Wednesday, May 20, 2020

In the days when we were allowed into pubs the debates would rage about the best Kildare players of our time.

The older fellas might point to Donnelly, Mangan, Dunney, Carew or O’Malley, while those of my age group would invariably debate the merits of Ryan, Doyle and Earley.

Those three are hero-worshipped in the county and rightly so. Each brought varying levels of innate talent and breeding to the table but it was their commitment to the cause and desire for Kildare to be winners that set them apart. An average of over fifteen years in the jersey helped cement their hero status too.

Niall “Nuxer” Buckley doesn’t enjoy the same level of hero worship among the faithful. He had the temerity to go off and follow his own life path at the age of 28 and leave the heavy slog of inter-county training and winter football behind.

Stylish and elegant, Niall Buckley was a footballer who had it all
Photo: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Make no mistake though, there hasn’t been a more elegant and skillful footballer playing for Kildare in the last half-century.

That lad who went to Cork via New York, who we don’t really like to talk about, had all the skills but perhaps not the grace of Nuxer. Martin Lynch was a fine man for a pirouette as my mother used to say.

But Buckley combined everything: style, elegance, and a magnificent end-product when it came to passing and shooting from long-range. Strength as well – check out the YouTube video of his shoulder on Colm Parkinson.

The game was in his DNA of course. Grandfather Michael won three All-Irelands (1919, 1927 and 1928) as a defender with the Lilywhites while Dad Mick was on the under-21 panel in 1965 and uncle Pat played at county level also.

Cousin Fintan captained Kildare minors to a Leinster title in 1987, while Nuxer was still in school at the Patrician Secondary.

Older brother Michael Gerard was a huge influence. Not as naturally gifted as Niall, perhaps, he nevertheless had craft, personality and a sharp football brain that saw him earn his county stripes at minor and under-21 level. He played Sigerson for UCD and won every honour going with Sarsfields including three county senior championships.

Niall was quickly identified around Newbridge as a player with a huge future ahead of him. With Sarsfields he won county under 14, under 16 and minor titles.

At the Patricians, the likes of Kevin Kehoe, Tom Blanche and Brother Bosco were building the school into something of a powerhouse in the 1980’s and their big day arrived in 1989 when capturing the All Ireland B Championship.

Nuxer, still only 16, started that final against St. Michael’s of Lurgan at full-back but a switch saw him instrumental in wrestling the initiative away from the Ulster side as Patricians ran out two-point winners. Anthony Rainbow was a notable team-mate, although he was very focused on playing underage rugby for the national team at the time.

That August he would line out alongside Rainbow again as a Kildare team were convincingly beaten by Offaly in the Leinster Minor Final. In hindsight, surely a team with Buckley at 3, Ryan and Rainbow as wingbacks and Ronan Quinn at 11 might have done better?

Nuxer and Rainbow were Kildare’s better performers on the day according to manager Gerry Moran.

A year later, Ryan, Buckley and Quinn were joined by Christy Byrne in goal for another provincial final but Graham Geraghty produced a sublime performance as Meath walloped the young Lilies by 1-19 to 1-6. The green jersey would feature prominently in Nuxer’s future.

Buckley, now lining out at midfield, had attracted attention from overseas, and within weeks, he was off to Australia to join up with the Melbourne Demons under 19 programme alongside Anthony Tohill and Brian Stynes.

Unfortunately, financial problems led to that programme collapsing and the three lads had no choice but to come home in the early summer of 1991.

Within weeks Buckley was back with the minors and into a third provincial final, this time against Dublin. The Kildare revival bubble under Mick O’Dwyer had been well and truly burst in Drogheda that summer but Buckley, now one of the most talked about minor talents in the game, starred as Kildare edged out the Dubs by 2-8 to 0-12. His fielding was exceptional and he landed a ’45 in a manner that we were to become accustomed to.

Kildare lost (badly) in the semi-final to Mayo and Buckley was among those unable to put a finger on what went wrong, hinting at there perhaps being some over-confidence in the camp.

O’Dwyer was clearly taken with the youngster’s qualities and the 18-year-old’s senior inter-county career was launched as the League kicked off against Kerry that autumn in Newbridge.

