LAST week Richard Commins (@kildaregaa365) wrote the first of a three part series looking back at the 1965 U21 All-Ireland winning team. In this week’s instalment, Richard looks at the years that followed and how that talented group coped with the step up to senior football.
KILDARE football entered the winter of 1965 on the crest of a wave, having won the All Ireland under-21 championship and reached the Home final at junior level. Senior honours seemed set to follow as a matter of course. The Nationalist proclaimed the team as the best Kildare side since 1928 and that “it will not be long before the Sam Maguire Cup comes back to one of the greatest counties in the GAA”.
Define “long” again?
1966 – Undone by the Ref – Part 1 of …
Within a week of the under-21 victory, nine of the team were in O’Byrne Cup final action for the seniors against Longford.
To be fair to the Nationalist, the sign-posted progression to senior honours seemed on course the following summer. Our route to the Leinster Final saw us come face to face with the holders Dublin in the semi-final in Navan. Playing pragmatic catch and kick football in poor conditions, and with nine of the victorious under-21 team in the starting line-up, Kildare ran out 3-9 to 2-5 winners to qualify for a title decider with Meath. Raheens & Eire Óg dual star Pat Dunney scored a hat-trick of goals, something that no Lilywhite player has since repeated in the Championship.
Meath were a battle-hardened outfit having been champions in 1964, and the more youthful Lilywhites perhaps let stage-fright get the better of them in the first half. Meath missed three clear-cut goal chances as they over-ran the Kildare defence and should have led by more than 1-7 to 0-3 at half time. Kildare were hanging on doggedly and finally they bought a break when Tommy Walsh crashed home a goal minutes from time to bring the gap down to one point. Kildare won a sideline from the kick out and when Donnelly was pulled down close to goal it looked like they were reprieved.
But dodgy refereeing decisions for Kildare didn’t begin with Benny Coulter and Offaly referee John Dowling needed Garda protection when he blew for full time before Kildare could take the kick. Dowling had earlier denied Kildare claims for a penalty when Pa Connolly was brought down. The Nationalist argued that Dowling was not the man for such an occasion and that a referee from another province should have been appointed. The GAA took a few decades to adopt such a policy. Meath were deserved winners though and given their relative youth this wasn’t considered a fatal blow to the men in white. Their day would come surely.
Looking back a worrying trait had emerged in that final as key players failed to “turn up” on the big day. The Nationalist gave some credit to the rhyming couplet of Connolly and (Jack) Donnelly but pin-pointed under-performance from the midfield duo of Mick Carolan and Tommy Carew as key along with below-par showings from the likes of Walsh and even Dunney.
Many of the same players were still eligible for the under-21’s and later that year they seemed likely to retain their All Ireland title but on this occasion Roscommon, spearheaded by a certain Dermot Early Snr (then a young army cadet serving in Kildare), pipped them by a point in the final. Liam Casey was the only one to start the ’66 final that hadn’t played the year before.
Was a trend emerging with Kildare teams coming up just short in finals?
Kevin Kelly took over from Donnelly as the point-scoring hero of that under-21 team while Dunney was the main goalscoring threat, grabbing two in the Leinster Final hammering of Louth and another in the All Ireland Semi Final when Kildare outscored Kerry by an impressive eleven points. Carbury’s Mangan was magnificent at midfield that day in Newbridge.
In the final, Kildare had looked on course when a goal from Dunney after a fine four-man move edged them ahead early in the second half but much of the blame for the eventual defeat was put on the defence who let Roscommon in for two goals in two minutes to put the Connacht men in the driving seat with ten minutes left. Dunney could have levelled it in the last minute but spurned the opportunity and the title was relinquished.
1967- New Kids on the Block – Longford
In 1967, Kildare were favourites for the Leinster Senior title but an emerging Longford team destroyed us in a replay at Croke Park by 3-12 to 2-10, Kildare’s goals coming in a brief second half rally from Dunney and Carew. Kildare never got to grips with a mobile Longford forward line in which Jackie Devine (no relation to a later Royal nemesis Jody we assume) starred, scoring 1-4.
The underage dynasty was still producing though as we secured a third successive Leinster under-21 title beating Wicklow in the final by sixteen points having already accounted for the more traditional powers of Meath and Dublin as well as Longford. Kerry though put a stop to Kildare’s march to a third successive All Ireland final when they triumphed by 3-9 to 1-7 in the semi-final to gain revenge for 1966.
Five players graced all three of those under-21 sides: Ollie Crinnigan in goals, defenders Joe McTeague and Sean O’Reilly and Carew and Mangan. The juniors had also lost an All-Ireland semi to Kerry that year.
1968- League Final Raises Hopes but Destroyed by Laois
1991 must have seemed like a re-run of 1968 for anyone who had the pleasure to follow Kildare in both years.
In the League of 1968 Kildare were in a relatively weak group (no hierarchical Divisions back then) but beat Offaly in the Divisional Final and then Sligo in the semi-final replay to reach the final against Down. Hopes were rising again. Kildare had two survivors of the 1958 final – Carolan and Connolly – and seven of the 1965 under-21 side.
Kildare though only had 14 players ready for the pre-match parade with Pat Mangan a late arrival and perhaps that was indicative of their preparation levels. Down scored 1-1 to no reply in the opening minutes.
