Lillies beginning to bloom
By John Harrington
A series of false dawns means your average Kildare football supporter usually isn’t of a sunnily optimistic disposition.
The county has produced a lot of talented young footballers in recent years and at different times it looked like the Lilywhites were ready to challenge the game’s elite.
But a loss of some talented players to the AFL, serious injuries to some others, and the questionable big-match temperament of the team in general has seen much of that potential wither on the vine.
But even if Kildare supporters dare not allow themselves to become too optimistic, there are signs that their team is now consistently moving in the right direction again. Consecutive promotions and a return to Division 1 of the Allianz Football League next year wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise.
Manager Cian O’Neill brought over 50 players into his panel in his first season in charge last year and tried a number of different strategies with varying degrees of success. Now that he’s in his second season he has a better understanding of what constitutes his best team and the tactical approach that suits them best.
“Yeah, I'd definitely agree with that,” admits Kildare team captain Eoin Doyle.
“I think when the lads first came in they changed everything in terms of backroom and players.
“Everything was changed, so for the players everything was new and that takes time to develop and for lads to get used to things.
“Maybe the style of football we were trying to play last year didn't suit us particularly well or else we didn't get on with it overly well, but this year we seem to be playing better and developing more.
“We're playing more as a team and more consistently which is important. It breeds confidence in the team when you're getting results.”
O’Neill had built a panel of some considerable strength in depth. He made 14 changes to his already promoted team for last weekend’s match with Galway in Pearse Stadium, and yet only lost by a point.
Competition for places in the first XV is intense, and training this week will surely have been spiky as they prepare for another joust with Galway on Sunday when the teams contest the Allianz Football League Division 2 Final.
“That's one thing that Cian has wanted to do,” says Doyle. “He's wanted a strong squad which we believe we have. I think a lot of that is down to the younger lads who are coming in.
“He's brought in an awful lot of younger lads from underage teams that have done quite well in the past couple of years and those lads have come in and made an impact which is good and which was needed.
“You can see that in the way they train and play the ambition that they have. They're used to winning and that's a very good mentality to have. When you're used to that you don't want to let it up.”
The form of Kevin Feely has been one of the biggest positives of Kildare’s season to date.
A former professional footballer with Charlton Athletic, Carlistle United, AFC Wimbledon, and Newport County in England, 24-year-old Feely returned home last year and immediately joined up with the Kildare panel.
The former Kildare underage star has made a quick readjustment to playing Gaelic Football at the highest level, excelling in the Lilywhite midfield this year.
“We've all been impressed by Kevin,” says Doyle. “I suppose when Kevin came back last year he had been away for a number of years.
“He wasn't involved with the senior team before, but he would have been in with the U-21s and was quite successful with Athy so you always knew the potential that he had and what he could bring.
“And, in fairness, he's brought it. He's got great determination and obviously a great skill-set as well, and so far he's matched the two of them and has been playing really well for us.
“He brings with him an determination and a desire to always want to improve. He's just working really hard and is always willing to learn and better himself, whether that means improving his skill-set or mentality of whatever it is.
“He's just always willing to improve and wants everyone around him to improve as well. Hopefully he can keep going from strength to strength.”
Winning some silverware in Croke Park on Sunday would be the perfect launch-pad for Kildare’s Championship summer. They’re an encouraging work in progress, but Doyle knows they still have a lot to prove.
“I think we're definitely getting towards the place where we want to be, but I don't think we're there quite yet,” he says.
“We have lost players to the AFL and Kevin was playing soccer and last year we had a lot of long-term injuries and recurring injuries and in terms of team selection that's very difficult.
“We spoke about the strength you want in the squad, but when you're missing players it's not just taking from the team, it's taking from the strength of the squad. It's hard to maybe get that consistency of lads training and playing together, week in, week out.
“In terms of the ups and downs since I came in, yeah, it's definitely been up and down. We were in Division 2, then Division 1. Then down to 3 and back up to 1 now. I think what we managed this year to a certain degree is that level of consistency.
“Being able to play to a relatively high standard that we're looking for. We've still had a few ups and downs along the way which we can improve on.
“We're not where we want to be in terms of everything, but we're definitely making strides to get there and being led well by our management which is good."