13 Jan

Kildare's hurlers are fighting to escape the backwater

Published In: Hurling News Hits: 922

Kildare hurling has come a long way in a short space of time. When Brian Lawlor left his first meeting with the Kildare hurlers 14 months ago, he felt anything but assured.

On taking the job, Lawlor, a progressive young coach from Tipperary, sensed there would be little sweetness and light to greet him. With the 2014 season looming, he contacted 40 players. Most returned his calls, some didn't. Some offered genuine excuses, others kicked to touch.

On a dark night in November 2013 he finally got everyone together in the same room. The bar wasn't set too high in terms of expectation, but he was shocked at how low it actually settled.

"Fifteen players," he smiles wryly.

Lawlor was pretty devastated at the turnout, but what choice had he but to put on a brave face and plough on. The poor attendance was indicative, not of how the team's new manager was viewed, but of the general apathy shown to Kildare hurling over decades: from Croke Park, their own officials and clubs and sometimes from the players themselves.

That evening, Lawlor realised the battle to win hearts and minds would be tougher than anticipated. One of the first calls he made was to David Kennedy, Kildare's former centre-back and an All-Ireland-winning defender for Tipperary. Kennedy had just retired after seven years with the Lilywhites and knew their hurling landscape.

"Having only 15 players was poor," Kennedy said, "but things were way worse than that over the years so it wasn't a time to panic. Years ago we trained on fields where you couldn't see a blade of grass. The aim would be to keep the ball off the ground because if it dropped you wouldn't find it in the muck and shit."

There were stories of small budgets, aggrieved players and frustrated managers. Kennedy often references the day before their first Christy Ring Cup game a few seasons back when the hurlers were handed a voucher for 20 per cent off boots at Elvery Sports.

"On the same night, the Kildare footballers flew out for a warm-weather training camp at God knows what cost," Kennedy says. "Now fair play to them, they raised money themselves. Our issue surrounded gear and basic training demands. A brother of one of our hurlers was called into the football squad for that trip and he was loaded down with gear before he left. There were we with a 20 per cent voucher. That's what people thought of us."

Young talents like Adrian Ryan and Conor Kenny, both of whom come from Tipperary families, were lost. They both transferred to Tipp where they quickly made under 21 and senior squads. Kildare were able to produce the talent. But they needed to hold onto it.

Lawlor walked into the job with his eyes open but even so his reign didn't start well; they lost their first five Division 2A league games and were relegated. Players dropped off like a rookie marathon runner fading after starting too quickly. The young manager was left peering down at the earth as it eroded beneath him, wondering where to put the next foot forward.

"It was the most stressful period of my life," he freely admits. "The only thing that kept me going was I could see the potential that existed. Back home, guys would slag me when they saw Kildare lose again. The perception was this was Kildare playing at their best. I knew, though, from club games that they were nowhere near their best."

Eventually, something clicked. In early summer they embarked on a six-match unbeaten run which famously culminated in winning the Christy Ring Cup for the first time.

There was no mad science behind the turnaround. They simply forgot about those who quit the panel and focused their energy on those who stayed. Training went up a notch and they found a rhythm from playing so regularly.

"Seven Saturdays in a row we played championship hurling," Lawlor recalls. "Can anyone tell me when that happened? Like, where else would it happen only in lower-tier hurling. It's a miracle we won anything. Amazingly, no-one was injured. But we won the Cup and there was no promotion to the Liam MacCarthy championship. It was the same in the league - Kerry won Division 2 and still had to play Offaly to see who came up or went down. Surely this is the only sport where winners do not gain automatic promotion?

"We celebrated the Ring Cup like we had to. It was complete euphoria. And then, after so many games, I had to remind the players that we had to get back on the horse and fight Westmeath on the following Saturday to make Liam MacCarthy Cup level. Mindblowing."

They travelled to Mullingar for that play-off which they lost, primarily due to fatigue and mental exhaustion. In the off-season, Kildare hurling chairman Eddie Lawlor and his committee met with Liam Sheedy and the Hurling 2020 workgroup to convey their concerns. Seven weeks' championship in a row. No automatic promotion for league winners. No automatic promotion for Christy Ring Cup winners; all issues that were acknowledged by Sheedy's committee in their report last week.

And more support, they pointed out, was desperately needed for the county's minor, under 21 and development squads. Where, the Kildare representation wondered, lay the incentive for teams like them?

In 2014 they trained 107 times, won their championship in front of a paltry attendance and still didn't make the leap up. How could they rediscover that level of commitment with so little to look forward to?