A Carew goal kept Kildare in touch but Down’s second goal helped them to a four-point half-time advantage. A second-half collapse seemed on the cards as Down pushed ahead by eight points but Carew again found the net as Kildare scored 1-4 in the space of six minutes to narrow the gap to one point with four minutes to go. Surely Kildare were going to finally get over the line now at senior level? Sadly, the experienced Mick Carolan and his midfield partner Carew fumbled between them and Down scored from the resultant attack to break the spell. Kildare lost by 3.
Still, the team had been very competitive in another senior final and surely it remained only a matter of time?
That summer of ’68 proved a huge let-down though as the side suffered another really crushing championship defeat. Laois were very much also-rans in Leinster in those days but they sent shockwaves through the province by lowering the Lilywhite colours in a 3-9 to 0-9 Quarter Final win at Carlow. The damage was done in a five-minute spell between the 18th and 23rd minutes when the Queens county got in for three goals. Incredibly all came from defensive blunders from Kildare.
Considering Laois had reportedly not done an hour’s collective training and Kildare had been in strict group preparation since the winter, it was particularly shocking that the O’Moore men were better able to cope with the hot conditions. Kildare just didn’t stand up to the strength and pace of their opponents as question marks about their mettle were fast emerging. The hot favourites only managed two points from play as their season ended ignominiously.
1969- Upward Curve Despite Final Let Down?
Kildare regrouped and again had a leisurely National League grouping (Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford were their opponents). A hiccup with a draw against Waterford in Newbridge interrupted the natural course but they beat the Déise by 36 points in a play-off. A Divisional semi-final pairing with Laois offered an early opportunity for revenge and after a replay Kildare re-asserted their superiority over their neighbours with a 1-17 to 1-6 victory.
The Divisional final was another draw (with Offaly) but Kildare collapsed once more in the replay when Donnelly was the only Kildareman to score in a 1-2 to 0-8 defeat. Remarkably that fate has befallen Kildare on just one other occasion since 1965 and curiously it was just five months later against Roscommon. It was Donnelly again who contributed Kildare’s only scores (1-1).
Statistical gems aside, Kildare managed to pick themselves up magnificently in time for the championship. Seasoned Lily-watchers will notice a trend here. Positive results bring raised confidence, optimism abounds, the fan starts to think “just maybe”, and then out of nowhere a performance summoned from hell turns up from the blue (or green, white and orange perhaps). Familiar?
But let’s keep it positive for a couple of paragraphs. Kildare ripped into Meath in the Leinster Quarter Final of ’69. It was a rare day in Croke Park when all their talented individuals clicked and a polished performance destroyed the Royals. The Nationalist saw signs of a “Championship winning squad” in players of undoubted potential. Donnelly was the star performer as he embellished a glowing reputation with eight points and “even when injured he continued to sweep Meath players out of his way like juveniles”. Aside from Donnelly, Mick Mullen was the other scoring hero with two goals.
Beating Dublin may seem like a pipedream these days but in 1969 Kildare were favourites for the Leinster semi-final which attracted 20,000 to Carlow. This was one of Dublin’s weakest teams for some time but they had some quick forwards and there was more than a little uncertainty that the unpredictable Lilies would reproduce the form they showed against Meath.
Thankfully Kildare did turn up again and were commanding 0-18 to 0-7 winners. They had the Dublin attack in a straight-jacket and with Allenwood’s Joe Doyle, normally a half-back, prominent in an attacking role, the front six were in sparkling form. Offaly awaited in the final having snuffed out Wexford in the semi-final, the Slaneysiders in turn having dethroned 1968 winners Longford.
Despite the let-downs they’d regularly given their supporters, the Lilywhites went into the final as favourites once more. Taking the time-honoured line that “midfield would hold the key” the Nationalist pronounced Donnelly and Mangan as Kildare’s likely match-winners. More ominously they decreed that it was “now or never for Kildare” with “enthusiasm at its peak in the camp”.
Kildare suffered an early blow when Connolly retired injured, having been doubtful for the game. The Clane full forward was the only panellist with a Leinster senior medal, earned in 1956. For twenty-five minutes, though, the game seemed to be following the script with Kildare ahead by a point, 1-5 to 1-4. Carew had scored an equalising goal within four minutes of his arrival.
Sadly, the game turned in the five minutes before and after half-time. Kildare lost centre back Carolan to injury which necessitated Mangan moving to no.6 and Carew coming out to midfield. Before anyone had settled a high ball into the square ended with Mick O’Rourke, up to then well-marked by Pat Nally, slapping a rebound off Crinnigan into the net.
Another high ball just after half-time created the body blow from which Kildare hopes never recovered. Corner back Joe McTeague tried to clear but the ball went dangerously across goal and Pat Monaghan shot low past Crinnigan. Offaly had day-light and were on course for their first title since 1961.
The speedy Kelly managed to reduce the arrears to two points with a brace of excellent scores from play (3-4 to 1-8) but Offaly seemed fitter, quicker and tackled more aggressively. Disappointingly they seemed to want it more. They saw it out on a 3-7 to 1-8 scoreline. In retrospect Carolan’s injury had de-stabilised Kildare, as much for its consequences as the event itself. Carew had been giving Offaly full back Greg Hughes a torrid time and you wonder what might have been if Kildare had left him on the edge of the square. What might have been…
The panel was still young, though, and they would enter the ‘70’s still believing that senior honours would follow.
In Part III next week we’ll follow their story into the new decade.
*** We’d like to take the opportunity to wish the manager of the famous 1965 U21 All-Ireland winners, Jim Clarke, a belated happy birthday after he turned 89 very recently.