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MacLochlainn unfazed by Croke Park cauldron

TWO years ago, when Kildare conceded 1-3 to Dublin in the first four minutes of the Leinster final at Croke Park, it was the footballing equivalent of the Colosseum and a scoreline reading: Lions 20 Gladiators 0.

Eight minutes later, with his team having found a decent foothold, manager Kieran McGeeney made his first call from the subs' bench and Andriu MacLochlainn was the next gladiator in.

So how terrifying was it to be thrown into such a cauldron?

"Ah no, you'd be embracing it!" MacLochlainn insists. "You wouldn't be spending so much time away from your family and making those sacrifices if you weren't looking forward to playing. That's where the enjoyment is, after all the hard work you put in."

Any opposition corner-back operating in front of Hill 16 can expect a volume and quality of ribbing that is rare in Irish sport, yet MacLochlainn relishes the thought of next weekend's big rematch. "I love the Hill being packed," he reveals, grinning.

"Love the atmosphere, love the noise, that feeling of adrenalin whether it's full of Kildare or Dublin people. Either way, it's noise and it gives you a boost whether it's for or against you, it adds to the atmosphere."

Even facing what is accepted to be one of the most lethal full-forward lines in the country doesn't faze him.

"Where other teams would take the easy point, Dublin seem to have it in the back of their minds that they can get the goal -- and they normally can!" he concedes.

"We have to be very tight defensively because all their forwards can score and their midfield is very attack-minded and mobile and will be coming through.

"Diarmuid Connolly is on fire at the moment. For a person who used to play different positions, he really feels at home there with the two lads on either side and Alan Brogan, he used to fly the flag on his own but is finding a lot of form lately."

Though he has worn a county jersey since U-14 and captained Kildare's U-21s to beat Dublin in a Leinster final in 2005, MacLochlainn is not a marquee name, yet McGeeney has put significant faith in the 27-year-old over the past two seasons.

He was also the first man the Kildare boss threw in when the Lilywhites made like a sieve against Louth last summer. When they reappeared for the qualifiers they had a completely remodelled full-back line of (eventual All Star) Peter Kelly, Hugh McGrillen and MacLochlainn, who held their starting places up to and including the All-Ireland quarter-final.

And when a certain Meath veteran was sprung off the bench the last day it was the Ellistown corner-back who was sent to mark him.

McGeeney doesn't particularly look for 'box-office'.

He favours hard-working, mobile, interchangeable defenders who will run themselves to a stump, and MacLochlainn has been at Kildare's coalface since 2003, arriving in the middle of two Leinster final appearances in a row for the county.

"Padraig Nolan was the manager and you thought 'this is great, getting to a Leinster final every year, there's a chance to win medals and silverware every year' but life doesn't work like that," he says, ruefully.

With just one provincial final appearance since, he admits that time is running out for him.

His club, like the county, have suffered an uncommon number of cruciate injuries of late -- including county team-mate Ken Donnelly -- and took the drop to intermediate last year.

"We're a very small parish. For years there were only about 21 houses in it, no school , no pub, no shops, it's very much a small townland, but we got to two (county SFC) semi-finals, and for years we were over-achieving, competing with the likes of Moorefield, Sarsfields and St Laurence's," he explains.

A cabinet-maker by trade, he has two children under three and his wife works long hours as a beautician.

"My parents, and Sharon's parents, have to help out a great deal," he says, in order for him to give the commitment that inter-county football now demands. There's a lot of people picking up my slack, I wouldn't be able to do this without the support my family and I don't know how long more I'll be able to do it because it's a big sacrifice for them to make.

"They make all the sacrifices and don't really get anything in return, bar the love I have for it."

Yet he is unflinching in his belief that the sacrifices are worth it.

"I know people in America and their kids get up before they go to class to train with their school teams, it's like professional for them," he says. "Different cultures might see what we do as semi-professional but for us it's a huge amount of dedication and time and it is hard to fit the rest of life around it.

"But if you're going to be successful at anything you have to be dedicated to it. If you're not, you're not going to get anything back out of it. Sure if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!"

Irish Independent