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rising stars Last weekend’s performances from Armagh and Kildare felt like a signpost to something bigger

Glenn Ryan's and Kieran McGeeney's teams have already instilled a sense of hope into their communities


Kildare manager Glenn Ryan (second from right) with selectors (l-r) John Doyle, Anthony Rainbow and Dermot Earley at St Conleth's Park in Newbridge last Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Kildare manager Glenn Ryan (second from right) with selectors (l-r) John Doyle, Anthony Rainbow and Dermot Earley at St Conleth's Park in Newbridge last Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Kildare manager Glenn Ryan (second from right) with selectors (l-r) John Doyle, Anthony Rainbow and Dermot Earley at St Conleth's Park in Newbridge last Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The sample size is microscopic, substantially less than the minimum required scientific evidence to declare the bloodbirth of a new democratic Gaelic football era.

No publishing house is ready - on the basis of one upstart weekend in January - to commission a big-ball sequel to Hurling: The Revolution Years, Denis Walsh’s account of the thrilling Ger Loughnane/Liam Griffin/Offaly led 1990s insurgency against the game’s traditional Big Three.

Yet, football’s aristocratic houses will sleep a little more fitfully in their four-poster beds this week after some eye-catching early season Bastille storming.

There was something electrifying about Armagh and Kildare peering into the jaws of the leviathan and feeling neither the inclination to freeze nor to surrender to terror.

Even in the depths of winter, Armagh’s ransacking of Croke Park, their disembowelling of old Dublin certainties, carried the swagger of a coming summer force.

Kildare’s late surge to dead-heat with Kerry triggered a storm roar of euphoria on the teeming Newbridge terraces, strengthening the gusts of optimism that have accompanied the arrival on the sideline of Glenn Ryan and his legion of old decorated white knights.

Yes, we know, we know, we know: Forecasting on the basis of one-off league results can make a Puck Fair tarot reading seem like a study in advanced mathematics.

Tyrone leaked six goals in Kerry to win the startled-rabbit-in-the-headlights award in last season’s abbreviated NFL: Three months later, they were All-Ireland champions.

But, with all the usual caveats, last weekend’s results still felt like a signpost to something bigger.

Here was a discernible rumbling which may yet be recalled as the first disturbance in a tectonic shift.

None of last year’s four All-Ireland semi-finalists could fashion a win as the Allianz League opened for business.

Dublin, seeking to hush the growing chorus announcing them as a diminished force, and with Kilkenny, Fenton and Rock on duty, were pulverised.

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Jack O’Connor was denied the statement win he would have craved in his third coming as Kerry manager.

Monaghan, as they had last summer, illustrated that they feel not a shred of inferiority in the company of Tyrone.

There is every chance it is a false dawn, but a lovely, unexpected January sunrise is still worth savouring. Sport is at its best as a vehicle to drive our taste for romance and escapism and deeds of beautifully expressive derring-do.

So, on a weekend when the unheralded Cincinnati Bengals gatecrashed Broadway, a team that won just four games last season rising up to seize a first Super Bowl appearance since 1988, let’s celebrate Armagh.

As Rafa Nadal won a 21st Grand Slam just months after a debilitating foot injury had him contemplating quitting tennis, why not imagine all that Kildare might become?

Armagh and Kildare have endured a combined 114 years (the Lilywhite age of destitution stretching back to 1928 when they were the first team to lift the original Sam Maguire Cup) in All-Ireland limbo.

Yet, as an orange tide engulfed Croke Park on Saturday night, it didn’t seem completely outrageous to imagine Armagh surfing that momentum all the way to midsummer.

Rian O’Neill and Rory Grugan and Jarlath Óg Burns oozed class and intent and fearlessness. They looked like they had hitched a lift across the decades from the Shangri-La of 2002 on Michael J Fox’s Back to the Future DeLorean.

On the sideline, charismatic in his inscrutability, stood Kieran McGeeney, the father of that 20-year-old revolution – the one which yielded Armagh’s lone senior All-Ireland.

His unbending, magnetic presence is a rebuke to anybody who believes the Orchard County will retreat from any bright lights they might encounter.

McGeeney, a figure whose legendary obsession with squeezing every last blob from his own potential, might make peak-era Michael Jordan or Roy Keane seem like slackers, spoke with characteristic insight and honesty about Armagh’s culture in a pre-Christmas Irish News interview.

“Anybody who wants to be as good as they can be, whatever they need to do that is in place for them.”

“We haven’t won an Ulster title or an All-Ireland so I’m graded on that and that’s fine, but I think my biggest success is trying to provide and environment where fella in Armagh, who want to reach a certain level, can get there.”

In a previous life, McGeeney led Kildare to within centimetres of a place in the 2010 All-Ireland final. That day, Rob Kelly's late goal attempt from a 13-metre free crashed against the woodwork and Down held on for a two-point win.

Former midfielder turned horse trainer, Willie McCreery had a nice line where he talked of the spark of hope the arrival of Glenn Ryan, Johnny Doyle, Anthony Rainbow, Dermot Earley and Brian Lacey has sparked in the county.

“I know the calibre of these men, though I’d be a lot more confident if they were togging out.”

Already, though, their influence is being felt on those who now carry the baton.

This observer is among those who believed it might have been Kildare rather than Mayo who took down Dublin last summer if Jack O’Connor had shown more faith in Daniel Flynn’s capacity to dismantle the ailing champions in the Leinster final.

Against Kerry, the sense of adventure which might have yielded a spectacular dividend in 2021, was apparent. Under Ryan, captain of the team who brought the county to a standstill in advancing to the 1998 All-Ireland final, the certainty is that Kildare will not die wondering.

Only time will reveal whether McGeeney or Ryan can redraw the bandwidths of a championship summer.

But if the birth of a new era cannot be guaranteed, what is certain is that Armagh and Kildare have already instilled a sense of hope into their communities.

There is no better companion with which to travel the dreamy road toward the summer.

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