Are Kildare ready for Division 1?

Newstalk.com asks Kildare legend Johnny Doyle whether the Leinster side are cut out for the top flight

Before a ball was thrown in for their final Division 2 game of the season, Kildare's promotion was already secure.

A slide that began in 2015 had been amended and the Lilywhites had booked their place back at the top table of inter-county football. The news came with as much exhilaration as it did with a sigh of relief.

Kildare reckon their level is above that of Division 2 teams, certainly those competing in Division 3.

Only over the past 18 months have they began to fully tap into the sort of form necessary to challenge teams at the upper end of the football spectrum, but a win against the might of Kerry, Mayo and reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin still seems a very long way off.

For their final game against Galway, Cian O'Neill decided to mix it up a little and bring in a few inexperienced players, knowing the result would have no real bearing on their season.

"Kildare were a little bit damned if they do and damned if they don’t with the amount of negative press coming from the fact that they made so many changes," Kildare legend Johnny Doyle tells Newstalk.com.

"But I don’t think Cian and his backroom team were too worried.

"You’ve a panel of players and a big goal at the start of the year would have been to get promoted to Division 1. Everyone wants to be playing at that level, you get your best team out when you can.

"There’s so many players on the panel, so every opportunity you get to get them in the starting line-up and give them game time to keep them interested, has to be taken.

"In fairness to the management team, they had to take that opportunity and I’m sure there were people that weren’t too happy but that’s the way it worked out."

Kildare will once again meet Galway in the league final this weekend, after the Tribesmen ran out one-point winners over the Lilywhites at Pearse Stadium. Image: ©INPHO/Mike Shaughnessy

In the end it didn't work out and perhaps now Galway will have the edge this weekend heading into the league final at Croke Park. But to rotate the squad to the degree he did and still run the reigning Connacht champions to within a point says a lot about the quality O'Neill possesses in this current squad.

"There were a lot of positives to come out of it even though Cian sounded disappointed on the radio afterwards. He felt the game was there for Kildare to go on and win it. That’s his competitive nature.

"From the outside I was very encouraged by the performance and how they went about their business. They played very well for an inexperienced team and there’s not very much else they can do."

As any follower of the game will tell you, though, the gulf between Division 1 and 2 continues to get larger. And the teams at the higher end of Division 1 are some distance ahead of the rest.

The prospect O'Neill faces after this summer's Championship campaign is to develop a team that are able to compete with the best, stay competitive and avoid relegation. Easier said than done, of course.

"I would be confident that we wouldn’t be a yo-yo team going up and coming back down. Maybe history will say that’s the way it has been.

"I think if we could get a couple of years where we add fresh blood into the lads that are there, over the years we will be able to compete in Division 1.

"Without a doubt we’re a little bit below the Kerrys and the Dublins. But I’d like to think that if we went out to play Monaghan or Tyrone or any of these teams in the morning, we’d give a good account of ourselves.

"I’ve no reason to believe we can’t hold our own in Division 1. This time next year we mightn’t be getting ready for Croke Park, but I do think we’ll benefit from being up there and getting that experience."

Dublin and Kerry will meet in the Division 1 final this weekend, with the Kingdom having pushed Dublin all the way in Tralee last month. Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Doyle explains that a team's mindset can go some way to determining if they can maintain their top-flight status. Teams have to believe they belong at the top level, because if they don't, standards begin to drop.

"We’ve gone into Division 2, we’ve had a good campaign and we made it to Division 1. That’s the level we’re at. The challenge is - and it’s a long way down the road - to stay there and prove ourselves well next year."

The trouble for Kildare, some will feel, is the fact that that level of consistency has evaded them for some time. 

But the signs are there. Back-to-back promotions, regardless how they are achieved, are something to be acknowledged and Doyle says that their performances in the league mean they have reached the final on merit.

"Going to Derry and for the first game going to Meath. They are tough places to go. You’d be worried after the Derry match that the result would have knocked the confidence.

"Over the last couple of years, you think of defeats to Dublin in Leinster and even the Kerry defeat, it knocks your confidence.

"Psychologically it can have a huge bearing on players. Players questions themselves. When they approach games, they can think ‘well, we can win a few matches here or there, but there’s been some games against the big teams where we came out on the wrong end of some heavy results’.

"That leaves a mark on players.

"But the players are buying into what the management are trying to do and it's paying dividends.

"Even when we lost Neil Flynn [to injury] and Daniel Flynn [to the AFL] at different times the feeling is that - to borrow a phrase from Jim Gavin - the process has still gone on."

O'Neill is smart enough not to look too far ahead and will be eager to give a good account of his in the league final this weekend.

The Championship poses its own challenges, but regardless of their performances, they will have seven games next year to prove their worth among the country's best.