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McEnaney worried by Monaghan's soft centre

IT'S difficult to feel the full gust and true direction of the prevailing winds heading towards Croke Park for either match tomorrow evening.

For Kildare v Monaghan, the form-book is practically illegible.

Every lead, a possible fool's errand.

On the one hand, you've Kildare; young and brash, with an unnaturally good record in qualifiers no-one can rationalise. Yet one that bombed against Meath, only to relay the foundations for a potentially decent season in the prospectively arid topography of Newry and Ennis.

On the other, a side that lost their provincial title and the most immaculate home record in Gaelic football to a new and growingly bitter foe, but are by wide consensus now in a head space more complicit for progress post Ulster by comparison to 2013, when they were masters of everything they surveyed ... before August.

"I think Monaghan have a couple of problems," says former Farney boss, Séamus McEnaney. "They're struggling to win primary possession in the middle of the field.

"Kildare are very big there. Owen Lennon is a huge loss to Monaghan. Kieran Hughes has obviously not been at full fitness.

"Conor McManus was sick prior to the Ulster final. But Monaghan's biggest problem has been winning primary possession in the middle third of the field. If they can win it there, they can supply the forwards. If they can't win it there, then you're in trouble, for a couple of reasons.

"Monaghan will play a sweeper, which will allow Kildare play a sweeper. For me, our other problem is, if Kildare curtail Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus, you'd be concerned where the rest of their scores are going to come from."

Kildare's problems, conversely, are still in their formation stages, such is the youth which blotches their team sheet.

Nervous

"You're trying to combine the younger players with the older players, so you're going to get that up and down performance with Kildare," says Niall Carew, the Waterford manager who served as selector under Kieran McGeeney for five of his six years in charge of Kildare.

"They were quite nervous starting off. Tommy Moolick is still only 21. Niall Kelly is still Under 21. Podge Fogarty as well. They're going to be up and down whether we like it or not. But if they get it right, they'll beat Monaghan," he reckons.

"If they don't, you could see a similar performance, like the one they gave against Meath. But if they do perform, it will certainly be enough for them to beat Monaghan."

A year ago, Monaghan arrived to Croke Park still inebriated (figuratively speaking) by their first Ulster success in 25 years. Thus, their prophecy was realised when Tyrone - a team who actually know how to win in Croke Park - out-dogged them.

Now? "I don't think Monaghan losing this Ulster final is as big a blow as it looks from the outside," says McEnaney. "I think the very fact that they have won an Ulster title, it'll not hurt Monaghan as badly as had they not won it last year.

"If this was their fourth Ulster final and no medal, well then there would be serious hurt. The fact that this group of players has an Ulster medal, the hurt wont be as much.

"When you're waiting 25 years for an Ulster medal to come to a county, the celebration is going to be big. The appetite is satisfied a little bit more than other times."

Form? Monaghan went up to Division 1, waving happily at Kildare as they passed in the opposite direction. And even from there, Kildare's football has been patchier.

Louth were hammered. Meath were surrendered to ... then almost conquered.

And against both Down and Clare, late, ballsy finishes have done lots to conceal some meek periods of their own making.

"When you have a player of Paddy Brophy," says Carew, recalling the Kildare full-forward's early exit to injury against Meath in the Leinster semi-final and its debilitating effects. "He's a big player now ... he's a good ball winner. He creates a lot of space for those around him.

"So when he went off ... in that 15 or 20 minutes, Kildare struggled. They kept turning ball over because they didn't have a ball-winner inside.

"So I think, if they are to start well ... the younger lads, the first two or three balls have to go their way. If it does, their confidence is up and you can see them kicking on.

"But I can see it being tight. If Kildare perform like they did against Louth and Down, I think they'll prevail. But if they don't, they wont."

In his five seasons with McGeeney, Carew never watched Kildare lose a qualifier match, a run that ended in the year he ensconced in Waterford.

"We certainly did have a bit of luck," he recalls, finding as little rhyme or reason to the record as anyone else. "But we didn't have many injuries going into the games. And that's similar to what Kildare have now.

"The other side of it is trying to keep them fresh and not training them too hard, and I'd say Jason is good at that too. Momentum is a factor as well.

"If you look at the Wexford hurlers, they had very hard games and it took its toll. Where for Kildare, I don't think the Down game was too taxing on them. And the Clare game, while they struggled, it wasn't exactly very physical."

Expectations

Last year, Ulster was an end in itself for Monaghan, just as Leinster might for Kildare, yet besides progression to the last eight, tomorrow has a tangible, if not quite material reward for the Farney side.

Says McEnaney: "This Monaghan team can make a bit of history by being the second Monaghan team to win a Championship match in Croke Park since 1930 (when they beat Kildare in the All-Ireland semi-final). But with success comes higher expectations. No-one knows that better than me. But Monaghan people need to be realising that when we go to Croke Park, they better make the best of it. Because there is no telling the next time you'll be there."


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