Youthful promise over experience for Leinster semi-final

Youthful promise over experience for Leinster semi-final

IF YOU want evidence of how fleeting inter-county careers can be in this century, consider the Leinster semi-final between Kildare and Meath on Sunday.

The likely starting line-ups show the lack of relevance of any talk of Kildare avenging their defeat to the Royals from 2012, or of Meath redressing the three championship losses running they suffered to the Lilywhites before that.

Of the 30 players who started the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final between the counties, only nine made the team sheets for this year’s championship openers. It is a hell of a turnaround considering only three full seasons lie between the games in question.

Both sides are full of youthful promise and yet both are fragile and unconvincing entities that are one hiding away from yet another stem-and-root inquest.

They are a long stretch from the teams wearing the same jerseys that played such an easily recalled series of brilliant matches in the late 1990s. Those were hardy, driven outfits, among the best in Ireland, one an All-Ireland winner, the other a special forward short of joining them.

Yet if the pedigree is not comparable, the pressure on both camps is arguably just as high as when they were filling Croke Park, for the only thing worse than failing to compete with Dublin is losing to the team that fails to compete with Dublin.

Both sets of supporters expect more and both have a right to. There is plenty of talk of the advantage that Dublin’s greater resources entail, but Kildare and Meath are a long way back in the queue of those with any right to plead the poor mouth.

Jason Ryan has already complained of unreasonable expectations but these are two counties whose populations have roughly doubled in the space of two or three generations, whose people are football-mad, who endure less of the distractions from other sports than Dublin or Cork, and who are less affected by recession than most of the rest of Ireland.

Both have been to an All-Ireland semi-final in fairly recent times, but given all they have going for them, both should be fixtures among the top eight teams in the game at a minimum, something Meath have utterly failed to do since 2001, and something Kildare just about achieved for a spell under Kieran McGeeney before melting back into the pack.

Last season, each lost to Dublin – Meath with more honour – before each running Tyrone close, and if there is no shame in the latter, it does not mask the fact that until they prove otherwise, each are falling some distance short of their potential.

The responsibility for that failure stretches far beyond Ryan and Mick O’Dowd but it is they alone who will bear it on Sunday. In that context, both have shown some bravery in opting for a balance that favours the untried over the tested.

For Ryan, there is hope that he can prove that there is a grander plan afoot than a league that started sweet and turned sour long before the end suggested.

He seems to have placed a much greater emphasis on pace and invention than muscle; perhaps the very public humiliation Kildare endured chasing sky blue shadows last June, coupled with key retirements, left him with no choice.

There are signs it is working. Last summer, Emmet Bolton was inexplicably sluggish, a perfect example of Kildare’s broader lethargy. Against Louth, he was full once more of the superhuman running that had previously marked him out from the crowd.

He is not alone; those expecting a Kildare side with stereotypically uninspired forwards were not watching their five league defeats closely enough, for a lack of flair and finishing power was far from the cause of them. Moreover, Niall Kelly, the man with more potential than any other Lily to orchestrate attacks, is back and showing little ill effects of the injuries that kept him away.

There is surely hay to be made against a team that feels it must play Donal Keogan, one of the best corner-backs in Ireland, on the 45. If it all sounds scary for a Royal rearguard weakened by injury, there is also plenty to encourage O’Dowd’s men, for all of this improvement up front by Kildare was accompanied throughout spring by a complete inability to defend.

One stereotype, that of Meath forwards having a keener eye for the net, may yet hold true, and they would do well to pin much of their hopes on rattling the twine two or three times.

Meath might also feel a slight sense of umbrage that Kildare are marginal favourites when it is Meath who have made the past two Leinster finals, and given a better account of themselves against the Dublin machine than the Lilies managed.

It is set up for a clash that will carry the intensity of yesteryear, if not the quality. Both sides ought to play with the desperation of men who know the loser will slip further into irrelevance.

The untested make-up of both teams make predictions treacherous, but where’s the fun in letting that stop us?

Kildare to win.