Jack O’Connor’s appointment as Kildare manager in late 2019 was met with excitement within the county and intrigue throughout the rest of the country.
The three-time All-Ireland winning boss with Kerry took the reins in the Leinster county amidst initial hype. But given the disrupted nature of the 2020 season and the knockout championship, the first year was largely viewed as underwhelming.
Back-to-back National League wins over Cavan and Westmeath upon the restart last October were enough to stave off relegation fears, and ultimately they were not far off promotion.
A four-point victory over Offaly in their championship opener set up a Leinster semi-final against Meath. All was going swimmingly at the halfway mark, as the Lilywhites led 0-10 to 0-4. However, a second-half collapse from O’Connor’s team saw the Royals take control and win 5-9 to 0-15.
Six months on, and the pain of that defeat has not subsided.
“We were awfully disappointed coming out of Croke Park. We thought we had played well in the first half against Meath, and then the Suez Canal opened up in the second half. And we just let them run through us,” the Kerry native reflected, after Saturday’s win over Cork.
“We’re trying to get better defensively. We didn’t have a huge amount of time to work with the lads last year. I think we had two weeks after the club season to get all the players together. So it wasn’t easy to work on stuff.
“We’ve had a bit more time, we’ve had four weeks this time. And I thought we were solid [against Cork]. I don’t think we gave away too many goal chances, never mind goals.”
Next generation beginning to ‘grow up’
It is now three years since Kildare’s memorable summer of 2018. The Lilywhites won the U20 All-Ireland title, while their seniors embarked on an odyssey through the championship including the ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ win over Mayo before holding their own in the Super 8s.
The following two years have failed to continue along that upward trajectory, however.
Nonetheless, while 2020 may not have produced any eye-catching results on the field, there have been signs of progress.
It was a winter of change, with Peter Kelly, Keith Cribbin and Tommy Moolick all retiring in the wake of the Meath defeat.
But there are green shoots to offset such losses. Five players made their championship debuts in the Leinster quarter-final win over Offaly. Of that quintet, Darragh Kirwan made the most telling impact on the day, scoring six points; five from open play and one from a mark.
The Naas forward looks to have kicked on. When Daniel Flynn was forced ashore due to a hamstring injury at Semple Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Kirwan took up the mantle.
In the inside-forward line alongside Jimmy Hyland, the hero of the 2018 U20 All-Ireland final, Kirwan excelled. The duo combined for 1-3 from play after Flynn’s withdrawal in the 30th minute.
“They’re two good young lads, two good young players. And they’ve a good chemistry between them,” O’Connor said of Kirwan and Hyland.
“Now Daniel Flynn was on fire early on. It was just an awful pity that he had to go off. We just hope Daniel now isn’t too bad. It looks like he has a bit of a hamstring twinge. So we’ll assess him. But he kept us in the game, early on in the first 20 minutes it was he kept us in the game.
“But the boys grew up inside there. They’re two young lads and they played well together. And Neil Flynn gave us a nice focal point when he came on and used the ball very well.”
Entering year two of his three-year term, O’Connor will be looking to kick on and deliver results. Given the championship is being played on a knockout basis once again in 2020, Kildare’s chances of progressing beyond Leinster look slim given Dublin’s dominance in the province.
The National League, therefore, takes on particular significance. Their promotion push looks to be on-course after the comeback win over the Lee-siders.
“I’m delighted with the last three quarters of the game. We didn’t start great now, Cork kicked the first three points and looked very comfortable with the game they were playing. They ran and they had overlaps. So it took us about 15 minutes to get to grips with them,” O’Connor said.
“But I thought after that we started controlling the game and played it on our terms. We were able to get bodies back, turn them over and play on the break, which was great from our point of view. We went in at half-time a point up, not having played great in my estimation. Cork were a bit unlucky that they weren’t at least level if not ahead at half-time because they missed a fair few chances down there.
“We said to the boys at half-time that we could play a lot better than that. In the second half, we did. And the pleasing thing for me was there was great fight in the team. They fought like tigers for every ball, particularly in the tackling. We tackled in twos and threes and showed great desire.
“Look, we won’t get carried away with one day, but it gives us confidence that we’re going in the right direction, that’s all.”
He will be hoping that the destination is Division 1.
One further win against Clare (home) or Laois (away) in the coming weeks is likely to secure a promotion play-off against a team from Division 2 North. But given Mayo’s searing start, teams will be looking to top the ‘south’ group in a bid to avoid a potential play-off against the 2020 All-Ireland finalists.
NFL Division 2 South
“The first game is crucial of course. You’re on the back foot if you don’t win that one,” O’Connor noted.
“Sure it keeps us in the hunt to get another game in the semi-finals or whatever they call them, I’m not too sure what they call them.”
He can call them whatever he likes. If a return to the top tier of the National League is sealed in the coming weeks, belief will grow Jack O’Connor’s Kildare revolution is set for a belated lift-off.
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