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Kildare must dig deep for answers

THROUGH the thick blanket of emotion in Newbridge last Saturday, Kildare's participation in this year's championship somehow remained intact after 90 minutes of ugly, intense fare. The sort of match that recent incarnations of Lilywhite teams would have lost.

On Saturday, they must visit that grizzly graveyard for upwardly mobile sides, Casement Park, for a second installment of a chapter of the qualifiers that just about no one will want to reread, but there are as many questions hanging over Kieran McGeeney's men now as there were post-Louth.


Does McGeeney stick with the men who shored up his defence last Saturday, albeit against an Antrim team hell-bent on defending as a unit rather than attacking in any coherent way, or twist his selection by adding those who provided some energy for the gallop from his bench over the final hurdles?

More than anything, though, there remains worries about Kildare's most influential player through the McGeeney era, Dermot Earley.

No matter that Earley tired last week, substituted in the 70th minute before a late, late re-introduction, the very fact that he was there in the first place on the day he buried his father spoke volumes about the man's character.

"It must have been a very emotional time for everybody there," reckons Earley's former team-mate, Davy Dalton. "He showed some strong character to be able to go out and play.

"Everybody's different. Everybody reacts to things differently and grieves differently. It was Dermot's way of doing his father proud. It was a very brave thing to do."

A week on and Earley is again expected to play in midfield yet it is asking a bit much to expect him to disregard the sad events of the past week and a spate on recent injuries to rescale the performance heights of last summer.

The fact is, Kildare won nearly every midfield battle they fought in the championship in 2009 and that was the platform for coming within a whisker of a Leinster title and putting Tyrone out of the championship. Earley was the main man in that regard.

"He's been around a long time and he's a leader," states Dalton.

"Dermot Earley has been a leader for Kildare football for a long time. He's a chip off the old block as well. He'll be back and better again on Saturday and the other players will lift it too. It's a big thing for younger fellas to have Dermot Earley in that dressing room."

Dalton is a good man to assess the shortcomings of the Kildare defence against Louth a couple of weeks back. In his pomp, Dalton was as tough and as tight a man-marker as any in the country and Kildare's episode of 'Carry On Defending' against the Wee County was a shocker for anyone with even basic knowledge of the dark arts.

"They would have learned from the Louth game too," he reckons. "They did a lot of things that day badly.

"They didn't defend well as a team. Lads made a couple of mistakes and they got punished.

"But when you're in a game and everything is going wrong, it's very hard to change it.

"You defend as a team and you attack as a team. Sometimes, the full-back line are blamed when something else isn't working somewhere else out the field and I think that was the case against Louth. There were fellas further out the field that weren't putting in the tackles. In saying that, there was a couple of lads playing in the full-back line that are better suited to other positions.


"There's enough players there to be successful but you can't take anything away from Louth. They played very well on the day. They have good forwards and a good midfield. Louth will give Meath a run for their money in the Leinster final."

Duly, McGeeney shifted his defence around for Antrim. Andriú MacLochlainn -- a player who divides opinion in Kildare like no other, came in at corner-back and did a sterling job. Peter Kelly made a competent championship debut on the other flank while Hugh McGrillen shifted to full-back, though their improved performance came with an asterisk.

So obsessed were Antrim with flooding their own half with Saffron-coloured jerseys, the Kildare inside back line were seldom under intense pressure. And unlike Louth, quick, accurate, direct ball from a dominant midfield was almost non-existent.

Yet the introductions of Eoghan O'Flaherty, Keith Cribben and Gary White injected some life to a waning Kildare surge and had either O'Flaherty or Tomás O'Connor's extra-time chances hit the net, Kildare would be gearing up for a home tie against Leitrim just now.

"The championship is a funny old thing," says Dalton. "If you get a win, all of a sudden you get this momentum. Maybe Kieran McGeeney has changed something in them. The lads are probably a bit more mature.

"There's a lot of lads who have been around for a while now and the more you come back to the well, the more you learn. They had time to sit down and get their heads around (the Louth defeat). They had a couple of weeks to sort it out."

If further spice was needed for tomorrow's replay, Antrim manager Liam Bradley's comments about the Kildare support provided it in spades.

"A lot of my players took a lot of flak from supporters," he commented after the match. "You would have thought it was more of a soccer match than a Gaelic match. I was just happy when the final whistle went to tell you the truth.

"Kildare have tremendous support, but I was a wee bit disappointed with some of the stuff that was coming from the terraces towards the players and managers," he added, though strangely, Antrim county board chairman John McSparran this week branded some of the travelling Saffron support "hooligans" for their abuse of both sets of players.

Either way, it won't affect the result but don't be surprised if there is a slightly bitter tone to proceedings in Casement Park.

"Antrim are no bad team," adds Dalton. "Antrim are improving. It was a tough day against Kildare but hopefully, they'll get over it.

"But Casement Park in the qualifiers is a tough place to go and Kildare will have to come up to the mark."

Their season depends on it.