WE WERE told last year that it was now or never for Kieran McGeeney and Kildare, and yet here they are, still with us, kicking ball with enough purpose to sit joint top of Division One of the National Football League.
A bit like the senseless expression “must win”, I’ve never understood the phrase “now or never”. It probably makes little sense to Kieran McGeeney either. Only last week we were rewatching the closing moments of the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final, when a rare McGeeney mistake led to a free, a chance for Dublin to level the match.
Ray Cosgrove sized up the kick, the hopes of the thousands on Hill 16 resting on his right boot as he looked up towards them. It was a gripping moment and even in 2013 we were riveted. Cosgrove missed it again. Armagh celebrated with gusto.
We now know that Armagh would become a team that would routinely win such big matches, but their sense of relief at that final whistle in 2002 was palpable: because before that, they were known as bottlers. They would of course go on to win a watershed All-Ireland final a few weeks later.
Thing is, McGeeney was probably hearing the phrase “now or never” in 1999 and 2000, when people were saying Armagh needed to break through before their best players got any older. They lost All-Ireland semi-finals in both those years and many journalists and supporters thought Armagh’s chance had gone.
Before that team’s first Ulster title in ’99, McGeeney probably heard “must win” before the rake of Ulster championship matches that the Orchard lost: remember, they didn’t make a single provincial final between 1990 and 1999.
Turns out all those people would have been more accurate if they had said “now or 2002”. So in previewing Kildare’s game with Dublin in Croke Park on Sunday, let us acknowledge that it is a big test for McGeeney’s team, but let there be no guff about it being a “must win” game or a “now or never” year for them.
It’s a test they are likely to fail, if you’re asking us. It is strange to say that Kildare have beaten the past four All-Ireland champions in their past four games without looking at all convincing. Dublin fielded fewer regulars in the O’Byrne Cup final. Donegal were missing key men and were killed off by a freak John Doyle goal. Cork looked in control before Damien Cahalane’s stupid sending off, and on Sunda, we were left saying that Kildare beat Kerry because they had the more economical forwards. In fact, you’ve probably never said that before, unless you were watching football in the 1920s.
And yet, to suggest that they have gotten lucky four times running is obviously pushing it. There is a lot for the Lilies to be enthused about. Peter Kelly and Michael Foley are two of the best inside backs in the land and they looked it against Kerry. New midfielder and half-forward Daniel Flynn had another fine game and centre-forward Niall Kelly, another addition, has the makings of a brilliant footballer.
Doyle is thriving close to goal, as evidenced by his screamer against the Kingdom, and, lo and behold, Tomás O’Connor is improving by leaps and lay-offs: he created both goals against Cork, and had a hand in both on Sunday. Seanie Johnston did enough to take TG4’s man of the match award — even if Johnny Buckley should have got it.
As well as a reasonably potent full-forward line, Kildare still have Eamonn Callaghan and Darryl Flynn to come back. So what’s not to like?
Well, it’s a hard one to put your finger on, and yet the feeling that Kildare are a long way short of being the real deal persists.
Maybe it’s as simple as saying that too many Kildare players still look susceptible to taking the wrong option under intense pressure, or that they still lack a truly exceptional score-getter in the mould of Colm Cooper or Bernard Brogan.
Don’t get us wrong: they are winning matches without playing superbly and will give the very best teams in Ireland their fill of it this summer. They have done that consistently enough that we feel confident in saying last year’s capitulation to Cork was a one-off. But they also seem unlikely to win an All-Ireland semi-final or final, to beat those very best teams rather than just rattle them.
We will know a little more about Kildare after Sunday. Even if they are hammered, they will be back time and again, because McGeeney, who will hope the parallels with Armagh at the turn of the century hold true, knows no other way.