Paul Donaghy in the Nationalist remarked that Micko “seems to have uncovered what could be the leading centre field pairing in the game” as Lynch and Buckley lorded it over their vaunted opponents in a rare but beautiful Kildare win. Nuxer was to the manor born.

He would rarely be out of the senior line-up for the next seven years and quickly established himself as an exceptional long-range free taker, fielder, and distributor. If you were to put music to Nuxer’s performances it would be the soundtrack to the Hamlet adverts in vogue at the time. Unhurried, relaxed elegance, like all the best players.

Dublin weren’t very accommodating to the Kildare stylists when we reached our first Leinster Senior final in fourteen years in the summer of 1992. Buckley had scored seven points in each of the previous rounds against Wicklow and Westmeath but Dublin’s “rough-house” tactics unnerved a young Lilywhite team and while Nuxer was instrumental in an encouraging second-half comeback the gap of nine points proved too much to close.

It was non-stop football for Niall at that stage. Earlier in the summer he’d added a Leinster under-21 title to the minor won the previous year. Again, Dublin were vanquished, this time by 2-12 to 0-9, with Buckley again having Byrne, Ryan, Rainbow and Quinn as teammates.

Laden as they were with county seniors, Kildare were highly regarded heading into a semi-final with Galway in Tullamore, but just as happened 21 years later, Kildare misfired and a Ja Fallon-inspired Tribe side deservedly edged home by four points.

The county senior side seemed to be maturing nicely when they destroyed Offaly in the Leinster Semi Final of 1993 with Buckley scoring 1-6 (the goal from a long range free), but the Leinster final saw Dublin bully the short grass men once more. This time there was less hint of a resistance as Micko’s troops lost their third major final in four years to the Metropolitans.

As luck would not have it, the two sides were drawn together in the first round in 1994 but Kildare failed to take advantage of a Dublin off-day the first time around and were convincingly beaten the second day. Micko walked out of town and there weren’t too many rushing to change his mind.

Buckley breaks through the tackle of Dublin’s Keith Barr during the drawn Leinster quarter-final in 1994
Photo: © INPHO

Dermot Earley Senior never really managed to pick up the pieces from O’Dwyer’s first act. His teams went out of the Championship in the first round in 1995 and 1996, the abiding memory of the Louth debacle (in RTE’s first live Sunday Game broadcast) being Buckley’s nightmare as two twenty-metre frees were squandered in a disastrous Kildare performance.

You wouldn’t have blamed the lad from taking a break from the game at that point. Having played three years at minor, three at under-21, a stint in Oz and five intense years at senior, Buckley also had to contend with tragedy in December 1995.

Michael Gerard had qualified with a degree in Science from UCD and found work in Hickson’s Chemicals in Cork. Sadly, at just 27 years of age, he lost his life in a car accident at Raffeen, near Cork Harbour.

His older brother had always been a big supporter of Niall, whether it was attending matches, helping him with this free-taking practice or accompanying him to award ceremonies. The loss must have been unimaginable.

Nuxer kept up with the slog, though, and played through that winter and summer. By the end of 1996, the second coming of Micko had arrived. The rest as they say is history.

Glen Ryan rightly earns most of the plaudits for the “not this time” 13-man defiance against Laois in 1997 but Buckley was outstanding throughout that summer’s campaign.

The callow youths of ’92 and ’93 had grown up and with the perfect tutor back at the helm they set about disproving a few myths about Kildare football, most notably about their character.

Buckley’s own career arguably peaked in the first two games against Meath. John McDermott had won an All Star the year before but Nuxer lorded it over him to win the man-of-the-match award the first day.

Buckley rises highest during the first of the three Leinster semi-finals against Meath in 1997
Photo: © James Meehan/INPHO

He was even better in the second game. If you haven’t done so I highly recommend you seek out the recently released full match action from that absorbing game. This was the very essence of Buckley, plucking ball from the air, a solo to make space, a foot pass into the half-forward line, making himself available for the return.

And of course, slotting points from everywhere. He scored four in all, three from play. It was one of the great Kildare performances.

