Kevin Feely looking forward to Division One challenge
By Cian O'Connell
The promise of a brighter future has sustained Kildare for much of the past decade. That is what happens when underage success is sampled, but Kildare know that the time to truly deliver at senior level is arriving.
Promotion to Allianz Football League Division One was secured, while a return to the Leinster Final offered another source of encouragement.
Defeats against Dublin and Armagh, though, provided a stark reminder of the strides Kildare need to take, but the Lilywhite journey is well underway.
Midfielder Kevin Feely is delighted that Kildare will compete at the highest level in the spring. "So exciting, even during the whole off-season every one has been excited talking about Division One and the challenges it will bring and we're just really going to make sure we are competitive in every game," Feely says.
"We think it will be a real benchmark for us in terms of where we are and a test for us to see if what we are doing is going in the right direction.
The importance of the league can't be stressed enough any more in terms of where it leaves you leading into Championship.
"The perception of you as a team in the country, if you are competing in Division One, that perception is that you are a top team and that's what we want.
"We were happy with Division Two, getting promoted. But this year is the real test. If we can show that we are competitive in Division One and do ourselves justice in every game, do what Cian is looking for out of us. Hopefully we'll be in a good position to bounce on."
Feely delivered several outstanding displays for Kildare during the League and Championship in 2017. "It was great to play every game last year, build a bit of momentum, a bit more confidence and a bit more experience, learning from the previous year," Feely admits.
"I would have learned a huge amount in terms of how to play midfield at inter-county level because I was completely new to it in 2016 and I learned a huge amount this year. "When a team has a decent year individual performances stand out more because the team is doing well.
"Any individual things that went well for me were all a reflection of the fact that Kildare made huge progress last year and we got promoted to Division One, decent run in Leinster, then let ourselves down against Armagh.
"Overall, we did make progress and we were reasonably happy with our progress in Kildare. Good starting base going into next year."
Losing a Round 4 Qualifier to a Jamie Clarke inspired Armagh was a setback though according to Feely. "We were devastated after that game, not just because we lost an All-Ireland qualifier, but we felt we didn't perform," Feely acknowledges.
"We felt Armagh outplayed us and got the better of us tactically. They got their tactics right and we weren't able to deal with it as it was happening on the pitch.
"It showed a lack of leadership on the pitch from ourselves and we very much recognised on the pitch what went wrong for us and we didn't react to adversity because we met something we hadn't come across all year and weren't able to deal with it.
"Just a complete change in kick-out strategy from the other team, how they dealt with our kick-out strategy.
"They had a different system to what we had come across altogether in terms of bringing midfield and half-forwards back into their own half leaving massive space for their three or four forwards that they left up.
"It completely left our backs exposed and it was very naive on our part on the pitch not realising what was happening at the time. "It's something we reflected on and we're hoping to maybe build on that next year."
Valuable lessons were learned and Feely is looking forward to seeing how some of the emerging talent in Kildare copes during the Bord Na Mona O'Byrne Cup.
"All the new guys who have come in in the pre-season panel, bar one, have all played minor or U-21 with Kildare and would be really well known, well recognised among ourselves as strong, talented minor and U-21 players," Feely says.
"Definitely seeing the fruits of it in terms of guys coming into the senior panel and challenging for places. We are really excited to see how they fit in with us in our system now coming in to the season.
"That's the great thing about the O'Byrne Cup, an opportunity to blood new players to see can they push the guys that are already there."
Feely's aerial ability was evident during the last campaign perfectly capturing why the 'mark' was introduced. "Brilliant rule," is Feely's assessment. "Across the country it has been welcomed very much.
"It has brought back a lot of fielding. It's a lot more prevalent than in previous years because it stands out more. A guy catches a ball, ref blows his whistle and it comes to a stop. It's exaggerated a little more.
"It has encouraged teams to go long with their kicks a little bit more because their attacking platform is now in the middle third of the pitch, it's a lot better than giving a ball to your corner-back and having to build an attack from there.
"It gives teams with a strong midfield an advantage for that attacking platform." Feely will continue to deliver for Kildare, who are busy preparing for a revealing stint.