THE recent upsurge in nostalgia and trips down memory lane have brought back to the fore some great occasions and great games but some moments are better left in the past.
That’s certainly the case for former Kildare manager Padraig Nolan when it comes to the 2003 Leinster Final. It was one of the games uploaded to the GAA website recently but the Kilcock man hasn’t been able to look back at it.
Nolan was in his first year in charge when Kildare went up against Laois in the final. Kildare versus Laois games hardly need extra spice but as if a provincial decider between the two rival counties needed something more, Laois were of course being managed by Mick O’Dwyer in his first year after leaving Kildare.
Any chance Kildare had in the game practically went out the window when midfielder Alan Barry was sent off with less than four minutes on the clock. The Sarsfields man had just been shown a yellow card along with Laois midfielder Padraig Clancy for an off the ball incident when in the very next play he was shown a ridiculously soft second yellow card for an innocuous tackle on Tom Kelly.
“I got a few texts about that it was on, especially the Alan Barry sending off and I was thinking I actually don’t need to be reminded of it,” said Nolan.
“It was amazing to be in a Leinster Final and be down a man so soon. Then later in the game Mick Wright got sent off so we were down two players. Croke Park is a big enough pitch without having to play with 13 men. In fairness though, the lads were super that day. We got back to drawing the match but we just ran out of legs,” he added.
Luck had started turning against Kildare even before the throw in that day.
“We lost Karl Ennis to an injury in the semi-final and lost Anthony Rainbow in training. We ended up changing nearly the whole half back line which had been playing very, very well in the Leinster Championship. We were down three players I think even before we had to deal with the sendings off. It wasn’t a dirty game, it wasn’t overly physical. It was a real open game of football. Micko wouldn’t have sent out a team to be physical, he wanted to play an open game of football and we would have been the same,” said Nolan.
After the disappointment of that loss, Kildare were out again six days later and were beaten after extra time by Roscommon, bringing an end to Nolan’s first season.
Although disappointing the season was a stellar showing for a manager placed in a difficult situation. Like David Moyes replacing Alex Ferguson at Manchester Utd, just how do you replace the most successful Kildare manager of all time in Mick O’Dwyer?
“There is no right time or wrong time to get the job,” insists Nolan.
“It’s always a great honour to be asked to manage your own county so when the opportunity comes along you just grab it with both hands, no matter what. Coming in after Micko probably did make it a bit different but still and all, it was a great opportunity and I enjoyed it immensely.
“I’d three years with Offaly before that and I enjoyed that as well. I’d been involved in a lot of big matches with Offaly against Meath especially but also against Kildare, they were the two top teams in Leinster at the time. So I had plenty of experience under my belt. I didn’t feel daunted or anything like that, the opportunity arose and I said go for it, I might never have got the opportunity again. It was great to get the opportunity to do it,” said Nolan.
As well as the change in the dug out, things were starting to happen on the pitch too. Many of the players who had backboned Micko’s hugely successful era had either hung up their boots or were starting to think about retiring. That meant looking towards the young players around at the time and Nolan was part of the Under 21 management team in 2004 when a team containing the likes of Andriú MacLochlainn, Mick Foley, Daryl Flynn, James Kavanagh, Ross Glavin and Padraig O’Neill that won a Leinster title. Nolan wasn’t slow in placing his faith in this group of players and many featured in the 2004 Senior Championship, and even more went on to have hugely successful senior careers.
“The great Kildare team of Micko’s era was beginning to change and really it was a case of trying to keep as many of the players on for as long as possible and start to blood young lads. I was involved with Peter McConnon with the Under 21s as well and that is where the breeding ground was.
“I brought in a lot of players and introduced a lot of players over my three years and I’d say Kieran McGeeney rather than Johnny Crofton benefited due to that. The team that won the Under 21 Leinster in 2004, pretty much all of those ended up playing senior football for Kildare at one stage or another.”
Even allowing for a team in a transitional stage, 2004 was a disappointing summer as Kildare failed to win a Championship game, losing to Wexford and Offaly.
