Glenn Ryan is changing wilting Lilies into his very own Bravehearts

Kildare reclaiming their identity by mixing the old with the new

Colm Keys

The top of ‘Braveheart Hill’, a sweep of undulating land to one side of the Curragh camp where Mel Gibson and his crew re-enacted the ‘Battle of Stirling’ for the 1994 blockbuster film, offers panoramic views of Kildare.

There aren’t too many elevations of its kind around so those views are unhindered, stretching in every direction of a diverse county that blends the most urban way of life with the most rural.

But the Curragh and its near 5,000 or so acres of natural grasslands, home to the most extensive military base in the country and a large network of the equine industry, feels like the axis on which everything else spins.

For the Kildare footballers it has been a more central focus too. Back in December and into January, on weekend mornings when the light was only starting to guide them on their way, the squad would set off through the wooded area at the top of the hill, clearly identifiable in the film, for endurance runs designed to build fitness and test character. If it felt like a throwback, it was, because ‘Braveheart Hill’ was also a common training ground during the Mick O’Dwyer era, a place where future inter-county careers were made or broken.

Most if not all Kildare managers since would have written in some part of the Curragh to their training schedules. Even Jack O’Connor had his squads up there on occasion during his two years.

But Glenn Ryan really went after it in the months after his appointment. There were athletic and bonding benefits from the communal suffering involved but there was also the symbolism. The Curragh is a special place in the heart of their county. For someone trying to forge a stronger identity for his team with that county, it was the perfect setting.

As a former player and manager and resident nearby, John Crofton understands the method and meaning of putting teams through their paces there.

“It’s a natural training ground, it’s in the middle of the county. Club teams within the county and some from outside (train there). There’s a history to it at this stage,” he said. “There is a uniqueness to it. It’s of Kildare and it is Kildare. Irrespective of the nature or the style of training that you’re doing, it’s very character-building because there is no place to hide, whether it’s hill training, endurance training, all-weather gallops. It’s just everything is so visible and effort is easy to calculate.”

Through those early months Kildare trained intensely. Ryan has put together a well-resourced backroom network implementing modern methods and techniques but old values and principles are cherished too, and Ryan has sought to go after identity and connection with the county as a cornerstone of being part of the squad.

Who are they? What are they representing? There are fundamental questions all inter-county managers ask of their players but Ryan sensed, just as Jim Gavin did in Dublin, that there had to be deeper meaning in a county so demographically diverse, from the conurbations in the north-east to the bog lands of the north-west and the less sparsely populated areas that dot the Wicklow border.

Before one of their first matches, a St Brigid’s Cross was introduced to the dressing-room, an emblem synonymous with Kildare (a variation is the basis of the county’s GAA crest), particularly Kildare town where the patron saint founded a monastery in the fifth century. Being native to Kildare town, the story and significance of the cross would resonate with Ryan.

Thus, when Kerry came to Newbridge for their opening-round league game at the end of January, Kildare captain Mick O’Grady led his team from the dressing-room clutching a St Brigid’s Cross which remained in his grasp for the team photo too.

The cross remains a fixture in Kildare dressing-rooms before all games, as it does for all their teams now, an extension of that identity being fostered.

Players have to understand history and heritage and no one embodies that in Kildare more than Ryan.

“Glenn and Anthony Rainbow, Johnny Doyle, Dermot Earley, Brian Lacey, apart from their skills and abilities when they were playing, they all would be the go-to guys, leaders. Fellas who left it on the field when it mattered,” said Crofton.

Ryan’s status is a magnet for others to get involved who appreciate his loyalty, honesty and devotion to his county. He had the former finance minister Charlie McCreevy involved in a fundraising and logistics capacity during his time as U-21 manager and McCreevy, who has a strong friendship with Ryan, has been a visible presence in the dugout on match days, committing to the same role as he did a decade ago. There have been few more passionate to the Kildare cause over three decades.

Crofton can see why Ryan can mobilise. “When he was playing, he was a leader, a hardy boy. I played with him for his first couple of years when he came in as an 18-year-old, 19-year-old in O’Dywer’s first tenure, he had a consistency of performance. Talking about Braveheart, he was brave, wholehearted. Apart from his skills and ability, he took no prisoners. We’d like that he could form lads in his own image and likeness, we have some of the most skilful forwards that have come through in my time.”

To illustrate his point, Crofton recalls getting into his car with two brothers after their quarter-final win over Louth in Tullamore and calculating that four forwards, Daniel Flynn, Jimmy Hyland, Ben McCormack and Darragh Kirwan off the bench, had scored points off left and right.

“It was my immediate highlight. You don’t see that often in club or county,” he said. Nor is it something you readily identify with Kildare teams. But the progression at every level is visible. For the first time ever, all three provincial finals – minor, U-20 and senior – have been reached in the same year while the league win over Dublin, however significant that will be this weekend, was a first at senior level against their city neighbours since 2000.

The success of Naas CBS in winning the Hogan Cup for the first time also has huge significance.

“If you look at the make-up of that panel, there’s Raheens, Sallins, Eadestown and, of course, Naas. That’s a massive thing because the two big colleges in Kildare, in terms of profile, are Newbridge College and Clongowes Wood. So that’s a big breakthrough.”

Crofton also notes the clubs attached to Kildare underage teams and the greater concentration from the Kilcock, Maynooth, Celbridge and Leixlip areas.

“If you look at the make-up of the clubs on the U-20 team, nobody from Moorefield or Sarsfields, you had clubs from Sallins, Clogherinkoe, Johnstownbridge, Caragh, Two Mile House. So we sense that there is talent coming from every side.”

Dublin’s clear resurgence since being relegated from Division 1 leaves Kildare clutching at straws tomorrow evening and no one is being foolish in their assessment of it.

But as first steps go, Ryan has made largely positive ones. Crofton cites the deployment of Shea Ryan and Ryan Houlihan, players he always considered half-backs, as last-line defenders a measure of astute tactical awareness.

The bigger picture for Ryan has been identity, that playing for Kildare must mean something again first and foremost.

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