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Contenders or pretenders? Doubts about Meath and Kildare persist despite Dublin decline

Only two Leinster wannabes have a chance to topple the Dubs … but doubts about the Lilywhites and the Royals still persist

Former Allenwood and Kildare footballer John Doyle, who is a current senior selector for the Lilywhites, in attendance at the launch of the 2022 Beko Leinster Club Champion at Croke Park. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Frank Roche

Johnny Doyle accepts that some people may accuse him of blind loyalty, but he is still convinced that “Kildare on their day will be a match for anybody” in this year’s Leinster SFC.

The Kildare selector is at pains to stress that his only focus this week is on Louth, whom they face in Tullamore on Sunday – but Doyle has been around the block long enough to realise that any ‘big picture’ discussion about Leinster football will revert within seconds to the Sky Blue elephant in the room.

Where Leinster was once a poster boy for revolutionary uprisings and all-round competitiveness, it has been rendered a lopsided non-event by Dublin’s total domination.

But after 11 consecutive provincial titles, often achieved via cricket-score margins, Dessie Farrell’s men were held to single-digit wins in all three rounds in 2021. When this was followed by implosion against Mayo, then demotion from Division 1, what had once seemed implausible was again a debating point, at least.

Can we expect a bona fide Leinster SFC race or will it be more of the same – a competition in name only?

For the former to materialise, two things must happen. Firstly, a continuation of Dublin’s recent form slump: if they rediscover their mojo, forget it.

Secondly, either Kildare or Meath must produce a level of intensity, accuracy and ambition that we haven’t seen for years: by that, we’re thinking Meath 2010 (against Dublin) or Kildare (at their peak under Kieran McGeeney, circa 2009-’11).

For several reasons, you can’t look beyond this duo – even if last summer, with Dublin stuck in a relative rut, Meath lost a roller-coaster contest by six points and an ultra-cautious Kildare fell by eight in the Leinster final. Question is, are they now genuine contenders or still perennially flaky pretenders? Of the two, Kildare appear the most likely.

This is partly because they know what it takes to beat Farrell’s off-colour Dubs, in Newbridge two months ago. It’s also because their Division 1 form graph was more convincing than Meath’s in Division 2, albeit they laboured badly on the road and it all ended in relegation.

The big advantage for Kildare is momentum: Glenn Ryan and his management team of local legends are in year one and, so far, the signs of player buy-in are all positive.

But the jury remains out because Kildare have flattered to deceive previously, even under Jack O’Connor – and that’s before you factor in their chequered SFC history with Louth.

“I certainly don’t think anyone in Kildare, from a playing point of view, has lost hope,” Doyle declared, speaking at yesterday’s launch of the 2022 Leinster GAA Beko Club Champion competition.

“The lads have put in a massive, massive effort. There’s lads that I played with and are still there. The commitment level is huge … if they’d lost hope, it wouldn’t be still there.”

Harking back to his own playing days, Doyle always believed that Kildare could go “toe to toe” with Dublin – as their close-run battles in 2009 and 2011 underlined. But the dynamic completely changed upon Jim Gavin’s appointment, with Dublin lording their SFC mismatches by 16 points (2013), 19 (2015) and 15 (2019). The 2017 Leinster final, eventually won by nine points, was a rare outlier.

Doyle emphasises that Dublin in that period were as good as any team in the history of the game. Equally, he surmises that opponents lacked belief, going into matches thinking “the script is for them to beat us”.

But did Kildare, in this period, fail to fulfil their potential?

“If you’d asked me that as a player, I would have challenged you and probably took a little bit of an insult from it – but you’re right,” Doyle admits. “I would have done a little bit of work with local media, in KFM – myself and Peter McConnon would often leave matches scratching our heads, throwing the programme on the ground going, ‘God, is that the best we have to offer?’

“But, certainly, I have a different view than when I sat in Croke Park last year looking at a Leinster final. The work ethic of these players, the honesty of them, it’s something I’d forgotten about as a supporter.”

For Meath, the overall challenge is different but no less daunting. Their opening SFC salvo, on home turf this Sunday, carries far less risk on paper: for all the positivity and momentum generated by Wicklow’s goal rush against Laois last weekend – the fact remains that they are a Division 4-bound outfit who shipped 7-14 when they last faced Meath in 2020.

But, presuming they reach the semi-final stage, much will depend on the draw – and even more will rely on Meath discovering a vein of form that eluded them for most of a very underwhelming league campaign that briefly threatened a disastrous drop to Division 3 before they steadied and eventually finished fifth, with six points.

Andy McEntee is in his sixth season; if the county executive had their way last October, he wouldn’t have even made it this far.

There is the clear sense of ‘now or never’ for McEntee’s tenure – and his team. But given that they lost to all three promotion contenders in Division 2 (Galway, Roscommon and Derry on the last day) even the most diehard Royal would struggle to make a case for them taking down the Dubs this summer.

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