Kieran McGeeney has handed championship debuts to five new faces ahead of Kildare’s Leinster Championship quarter final against Offaly at Croke Park on Saturday (throw in 5pm).
Goalkeeper Mark Donnellan, midfielder Daniel Flynn and forwards Paul Cribbin, Niall Kelly and Paddy Brophy were all part of the Leinster under 21 team and also impressed during the senior side’s run to the league semi-final.
It leaves McGeeney’s team with an average age of just over 24 and only new captain Eamonn Callaghan and veteran Johnny Doyle are in their 30s. Indeed, Doyle adds much-needed experience to the forward line after he was named in the starting line up for a remarkable 64th consecutive championship game.
Given how well the young players had done through the league, it was always likely that McGeeney would place his faith in a number of under-21s. Kelly and Flynn were first to make their mark and the pair impressed from the first league game against Donegal. Paddy Brophy scored goals against Cork and against Tyrone in the league and Paul Cribbin caught the eye on every appearance after making his debut as a half time subsitute against Tyrone in Newbridge. Mark Donnellan made his first appearance in MacHale Park and made three appearances through the league.
Those five players suffered gut wreching disappointment when they lost to Galway in the under-21 All-Ireland semi-final but despite the loss that day, manager Kieran McGeeney saw something he liked.
“That was very disappointing, they know themselves that they kicked themselves out of it. To probably have the guts of 30 shots not count is tough to take but the one thing was the courage they showed. They never gave up, they kept coming and coming and they have to realise that’s going to be the key to success for them in the future. Things aren’t always going to bounce for them but if they keep coming and coming they’ll eventually knock that door down. That game wouldn’t alter my thinking on how we use those players in the championship at all, in fact it reinforces it. In sport, you tend to have more bad days than good days. There are very few Man Utd’s out there that can win 13 titles out of 20 but even with them there are still seven years there, in the GAA especially you are going to have more bad days than good but it’s important that you use that to drive you on for those good days. I think that’s the sort of thing that will probably make them,” he said.
Following on from last year’s senior All-Ireland defeat to Cork, McGeeney was keen to reinvigorate his panel but only if he could find the right quality.
“You can only shake up the panel when there are people better to bring in. It’s no coincidence that the fellas we brought in are a lot younger, they are the ones who stood up. Even in the championship in Kildare a few weeks ago all of them stood out for their clubs, in fact some of them were excellent. There have been other players we have looked at but not everybody wants to give the commitment needed for intercounty football. I suppose a few maybe feel that they may or may not be up to it. A few of them that we had asked for who might have been a bit older maybe felt they couldn’t give that commitment but these fellas are mad for it, mad to show what they can do in a Kildare jersey and I’m hoping that’s what they are going to do,” he said.
It’s no surprise to the manager that the players have taken their opportunity so well.
“I gave them a chance at the start of the year and the rest is up to them. I have been looking at a few of them for a while now, we had Daniel (Flynn) in the wings last year, the same with Niall Kelly who had been playing very well underage, Paul (Cribbin) coming home was a bit of surprise. There was all those kinds of fellas, Paddy (Brophy), Fergal Conway, Mick Konstantin has improved greatly since the under 21s. It’s been sort of a mix of surprises and the ones who we knew were going to come through,” he said.
The pressures of top level GAA can be difficult for anybody to handle, never mind those so young so McGeeney feels that there are huge benefits to having sports psychologist Hugh Campbell as part of his back room team to help integrate these young players into the squad.
“It’s very important to have somebody like that. There’s lots of things outside football that can effect football and they probably don’t always feel at ease talking to somebody like myself about it so it’s important to have somebody there who understands both sides of the coin, especially in the modern day when there are so many other pressures. It definitely is an important aspect of preparation.”
“Those young players tend to be more open to things like that. At that age they can adapt to lots of different situations. Sometimes if you are five or six years into a senior set up you might feel that sort of stuff won’t benefit you but when you are younger you are more open to those kind of things,” he said.
KILDARE v Offaly: Mark Donnellan (Maynooth); Peter Kelly (Two Mile House), Michael Foley (Athy), Hugh McGrillen (Celbridge); Eoin Doyle (Naas), Eamonn Callaghan (Naas), Emmet Bolton (Naas); Daryl Flynn (Moorefield), Daniel Flynn (Johnstownbridge); Paul Cribbin (Johnstownbridge), Niall Kelly (Athy), Eoghan O’Flaherty (Carbury); John Doyle (Allenwood), Tomás O’Connor (Clane), Paddy Brophy (Celbridge).