Ciaran Kilkenny now Dublin's main man
By John Harrington
Dublin’s crushing victory over Westmeath in the Leinster SFC Semi-Final signaled a changing of the guard.
For the first time in a very long time in Championship football they fielded a team without any of the three attacking pillars who have contributed hugely to the county’s dominance of the game in recent years – Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, and Paul Flynn.
That left their forward line with an unfamiliar, almost weakened look on paper, but the reality was something entirely different.
They steam-rolled over Westmeath, scoring a whopping tally of 4-29, of which 1-14 was scored from play by three young men who look ready to establish themselves as the new Holy Trinity of the Dublin attack – Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, and Con O’Callaghan.
Kilkenny, of course, has been a very important player for Dublin for a number of years, but now he’s the undisputed leader of their attack.
He’s the man who gets his hands on the ball more than any other, the man who dictates the tempo of the game, the man who consistently makes himself available to others time and again.
All those qualities were very apparent against Westmeath, and he also scored first goal for Dublin to add an extra layer of icing to a very sweet display.
The Castleknock man turned 24 last week and is coming into his prime as an athlete, so it’s no surprise to hear he’s feeling very good about his game right now.
“I feel great, yeah,” says Kilkenny. “It felt great on the field there the other day (against Westmeath).
“Just physically and mentally I felt like I was in a good place going into that game so I just need to go after that now for the next game and see if I can be in that headspace and physical space and go and improve on it.”
There are no airs and graces to Ciaran Kilkenny. He always comes across as a humble, likable guy, and he’s just as genuine in his approach to football as he is life in general.
Every day is a learning day, and at the start of every season he targets an area he feels he can make gains in.
“Yeah, like say for example one year you might focus on your diet one year, you might focus on the mental side of your game the next year,” says Kilkenny.
“There’s always little things you want to focus on every year and kind of motivates you.
“You can’t sit on your laurels; you need to improve any aspect that you can and that’s really important as a player.”
Kilkenny has always seemed mature beyond his years, but he naturally enough occupies a different place in the hierarchy of the Dublin dressing-room now than he did when he first walked into it.
Where once he was the precocious rookie, now he’s very much an established main-stay of the team and one of their most obvious on-pitch Generals.
“When I came in in 2012 Dublin had just won their first All-Ireland in 16 years and I was in awe of a lot of players,” says Kilkenny.
“Obviously I was very nervous, I just wanted to try my best and impress the lads.
“In every team you want everyone to be a leader, when you're coming into a group or a team, whether you're only in your first week or you're the last person out, everyone has their voice on the team and is expected to be a leader and if they see something to speak up and I think that's really important.
“That's why a strong panel of 30 lads there who have vast experience from club, college and other sports and they've all got their own, everyone thinks differently and that's really good that everyone is a leader on the team and that they do come up and talk, that's really important.”
Kilkenny’s possession and completed passes statistics are through the roof In every game he plays for Dublin, but some have suggested that’s because he too often takes safe option or passes laterally.
But Kilkenny doesn’t agree his is a safety-first approach, he thinks it’s a pragmatic one given how Gaelic Football has evolved in recent years.
“An important aspect when you're playing against blanket defences is retaining possession because it gives that great lift for hybrid defences when they do turn over possession so it's just important to be patient and wait for the right opportunity to give the ball to the man in the right position,” he says.
“I think that's very important for any team instead of maybe just handing it over to a lad in the opposition, it's very important to retain possession for the right opportunity.
“Even since I started in 2012 the game has evolved so much, it's crazy how much it has evolved in terms of strategy and tactics, every year you have to be different and evolving and bringing something different. We've changed a lot since 2014, it's 2017 now, we take a lot of learning and improvement from every year so that'll probably change again next year."
Dublin go into Sunday’s Leinster Final against Kildare as hot favourites, but Kilkenny is taking nothing for granted against a group of players he has respected since his underage days.
“We know that we need to improve the next day. We need to learn from the last game as well, because having looked at Kildare over the last couple of days, they were very impressive against Meath, they're very athletic, they've good forwards, good defence, a good system.
“And, obviously they've lads coming back from Australia as well with great physicality and athleticism, so we know it's going to be a serious game.
“A lot of lads are gone off now with the club for a couple of days, so we'll meet up at the weekend and we've two weeks to prepare for them.
"Really looking forward to it because I would have played against a lot of them at U21 and minor level. They would have beaten us in a minor game that went to a second replay.
"You get to know lads when you've played them three or four times. I would have played against a lot of that team. There was a good rivalry there, so looking forward to it because they're a good side."