IF THE GAA is foolish enough to pay managers, and if it does lead to a form of professionalism, then one could surmise that it might eventually lead to a transfer market; after all, what European court would deny a player’s right to take up a contract wherever he wants?
It’s a nightmare scenario, but the thought occurred during Sunday’s game between Kildare and Dublin that if there was a Gaelic football transfer market, one type of player would be worth four times the price of any other; the sort of inside forward that can regularly produce a moment bordering genius that gets umpires reaching for the green flag.
For the only type of player that Kildare lack in their mission to close the gap on the top three of Cork, Dublin and Kerry is a Colm Cooper or a Niall McNamee; one with an almost soccer-style of trickery and imagination that can turn the biggest of games.
It is a lazy stereotype to say that Kildare have no good forwards, perhaps a hangover from assessments of their ever-ready team of the late 90s, when there was at least a grain of truth in the charge.
James Kavanagh has been scoring heavily since 2008 and him, Alan Smith and Eamonn Callaghan have all been nominated for All-Stars. Johnny Doyle needs no introduction and is likely to return to the forward line this year if Dermot Earley’s rehabilitation goes to plan; and those who thoughtlessly label all Kildare footballers as brainless automatons who are uncomfortable with a size 5 have not watched Eoghan O’Flaherty or Mikey Conway closely.
After that, Tomas O’Connor offers something different, and proved too much for Dublin newcomer Sean Murray on Sunday. Padraig O’Neill and Ronan Sweeney add power; Robert Kelly has proved his class in Sigerson; Fionn Dowling and Padraig Fogarty have caught the eye at underage level. That’s before we get to Ken Donnelly, scorer of four points from play in a Leinster final yet well down the pecking order, or Seamus Hanifin, who is not even in the pecking order given that he is not on the Kildare panel, but who was at home in a prodigious UCC forward line until he suffered a knee injury.
No, Kildare have more than their share of good forwards, and in Doyle they have a great one; but they do not have one that can be relied upon to score every free within 50 metres and, more crucially, they do not have a Cooper, who can turn a tight match on its head and make it look as if the carnage occurred simply because he felt it was time.
Cooper is, of course, a rarity in that we would argue he is the best footballer ever to lace a boot. But Kildare would settle for a McNamee (watch his magic in a losing cause against Meath in 2010 again before you query his inclusion in this list) or a Paddy Bradley. They could argue with some conviction that in almost every department they are at least Dublin’s equal; but they have twice lost close games against the Dubs, primarily because of the existence of Bernard Brogan, another player the Lilywhites would kill for. Kildare are not alone in this category, for such players are rare; Mayo are another side with plenty of talented attackers but no cold-blooded net-rattler. Donegal may have Michael Murphy, but they are also light in this department; Colm McFadden was the opposite of icy when he had a chance to beat Stephen Cluxton from the edge of the square in last season’s All-Ireland semi-final, and McFadden is by no stretch a bad forward.
Kieran McGeeney’s men may look the most likely of the pack chasing the big three to cause an upset, but can they really beat Cork, Dublin or Kerry in August or September with that uncertainty over frees and without that knowledge in the opposing full-back line’s heads that one slight slip of concentration is near-guaranteed to cost three points?
Cast your mind back to the 18th minute of last September’s All-Ireland final, when Colm Cooper took Darran O’Sullivan’s pass and turned to face Hill 16 with Cluxton advancing and three Dublin defenders closing. The million-plus watching just knew it was already a goal. Yes, Kildare have good forwards, but none that could be absolutely counted on to finish coolly to the net on such a big occasion. Most All-Ireland winning teams have that threat. If Seanie Johnston decides to turn his back on Cavan Gaels as well as Cavan, he may solve Kildare’s free-taking problems, but he will not solve that ‘genius’ problem. And it is difficult to back Kildare to land the big one while the asterisk remains.
Oh, but they will go close. Consider their assets. Shane Connolly’s smart stop from Paddy Andrews on Sunday was further evidence that he is one of Ireland’s most promising keepers. Outside him, Kildare’s full-back line looked imperious; and two of them were not even there, in that All-Star Mick Foley and All-Star-in-waiting Hugh McGrillen did not start. The 2010 All-Star, Peter Kelly, announced his return from a year of injury with a man-of-the-match performance; he has the potential to be the finest corner-back in the land once Marc Ó Sé departs the scene.
They have enough half-back options to join the inexhaustible Emmet Bolton and thus match any of the big three in that department; at midfield, they cannot wait for the chance to partner Earley with Darryl Flynn, their most consistent and combative player. They have the prototype selfless team player in Doyle; and, as we have pointed out, an array of extremely-good-rather-than-great attackers to complement him.
Another lazy stereotype they have been confounding for four years is an alleged lack of mental strength; like their late 90s predecessors, Kildare will simply not stop trying, as their showings against Down and Donegal in the past two years prove. Forget too, this notion that they have to win something next year. We heard this ‘win or bust’ guff every year about Cork and Dublin for at least six years before they reached the promised land. If Kildare don’t win something this year, what else are they going to do other than return at full-tilt in 2013? Give up football and join Roy Keane on a Mexican backpacking expedition?
If they are to win an All-Ireland, they would probably have to do it the way Cork did, by being four points the better team in order to win by one. That was the boat they found themselves in in 1998; it was good enough then to beat the previous three All-Ireland champions, but not a Galway side who were inferior from 1-9 but had the cherished X-Factor in abundance in the form of Donnellan, Fallon and Joyce.
So this year, Kildare, one of the most dedicated and entertaining sides in the land, may add up all the inches and again find themselves short by a centimetre; but if their games of the past four seasons are anything to go by, it will be riveting to watch them try.