“The second year was very disappointing. Wexford beat us…but that sounds worse that it was. Wexford were a coming team, they had established themselves in Division 1 and ended up being very strong, got to an All-Ireland semi-final a couple of years afterwards. They were on very much an upwardly trajectory. In saying that, you’d be always disappointed to lose, I think by three or four points and then we had a six day turnaround to play Offaly. Offaly bet us in Newbridge by a goal at the end.
“We could have won both those games but by that stage the transition had really started. We were playing a lot of young players and they were finding their feet. There was a lot of very good players on that Under 21 team. The Under 21 All-Ireland semi-final wasn’t until September so that kept the summer going being involved with that team, but it was very disappointing to lose those two rounds,” he said.
It was a fine balancing act to bring through those Under 21 players while still trying to get the most out of players like Glenn Ryan and Brian Lacey who were just coming to the end of their time.
“They were terrific players, absolutely terrific players, and the mindset of terrific players is that they are always the best, that’s one of the characteristics that makes them the best. The manager’s job is get players like that to work for the team as best they can – and in fairness, they did. It’s a balancing act, you have decide whether it’s better to go with the older player or to give a younger player a go and let them get the experience under their belt. I would have made some decisions like that. I know Mick Foley was picked at centre back for the first time that year. People might have been surprised by that but down the road Mick Foley ended up picking up an All-Star so the potential was always there. I always felt that if you were good enough you were old enough, I was never afraid to throw in young lads and a lot of them went on to become absolutely top class players later on,” said Nolan.
Although Kildare were beaten by Offaly in Newbridge in that summer of 2004, it was a game were Johnny Doyle really stood out by scoring eight points and Nolan wasn’t surprised to see the player that the Allenwood man became.
“Johnny had a super work ethic. As he got more confident in himself he started to establish himself more. You could see that Johnny was prepared to work really hard to improve every year and he became an outstanding player altogether. Johnny was only 19 or 20 when he won his first Leinster and it probably took him another couple of years to really establish himself but he had a super career,” said Nolan.
One player who barely featured during those first two seasons under Nolan was Dermot Earley. Due to a combination of reasons he only played one Championship but his unavailability was something that Nolan just had to accept.
“The first year he did his metatarsal so I didn’t really have him that year and I think he was away on army duty during the second year so I really only had him the last year. He would have been a super player to have but unfortunately they are the cards you are dealt and you just have to go with them,” he said.
2005 was another good year for the Under 21s but one of the defeats that still frustrates is the Leinster Final against Dublin that year. Ross Glavin scored a goal to put Kildare ahead very late on but Dublin came up with an even later equaliser before winning the replay.
“We drew with Dublin in Navan and we definitely should have won that game. They were a bit better than us in the replay, one only player that didn’t play in the drawn game that came into their team was Bernard Brogan at full forward and he made a huge difference. That drawn game was one we let slip, we had the game won going into injury time and I think we even had a free that could have won it right at the end. But it was a good breeding ground for those lads and a lot of them went on to have very good careers with the seniors,” said Nolan.
There was a youthful look to the Kildare senior team that summer and after almost coming unstuck against Wicklow they dethroned Paídí Ó Sé’s Westmeath as Leinster champions.
“I remember game against Wicklow in Croke Park in the first round. There are certain counties you are not supposed to lose against, with Offaly during my time we weren’t supposed to lose to Westmeath or Laois and luckily I made it through three years without losing to them. With Kildare, you don’t lose to Wicklow. To be honest, for 40 or 45 it looked like that could happen. I think it was Tadhg Fennin who got a goal with about ten minutes to go and we were lucky enough, we probably won comfortably enough in the end but for a good 60 minutes it was very close.
“Then we played Westmeath, who were Leinster champions at that time. I think we had a man sent off but beat them and that wouldn’t have been expected, it was a big win,” said Nolan.
But Kildare endured a nightmare against Laois in the semi-final, going down by 0-21 to 0-9 and defeat to Sligo in the Qualifiers a few weeks later brought an end to Nolan’s tenure.
