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kelly leads kildare to a big scalp

IF winter and early spring are largely about small things coming together, then Kieran McGeeney must be a happier manager than most, even at this embryonic stage of the footballing year.

Saturday evening in Croke Park was all about the small things for Kildare: the head of the All-Ireland champions – an understandably below optimum Donegal – securely mounted on their wall, two precious league points, and the emergence of Niall Kelly.

The latter could yet prove to be a much more significant development than the other two in the wider context of Kildare's season, though.

All-Ireland champions lose matches in spring. Points can be accrued anywhere.

But finding a footballer like Kelly and watching him thrive so maturely in Croke Park against the top side in the country isn't the sort of thing that happens every week.

If the stereotypical Kildare supporter gets a little too excited at every minor victory the Lilywhites tot up, he or she should be positively overwhelmed by Kelly's recent form and future prospects.

The Athy youngster deservedly took home the Man of the Match award on a night when two much more experienced campaigners, Johnny Doyle and Michael Murphy, seemed to be duelling it out for the gong in what was an early league sort of match with an early league type of scoreline: 1-13 to 2-14.

Naturally, Kieran McGeeney played down the significance of the win afterwards, attaching understandable caveats about Donegal's rawness and declining to isolate Kelly for undue praise.

"There were a lot of good performances there as well from some of the elder statesmen," he pointed out. "Johnny put in a good shift too. Flanno and Mikey too. We're happy to get it."

Pressed on Kelly's performance though, which contained three points from play, coated with some sublimely instinctive, creative and ambitious passing and wrapped in an impressive confidence, McGeeney grouped him in with the other newbies, Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy and sprinkled just light acclaim, accompanied with warning.


"Those young fellas have come through working with the likes of Bryan Murphy (minor manager) and Alan Barry with the U21s last year. They have to take a lot of credit when they come in to us as a product like that.

"They know themselves they have to keep their feet on the ground. This is February and they'll take a few slaps on the back now but the real things are given out in the summer."

Saturday evening then was about the little stuff but, in reality, the result probably mattered a little more than anyone was making out. If Kildare won – as they did under more pressure than was expected – everyone shrugs and asks: 'What do you expect?'

Lose against a team taking their first tentative peep outside their 2012 duvet and with the benefit of a couple of extra months training and Kildare would, in truth, have looked rather silly.

And so it was that Murphy's near one-man show made life unnecessarily uncomfortable for McGeeney's men after an initial surge of dominance which had them five points up at half-time and seven ahead by the 47th minute.

Thirteen minutes later, Donegal were just a point behind, Murphy playing like the big boy against the little ones in the schoolyard and scoring eight points, four from play.

But a freak goal, attributable mostly to Paul Durcan's misreading of a long Johnny Doyle shot, knocked the All-Ireland champions back on their heels, even if Dermot Molloy responded in kind soon after.

"They're not the All-Ireland Champions for nothing and we knew at half-time that they were definitely going to come at us," McGeeney reasoned.


"I suppose for both teams they were two soft goals. Both seemed to be due to mistakes by both defences. I think the fact that Donegal had momentum and Kildare were able to stop it at that particular time showed a wee bit of character."

Jim McGuinness, meanwhile, was understandably unruffled by the events of Donegal's first real night out in the season-after-the-season-before.

"We made a lot of mistakes, which you'd expect at this time of the year, but at least we got up to the level of the game for a good part of the second half," he reflected.

"I think we scored five unanswered points and got to within a point at one stage and it looked like we might get a point out of the game before the mistake by Paul for their goal.

"We won't be giving out to Paul Durcan though.

"These things happen in football and we haven't conceded a lot of goals anyway. I think he lost it in the lights, but these things happen."


From there, Kildare got three of the last four points of the match to kill it and with Dublin already slain, Donegal now beaten and Cork to come, optimism in Lily-land isn't in short supply.

Particularly so on a night when Seánie Johnston made his league debut, Tomás O'Connor bagged a goal and Johnny Doyle claimed 1-5 (0-2f) ... but the Kildare forward's name on everyone's lips was a different one.