Kildare bounced back from a disappointing league campaign, to claim Christy Ring glory in Croke Park on Saturday last. Their poor league form in 2018 ultimately cost them their 2A status in the National Hurling League, which came to a head when their defeat to London in the final group game left them destined for 2B. Saturday gave Kildare a chance to reprieve some revenge on the result of that dark day. And they gladly did so, two goals from Jack Sheridan and another from Shane Ryan paved the way for team captain Brian Byrne to raise the Christy Ring trophy.
Byrne credited the return of some marquee players who have been absent from the inter-county scene the previous year being a key part of their championship form. “Players came back like Eanna O’Neill, Kevin Whelan, Martin Fitzgerald, which moulded a good blend between youth and experience”.
Byrne accepted that “Being relegated from 2A was very disappointing. Things didn’t go right for us, when the mentality goes in the training field, it continues to go, and it’s hard for lads to pick themselves up when suffering one loss after another”.
After a short break going back playing with their clubs following the dismal league campaign, the squad returned to training with one thing on their mind, getting to Croke Park and winning some silverware. Kildare behind the leading charge of former Limerick All-star winning goalkeeper Joe Quaid, said to themselves it was time to “Get back to basics”.
Byrne also acknowledged that the illness of James Burke really put things into perspective; in hindsight he felt it maybe helped the team forget about the league, and concentrate on life itself. “Joe (Quaid) said to us that at the end of the day we play hurling because we love the game emphasising that a poor league campaign was just a poor league campaign and that there were bigger things in life”. Byrne believes the players rowed in behind each other after hearing of James’ illness by getting into the right frame of mind of saying “Let’s not take things for granted and let’s start enjoying what we’re doing here”.
Kildare reached the final with victories in the group over Roscommon, Mayo and Wicklow, and then went onto defeat Derry in the semi-final. The final itself, Kildare led from the start and with Byrne’s Naas teammate James Burke inspiring the team, not only from his miraculous recovery from illness but also with his hurling ability by firing eight points from his right half forward berth.
The Naas clubman asserted that a major point in the game was Jack Sheridan’s goal before the break, the same play led to London’s corner back Lee Murphy seeing red, giving the Lilywhites a double boost before the break. Even after the game Byrne believes it wasn’t the perfect performance from his side, realising “after watching the game back that we were a little bit sloppy in stages and that some of our shot selection was poor”. Aside from that Byrne was only delighted to collect the inaugural Christy Ring trophy after a game played in sweltering hot conditions.
The Lilywhite celebrations continued back to Byrne’s local clubhouse in Naas, but now that the dust has settled he feels that maybe the GAA are taking the lower tiered competitions for granted. Kildare must take to the field no less than seven days after their prestigious All-Ireland win, to face Ulster kingpins Antrim in a relegation/promotion playoff in order to reach the Joe McDonagh tier of the All-Ireland hurling championship. The fact that the Christy Ring jump to Joe McDonagh hurling has an added relegation/promotion playoff to decide the standings of the following years championship is an unfair obstacle that the GAA have set in the championship structure. Aside from having to play the playoff, the turnaround comes so quick to such a very important game, which crucially decides Kildare’s faith for next year, Byrne feels disheartened that after such an admirable win that they should be allowed some time to themselves to enjoy the win and also the time to prepare for the challenge of Antrim.
In 2014, Kildare suffered defeat to Westmeath in the same playoff game, (to reach Liam McCarthy status at the time) after defeating Kerry in their last Christy Ring triumph, and it’s taken four years to get another chance of promotion. “I think it’s fair to say obstacles like these play-offs are really widening the gap between the championship tiers, making it difficult for teams like Kildare to make the breakthrough.” The game against Westmeath back in 2014 actually took place in the Lake County’s own back garden of Cusack Park, Mullingar and Byrne asks the question should the choice of playoff venue not favour Kildare so as to give the Christy Ring champions a chance to parade their newly acquired trophy in front of their home supporters?
The relegation/promotion playoff between Kildare and Antrim goes ahead this Saturday, June 30th in the Athletic Grounds, Co. Armagh at 12.45, where Kildare will hope to cement their Christy Ring win with a performance to secure promotion to the Joe McDonagh round robin for the 2019 season.