“We had a very disappointing performance against Laois in the semi-final. They just got a run on us in the first half, I think they chalked up 12 or 13 points early on and just got out of sight. Again, we had a very short turnaround into the Sligo game. We performed very well but just not good enough to win.”
Given the success he had with the Under 21s and the fact that they were starting to cut their teeth at senior level, Nolan would have liked at least another year in charge but that decision was taken out of his hands.
“At the time I would have liked to stay on for another year but the nature of these things is that county boards have to make decisions. I was fine by what they decided. At the end of the day, Kildare football is the most important thing and I was delighted to see that so many of those players went on to do so well,” he said.
While he would have liked to have stayed on, with the benefit of hindsight and looking back now he can see that it was no bad thing to take a break after six years managing at intercounty level.
“Managing an intercounty team even back then was massively time consuming and it was probably no harm from a personal point of view that I got off that roundabout. I had three years done with Offaly as well before I took the Kildare job don’t forget. During my last six months with Kildare, Peter McConnon had been posted abroad so I was managing the Under 21s on my own really. Monday, Wednesday, Friday I would have been with the seniors, Tuesday and Thursday with the Under 21s, Saturday morning maybe with the seniors then the Under 21s in the afternoon and maybe a game on the Sunday with the seniors. I was doing that for nearly six months so it was probably the time to get a bit of common sense and take a break. I went back and gave three years to own club and managed Kilcock after that,” he said.
Looking back over his time in charge, Nolan has an enormous sense of pride at being one of only three Kildare men to manage their own county in the last 30 years but he also got a huge sense of satisfaction to see so many of the young players he brought into the senior team go on to have such good careers.
“You’ve got to consider yourself very lucky to have managed the team in the first place and then after that, you have to take a lot of satisfaction in the players that go on and prove themselves and become better players and become part of very good Kildare teams. I would take of lot of satisfaction from that but overall, I just really, really enjoyed my time there,” he said.
As well as those on the pitch, Nolan dealt with some great Kildare men on his backroom team as well.
“I had Pat Keatley with me for three years. I played minor, Under 21 and then was on the senior panel with Pat over the years, he’s a very good friend. Declan Kerrigan and Willie McCreery were my other selectors during the first year and then Bryan Murphy and Jack Donnelly came on board for the next two years. All great fellas, like Bryan has gone on to do Trojan work with underage football in Kildare. There’s still a good bond there with them and I’d still talk to them from time to time. There was also Ciaran Conlon who did our fitness training, Ciaran McCarthy on video analysis and Ken Coffey our physio. All good men who brought a lot to the set up,” he said.
The backroom set up is one of the big differences that he can see between modern day management and his time with Kildare.
“Players back then were giving every bit as much commitment as they are now. The difference in management is that you are managing a massive backroom team as well as the players, back then it was two or three selectors and your physio and doctor and somebody doing the physical training and that was it. It was a much smaller team to deal with so you probably ended up doing more stuff yourself. I often wonder when you see the size of some of the back room teams with county teams, you’d nearly need a bus to bring them to games never mind the players. Just to sit down and get all those singing off the same hymn sheet is tricky enough, at least with a small tight team it’s easier to pull them together. I’d say that’s the biggest challenge, to talk to your backroom team alone must take an evening a week, and that is before you start talking to players. I would have spent a lot of time talking to players, that was always one of the most important things I felt, so I’d have spent a lot of time on the phone chatting to fellas to see if they were okay, how they were going work-wise, how they were going study-wise, that kind of thing. That took a lot of time so I i just find it amazing that managers nowadays can do that and pull along a backroom team as well. Sometimes I wonder is there a need for that many but the problem is, you have to keep up with Jones’ and if the county next door is doing that and is successful then you have to follow that,” said Nolan.
Nolan was always on a hiding to nothing when replacing the great Micko but he became the first Kildare man to lead his county out at a Leinster final in over 20 years and then helped kickstart the careers of many of the players who would go on to be the width of a crossbar away from reaching an All-Ireland final in 2010, not bad going considering it viewed very much as a transitional period in Kildare GAA history.