The team didn’t really get going the third day, partly because Buckley was not given the space to operate as he had been previously. Meath being Meath, at least the Meath of that time, some of that “attention” may not always have been within the spirit of the rulebook. Allegedly.

Buckley would be rewarded individually with an All Star that winter but the collective reward came the following summer.

The Dublin hoodoo was finally put to bed in the quarter-final ending 26 years of championship subservience to the neighbours. And Buckley was at the heart of it, slotting two frees from the left sideline that will live long in the memory.

Buckley had another good battle with McDermott in the final against Meath and while he wasn’t as dominant in the air and failed to get on the scoresheet, he was still everywhere, fetching and carrying tirelessly and varying the game by putting his boot to it when necessary, short or long.

I will always remember the gasp that went around the Cusack Stand the day of the All Ireland semi-final as news came that we would have to face the champions Kerry without Nuxer. A quadricep injury, picked up against Meath, had failed a fitness test on the Saturday morning.

O’Dwyer implored his team to “Win it for Niall and give him the All-Ireland he deserves” and Buckley raised the team’s spirits by coming onto the turf for the National Anthem.

They did do it of course and there was no way O’Dwyer was leaving him out of the final, even if he has admitted some level of regret for that decision. Buckley was still struggling, but with Quinn unable to tog out and Ryan also not fully fit, Micko clearly felt that a half-fit Buckley had to play.

He was clearly not himself, and while both he and Ryan contributed plenty to Kildare’s first-half performance and half-time lead, neither could keep that up. Fallon would come back to haunt him again six years on from Tullamore and whatever Buckley tried he couldn’t force himself into a game that was slipping away as soon as Padraig Joyce found Byrne’s net.

A hamstring injury picked up in a challenge against Tipperary limited Nuxer to twelve minutes as Kildare slunk out of the championship to Offaly in the first round in 1999.

Many thought the break from the grindstone would do the players good, and Buckley was still only 26 and approaching the peak years for a footballer.

He had other ideas though. He was suspended for Sash’s County Final success over Allenwood (having previously won titles in 1993 and 1994) but was a key figure in the run to a Leinster final defeat to Na Fianna.

Buckley tries to get past Na Fianna’s Karl Donnolly during the 1999 Leinster Club Final
Photo: ©INPHO/Tom Honan

But Niall had decided to seek out new horizons. Chicago beckoned and the St. Brendan’s club welcomed him back with open arms. Employment was offered in construction and he committed himself to St. Brendan’s championship ambitions for 2000.

The millennium year turned into another odyssey for the Kildare footballers but they would journey without the classy midfielder.

Buckley’s bags were packed to come home when correspondence from the GAA HQ reached him. In the last paragraph it underlined that should he come home and play for Kildare he would make himself ineligible to play club football in Chicago that summer. It is still unclear under which rule this was the case.

Niall had given his word to his club and stayed put and led them to their first North American title. We can only speculate now whether he might have made all the difference in the quest for Sam that year. He certainly would not have done any harm!

He did make a return in 2001. An initial substitute appearance against Carlow led to a starting berth in the Leinster Semi-Final against Meath, but despite him landing a trademark ’45, Kildare were not at the races. The qualifiers beckoned.

No one realised it at the time but his final outing in the jersey would coincide with one of the greatest nights in St. Conleth’s Park’s history (prior to Newbridge or Nowhere of course). Kildare emerged victorious in a game that might define the term “topsy turvy”.

It was Buckley’s 74th competitive game for Kildare, all but three of which he’d started and his two points brought his tally to 4-228, a total of 240 points that puts him joint fourth with Tommy Carew on the top scoring lists for the county.

Buckley pulled a hamstring in training for the next round and missed out on the shock defeat to Sligo in Croke Park. That autumn brought a stylish performance as Sarsfields overcame Moorefield to win another county title and a Compromise Rules trip Down Under to bring his international appearances to four.

One can only speculate on the impact a fit and committed Buckley would have had on the 2002 and 2003 Leinster Finals. Better to remember the joy his stylish play brought during a remarkable career.

By Richard Commins

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