Best in Leinster, but good enough for an All Ireland?
Following on from last week’s hurling decider between Kilkenny and Dublin, comes the football equivalent in Leinster between Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare and Pat Gilroy’s Dublin.
Like Brian Cody’s men last Sunday, Dublin will be aiming for their fifth provincial title in-a-row. Of course, they haven’t achieved anything even close to what The Cats have managed on the All-Ireland stage but they are formidable opponents at this time of the year nonetheless.
Both sides enjoyed thoroughly comprehensive victories in their semi-finals, the Lilywhites against Laois and Dublin against Westmeath, which means that both will be looking to try and match near-perfect performances going into Sunday’s game. Both teams, in their own ways, proved a thing or two during the course of these victories.
Kildare, for instance, were still remembered at the start of the season as the team that were beaten by Wicklow in the opening round of Leinster last year, and were also accused of being too reliant on Johnny Doyle to get their scores for them. The first part was perhaps slightly unfair on them, as Wicklow have shown that they are no pushovers in the Championship, and Kildare’s form did pick up significantly after that defeat as they went on to compete quite well with Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final. However, this didn’t stop people questioning just how good they were, and while they were very impressive against Offaly and Wexford, there was as much talk about how far those two counties had gone back as there was about the progress that Kildare had made. The semi-final against Laois helped to change this though, as a 15-point win against a side who had enjoyed an excellent start to the game has seen a lot people stand up and take notice, with many pundits giving them a great chance of coming out on top against Dublin.
The issue about them being reliant on Doyle has also been addressed, with all six forwards making valuable contributions so far. Doyle is still dangerous and had a hand in many scores the last day, Alan Smith has three goals in the Championship this year, James Kavanagh has two and a number of points to go with it, Ronan Sweeney is enjoying his finest season to date in a white jersey, Eamonn Callaghan has provided a physical edge and Padraig O’Neill gives a strong work ethic that is vital for any half-forward.
All this will make Kildare a tough nut to crack at the weekend, though McGeeney and Doyle were doing their best to play down their victory after the game in Tullamore against Sean Dempsey’s charges. Kildare fans can be very passionate and during both of Mick O’Dwyer’s terms as manager, expectations did become very high. This is why Dublin’s trouncing of Westmeath the following day would have been warmly welcomed by their neighbours.
This, as Johnny Doyle pointed out during the week, brought everyone down to earth very quickly and made them focus even more firmly on the task ahead. It truly was an impressive display from Dublin, with their first nine shots on goal producing nine scores. It was obvious that a lot of work was done on the training ground to reduce the number of wides which were extremely high in the previous round against Meath. Again, like Kildare, there were strong performances from the six forwards, Bernard Brogan and Jason Sherlock especially, with Conal Keaney, Alan Brogan and Paul Flynn also making valuable contributions. Diarmuid Connolly may not have made a huge contribution to the scoreboard and he continues to be something of an enigma, but he did make a number of telling runs at the Westmeath defence which weren’t really picked up by his marker.
After that game against Meath, Dublin came in for a lot of criticism, much of it deserved. Yet, it was a bit hasty of people to completely rule them out of All-Ireland contention at this early stage because the eventual winners often enjoy lacklustre starts to their seasons. This isn’t suggesting that Dublin will win the Sam Maguire this year, and Pat Gilroy no doubt knows that they have a lot more work to do before they can even think about even getting to a final, never mind winning it.
Gilroy seems a lot more willing to take on board criticism of his team than his predecessor Pillar Caffrey, who seemed to adopt a siege mentality towards any negativity towards his team, in particular the areas of indiscipline and goading of opposition players. These two factors don’t seem to present at the moment with the current Dublin panel, and it was also interesting to hear Bernard Brogan saying that he may have overdone his celebration against Westmeath. It makes you wonder if he would have said this two or three years ago.
Another feature of both sides this year has been the introduction of some fresh faces to the side, and in vital positions as well. Gilroy has made some very bold decisions since he took over, by giving the 3,6,8 and 9 jerseys to new players this year. The defensive lynchpins are Templeogue/Synge Street’s Denis Bastick and St. Vincent’s Ger Brennan, while Ross McConnell and Darren Magee are occupying the midfield positions. None of these players are particularly young but they are relatively inexperienced in their current positions. What makes their selection an even bigger gamble is when you consider the position that they found themselves in at the end of last year.
Bastick was dropped from the panel prior the National League final before he captained the Junior team to an All-Ireland title, Brennan had a hiatus from the squad mid-Championship before returning as an unused substitute for the Tyrone defeat, Darren Magee was behind Ciaran Whelan, Shane Ryan and Eamonn Fennell in the pecking order for midfield and Ross McConnell had just come through a very uncomfortable summer at full-back.
Now all four have been trusted with a major responsibility, and they have all adapted to the role with varied degrees of success. Bastick has done a number of things right, but will still be looking to eradicate a number of faults that were present in his performance the last day. A dropped high-ball led to Westmeath’s first point and he dived unnecessarily when Denis Glennon snuck in along the end line late in the second half. Brennan has played well in the two Championship games so far, but there are still concerns about his pace and also about his tendency to give his marker a lot of time on the ball.
The McConnell-Magee partnership has worked well so far and they comfortably won the midfield battles against Meath and Westmeath, Magee being something of a revelation by bringing his club form onto the county scene. They will be up against it when they face the Kildare midfield however, as Dermot Earley and Daryl Flynn have been just as impressive in terms of winning primary possession and also contributing in the scoring department.
Gilroy hasn’t been alone in giving players a chance of course, as McGeeney has also given opportunities to a few players. Goalkeeper Tom Corley was the first-choice goalkeeper at the start of the Championship last year, before Enda Murphy came in for the end of the Championship. Murphy has since retired and the Moorefield net-minder has returned to nailed down his spot on the team. Hugh McGrillen, who plays midfield for his club Celbridge, failed to make the starting line-up for the Kildare Under-21s last year. McGeeney spotted his potential to operate as corner-back though, and has made the No.2 jersey his own, evidenced by his excellent man-marking job on Laois’ Ross Munnelly two weeks ago. Others like Mikey Conway, Daryl Flynn and Padraig O’Neill are starting to deliver on their early promise to make life a lot easier for McGeeney and his selectors, Paul Grimley and Niall Carew.
So, all this will make the two sides evenly matched once they get onto the field on Sunday, with Kildare having had the benefit of a half-hour training session in GAA HQ last Tuesday. The result of the game will depend greatly on who comes out on top in the vital midfield battle where both sides are quite evenly matched. If things go wrong for Dublin this area, they have the option of introducing Ciaran Whelan and Shane Ryan, while Kildare will have the experience of Killian Brennan to call on if needs be.
The one area that Dublin did struggle in the last day was in the full-back line and if Kildare get a good supply of possession to the inside forward line they have the potential to cause problems. Rory O’Carroll drops out of the team after he opted to travel for the summer. His place is taken by Paddy Andrews, better known as a forward, who now takes on the left-corner-back role which was occupied by his brother Peadar ten years ago.
He will more than likely face Sarsfields’ Smith, who is in excellent form, while David Henry will need to be on top of his game against Johnny Doyle, who is still a talisman for the Lilywhites. Similarly, the Kildare defence, improving with every game, will not want to give the Dublin forward line the time and space that was afforded to them by the Westmeath back line in the semi-final.
It is safe to say that this will not happen on Sunday, and there should be very little between two sides who have played out a lot of very close games in the Championship in the past. Dublin and Kildare have been the two best teams in Leinster this year and Sunday will tell just how well-placed the two teams are to challenge for an All-Ireland title this September.