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If Kildare's Glenn Ryan doesn't get tactics right, Mayo could run riot

"But the big issue for Glenn Ryan to address, right now, has little to do with location and everything to do with both strategy and attitude"
Kildare manager Glenn Ryan has big decisions to make about his defensive strategy ahead of the qualifier with Mayo. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Kildare manager Glenn Ryan has big decisions to make about his defensive strategy ahead of the qualifier with Mayo. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Frank Roche

As Pat Spillane waxed lyrical about “footballing heaven” and pressed the default ‘cute Kerry hoor’ button to install Dublin as raging-hot favourites for Sam, Ciarán Whelan sought to place the first 35 minutes of this year’s Leinster final in perspective.

“If you’re playing against Con O’Callaghan, you don’t leave him in 40 yards of space in front of the goal, in a one-on-one situation,” the former Dublin midfielder stressed, speaking from RTÉ’s Croke Park gantry.

“I think Kildare arrived today thinking that they were going for a shootout, and they thought they’d win a shootout – there was a touch of complacency off them. And they probably underestimated Dublin.”

Some ‘cute Dub counter-hoorism’ from Whelan? We don’t think so. For all the irrepressible ruthlessness of Dessie Farrell’s born-again Blues, perhaps the real story of that opening half was how ill-prepared Kildare had been for the onslaught.

“The most naïve defensive plan I ever saw,” Spillane claimed. “Their defensive structure has been an absolute mess,” Whelan echoed.

Two weeks on, Kildare return to the scene of the carnage. Fixing Saturday’s SFC qualifier against Mayo for GAA headquarters has already fanned the fears of Lilywhite pessimists, who point to the quite remarkable statistic that their county has lost 15 of its last 18 league and championship fixtures there.

This Croker phobia cannot be dressed up merely as a reflection of Kildare’s trouble with the Dubs, who account for just six of those 15 defeats stretching back to 2014.

But the big issue for Glenn Ryan to address, right now, has little to do with location and everything to do with both strategy and attitude.

If Kildare don’t bring a lot more in-your-face tenacity, they’re in bother. Perhaps even more crucially, if the manager sticks with the same sweeper-free defensive set-up, it’s hard to see them making it four Croker wins from 19.

The good news? They don’t face O’Callaghan, Cormac Costello and Ciarán Kilkenny every week. James Horan’s forward options are erratic at the best of times and injury-depleted of late, with major doubts persisting over Ryan O’Donoghue’s readiness even for a bench role.

The Belmullet All-Star was the tormentor-in-chief when these counties last met – in Carrick-on-Shannon – for a league game that would propel Mayo into a Division 1 final and Kildare through the relegation trap door.

That late March encounter was a glaring portent for what was to come in Leinster. On a sun-kissed afternoon, the first half was riotously entertaining as a Kildare, inspired by Ben McCormack tallied 0-12.

But Mayo, with 1-10, still led at the break. It should have been even more: Jason Doherty and James Carr squandered glorious goal chances, even before O’Donoghue, eventually, found Mark Donnellan’s net on 12 minutes.

By full-time, Jordan Flynn had added another goal and Mayo had doubled their account, amassing 2-20 to Kildare’s 0-18.

Again, it could have been more: Jack Carney opted for a handy-fisted point when he could have gone for the jugular, and another Flynn point came after a move that saw O’Donoghue denied a second goal by Donnellan.

So, in summary, with a shade more ruthlessness Mayo could have hit six.

Afterwards, asked if Kildare had been looser defensively than in previous rounds, their manager replied: “Well, what did we concede? You don’t need to ask that question.”

Con O'Callaghan ran riot against Kildare in the Leinster SFC Final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Con O'Callaghan ran riot against Kildare in the Leinster SFC Final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ryan’s post-match offerings are famously parsimonious, but the stats bare him out: the most they had conceded in any previous league tie was 2-11 against Donegal.

Countering that, the weather for most of the early rounds was not conducive to high scoring, and coughing up goals has been a recurring year-one issue for management.

Kildare scored 2-98 in seven Division 1 outings – and conceded 9-84.

Moving onto Leinster, they totalled 4-58 in three games – a healthy figure in isolation – and coughed up 7-44. Do the maths: six goals scored in ten games but 16 against.

Those SFC stats are skewed by that Leinster final horror show, when Dublin planked their inside triumvirate close to goal, yet a Kildare sweeper only materialised following the concession of goal number three, Costello’s second, after 16 minutes.

Horse, cart, bolted.

However, anyone who witnessed their semi-final shootout with Westmeath had already identified Kildare’s defensive Achilles heel after they leaked 2-15, all bar 0-1 from play.

Moreover, their central defensive channel had been shredded for a Ronan O’Toole goal after 12 seconds. The nature of that concession, not just the timing, raised alarm bells.

At half-time against Dublin, centre-back James Murray was hooked and replaced by former captain David Hyland. It had been a chastening half for Murray, struggling to stem the inexorable tide, and some observers expect Hyland to reclaim his starting berth on Saturday.

But surely a more radical rethink is needed? In the not-too-distant past – the 2020 league in Tuam and the second half of last year’s Connacht final in Croke Park – Galway had been shredded by Mayo at their marauding, running-off-the-shoulder best.

If you play it orthodox and open with Mayo, the athleticism of Paddy Durcan, Oisín Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin and Matthew Ruane is likely to hurt you. But, by last April, Pádraic Joyce had learned his lesson. His deployment of double-sweepers in Castlebar may have been anathema to traditional Galway (and Joyce) values – but needs must.

Repeated history has shown that Mayo’s attacking game-plan runs into trouble when faced by a very disciplined, even rigid, defensive structure – be it Tyrone (last September), Kerry or Galway, even to some extent Monaghan last Saturday.

The key question for Kildare is not merely one of stick or twist, but can they really hope, in just a fortnight, to master the art of suffocation?


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