare were slow to start. They found themselves 1-5 to 0-0 behind and seemingly on the way out of the Championship but a first half Martin Lynch goal helped change the momentum. Eventually, with the scores tied at 1-16 apiece late on, Ken Doyle popped up from corner back, at a time long before adventurous corner backs were en vogue in the GAA, to be the unlikely hero.
The other corner back that day was Brian Lacey and he remembers the game as a special occasion.
“It was probably the greatest atmosphere that I played in front of for Kildare outside of Croke Park, the crowd were fantastic that night,” said Lacey.
The game wasn’t all pleasant memories for the Tipperary native though.
“Somebody told me that the game is on YouTube so I went back and looked at it and I saw Brendan Devenney turning me and scoring a goal so I turned off YouTube fairly quickly!” he laughed, but it was the stirring comeback that really sticks in the mind.
“We did very well, I think Martin Lynch scored a goal that turned the game. We were 1-5 to no score down at one stage but came back to win by a point. It was a fantastic evening, lovely weather and that was a very good Donegal team as well,” said Lacey.
17 years on, 30 June 2018 promises to just as memorable an occasion at the famous old venue.
Championship games in St Conleths Park don’t come along too often. Kildare lost to Offaly in 1942 in the Leinster Championship and then beat Kilkenny in 1961 but it wasn’t until 1984 that another Championship game was played at the venue. Between 1984 and 2016 there were 17 Championship games, Kildare winning nine, drawing two and losing six.
Much has been said about the ability of the venue to host major games but Lacey was delighted to see Kildare take a stand and insist on their own home advantage.
“There’s been a lot of talk about it but I think Cian, Ronan and the management team, and the county board, were right to do what they did, fair play to them for standing up to the GAA in this particular situation,” he said.
He does feel that this could be a turning point for the GAA and that many teams, including the Tipperary side that he has been a coach/selector/performance analyst for the last three years, may wish that they had taken a leaf of out of Kildare’s book. Tipperary beat Waterford in the Munster quarter-final but were then forced to play a well rested Cork team the following weekend and Lacey regrets that Tipperary didn’t make more of an issue of that.
“I do think that Wicklow should have played their Leinster Championship game against Dublin at home, I do think Kildare should play at home and even in Tipperary, we were made play a Munster semi-final six days after playing a quarter-final and when I look at it now, it’s not an excuse, but we probably should have stood up to the CCC down in Munster. It’s great that somebody has stood up and made a call, for the players most importantly,” said Lacey.
“I hope the GAA learn from this year, a lot has happened. There were hurling games in the Munster Championship clashing with games, Kildare’s hurlers are playing this weekend at lunchtime, the things that have happened are down to the master schedule and they will have to look at the whole thing again. You’d hope that a lot of things that happened this year will be addressed and they won’t happen again in the future,” he said.
Lacey got a close up view of Mayo in Round 2 of the Qualifiers and felt that Tipperary could have caused a major upset in Thurles with a little more luck. Tipperary led by three points in the final quarter before a rather fortunate Jason Durcan goal changed the game.
“Their experience saw it out in the end for them. From a Tipperary point of view, very much like the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo got a lucky goal and went on and got momentum from that. We were doing well up to the 55th minute, it was just the last 15 minutes when they got that goal that they were able to pull away. We were happy enough with our performance. We had them on the rack but had a couple of chances to score when we were three points up that we didn’t take.
“Both teams went for it full on and Mayo went four points up in the first four or five minutes but Tipperary more or less owned the game from the fifth to 50th minute. Mayo really took risks then, they pushed up on our kick out, Keith Higgins left the sweeper role, it became about who was going to win possession and they started to win the breaking ball. It was a helter skelter game but I suppose their conditioning from being a Division 1 team in the last few years stood to them in the end, it was a very hot day,” said Lacey.
There were areas that he feels Kildare can take advantage of against Stephen Rochford’s team.
“Once Tipperary were winning enough ball, and we were going well on our own kick out, up to about 80% until around the 50th minute, we were going well. We had a very varied game plan, we ran it at times and we played it in high then on other times. With the way that Kildare play, they can play both ways, they can play a running game and they have target men inside too. Kildare have various weapons they can go to.
“We played Kildare in a challenge game in April and that they beat us well. They were very good at pressing and that’s an area that they might be better than the Tipperary team at. Midfield is going to be very important. Seamus O’Shea went off injured and we won our fair share around the middle, Kildare have serious options in there. One thing you have to be careful of, they put Diarmuid O’Connor in midfield, he mightn’t be an out and out midfielder but he has more legs on the ground. That brings another threat when they don’t Tom Parsons or Seamus O’Shea,” said Lacey.
Mayo will be only the second Connacht side to visit St Conleths Park for a Championship game, Leitrim in 2010 were the first, and it’s only the second Championship meeting between the counties since the 1935 All-Ireland semi-final.
Kildare were beaten 2-17 to 0-14 in 2016 in the Qualifiers and in the last meeting between the teams, Mayo won 1-19 to 1-12 in a Division 1 game in Newbridge last March. Both those scorelines look convincing but on both occasions Kildare were going quite well before a Mayo burst late in the first half won them the game. In the Qualifier tie in Castlebar, Mayo scored the last 2-3 of the first half and went on to win by nine, and in the league game this year Mayo scored the last 1-4 of the first half and won by seven.
Although Kildare came from behind on that famous day against Donegal back in 2001, Lacey thinks that getting a lead could be crucial in the game
“When Mayo did press up on us and Keith Higgins pushed out of the sweeper role, there was huge space when we got in behind them but we just couldn’t get our hands on the ball. Then when we went behind we had to abandon our sweeper and that left more space in behind for them. It’s just cat and mouse in the modern game.
“One particular tactic might sometimes force the other team to do something but in the Qualifiers there is no tomorrow. That’s what makes it so exciting, it’s like old Championship football. Teams don’t want to be going to extra time either in the sort of heat that we are having at the moment so you try to win it if you can at all inside the 70 minutes,” said Lacey.