Meanwhile, Brian Lawlor focused on the team again. What they had achieved could not be let slip. Making the Leinster round-robin series in 2016 remains the end goal but now they need to drive on again.

Another team meeting was called and this time 30 players were contacted and the majority showed up. Four stalwarts - Richie Hoban, Paudie Reidy, David Harney and Tony Murphy - had retired leaving a hole in their structure. Saying goodbye to those retired warriors hurt but at least they had a medal to leave with.

Reidy was injured all through 2014 but travelled up from Wexford, where he is based, for every session, even though he could only rehab and not take part in games. After the unsettling league defeats he would ring Lawlor and encourage him. Reidy sensed the team would soon soar and said that if they reached the Christy Ring Cup final he would drive the bus just to be involved.

His leadership will be missed but the team is evolving. Leo Quinn and Mark Grace, for instance, were both in the hunt for the 2014 Kildare Hurler of the Year award and neither player was with Lawlor originally. They both are now. Youngsters now feel it's worth making the commitment.

At the players' meeting, Lawlor had a big surprise in store for them. "While introducing the backroom team, I turned to my new strength and conditioning coach, Niall Ronan, and I could see the players automatically sat up when he was welcomed."

Lawlor rattled off Ronan's CV: four Irish caps, 104 caps for Munster, two Heineken Cups, two Magners League titles - all this before a rewarding career ended prematurely through chronic injury. Ronan endured serious neck, ACL and groin problems until retirement was his only option and he set up a personal training business. Previously, the rugby international worked with the Tipperary under 21 and senior footballers and being a former Meath minor footballer himself, he wanted more.

"GAA is my passion," the former Munster flanker says. "When Brian rang, I saw a team that had achieved something historic but badly wanted to do more. And I was taken aback at what I saw in the team meeting that night - these Kildare hurlers are well above the physical level I expected. My predecessor, Kevin Malone, did a great job and these guys are big into conditioning. My job now is to marry what I do with their hurling skills."

Lawlor was delighted with the new addition. Malone and selector Tom McCormack had moved on from last year but Ronan's presence softened the blow. The players were in awe of him and now looked around at a management set-up as good as any, including selectors Tom O'Meara and Jim McMullen, physio Declan Monaghan, stats man Dermot Coulston and kitman Pádraic Kennedy.

"We also have an excellent relationship with the county board who have been a pleasure to deal with and the GPA has helped in ensuring that a players' charter was set up which last year's board fully honoured," Lawlor continues. "But Niall being there sent out a message - we're here to get better. Quickly."

Ronan sees it as a huge challenge, but is keen to test himself in an environment outside of rugby. He's not bitter at the way his career ended and merely says that life moves on regardless.

"How could you be bitter?' he asked. "Sure, I could have got more out of it, especially with Ireland, but I spent seven years chasing David Wallace's shirt. He was world-class and he taught me a lot. When David retired, I got my shot. I was flying it before the injuries but at least I got my shot.

"Jerry Flannery was in the same boat but Jerry always looks at what he has achieved in his life and career and sees no regret there. Same with me. My only job now is helping Kildare. If people see that as a statement of intent, that's great. At least it's a positive message."

Lawlor's team now avail of the facilities at Hawkfield and a purpose-built gym in Newbridge town with astro turf, aerobic and conditioning machines. Ronan reckons it's as good as anything he ever saw with Munster. They already have five weeks' pre-season training under their belts and under him no run is more than 200 metres. The players are promising, the set-up is solid and relationships with the board are positive. Lawlor feels that Croke Park now needs to become a central player in their continued progression.

"The GAA have a few things to look at in terms of helping teams like us. Our championship season starts in May and ends in early June - we're nine months without hurling at a time when the other counties are playing top-of-the-ground stuff. That's too long. In 2007, the Christy Ring final was played before an All-Ireland hurling semi-final with 80,000 people in the ground. Last year, after seven weeks on the trot, we played at Croker in front of 3,000. Where did it go wrong?

"That's for Croke Park to consider; I have no answers. The targets here are to get promotion from the league, get back to 2A and try to retain the Ring Cup. None of that will be easy. Kerry and Wicklow are ahead of us as playing in 2A of the National League is a huge advantage. All of the other teams are preparing just as hard as we are."

In the past six years Kildare have won four Leinster under 21 A titles and also won the All-Ireland under 21 B title last season. Promise lingers in the air.

"Success needs to breed success now," Lawlor warns. "Kildare have been turning out a serious amount of talented players over the last few years but we cannot take our eye off the ball."

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