James steels Down for a battle
Down are braced for what they feel will be a particularly intense physical challenge from Kildare when the sides meet in tomorrow's All Ireland qualifier at Pairc Esler, Newry.
Kildare manager Jason Ryan was perturbed by the level of power tackling that Meath exhibited in the Leinster semi-final between the sides on Sunday week last and has now challenged his players to step up the tempo against the Mournemen.
It's a test for which Down have prepared diligently, manager James McCartan all too aware of Kildare's voracious appetite for All Ireland glory having been so near yet so far on more than occasion under former boss Kieran McGeeney.
Ryan was clearly stunned when his side trailed Meath by 11 points at one stage and although they trimmed their opponents winning margin to five (2-16 to 0-17), it was nonetheless a "flat performance" in the eyes of the manager.
And he has already laid it on the line to his players in advance of tomorrow's questions.
"The players' attitude has to be right. If it's not right, then that is the fault of management and coaches. We cannot afford to give as flat a performance as we did against Meath and the boys know this," insists Ryan who formerly managed Wexford.
McCartan, meanwhile, retains an all too vivid recollection of his team's last major championship confrontation with Kildare.
That was in the 2010 All Ireland semi-final when McCartan's nerves – and those of many thousands of Mourne fans – were stretched to the limit in a pulsating climax to a spellbinding encounter.
In the dying moments of the match, Kildare were awarded a free and Robert Kelly's effort looked destined for the roof of the net until Kalum King's extended fingertips deflected the ball onto the crossbar from where it bounced to safety.
It was a let-off for Down who won the game by 1-16 to 1-14 and McCartan expects the Lily Whites to be even tougher opponents tomorrow.
He goes into the game fortified by the knowledge that he has additional selection options but without the absent King who is taking a sabbatical from the game.
"Our qualifier win over Leitrim gave us a chance to get some players back and give them game time to try and create more competition with the panel," explains McCartan.
Experienced players such as Damien Turley, Liam Doyle and Aidan Carr were kept in reserve on that occasion and deployed from the bench although the match was nothing more than a training canter for Down.
McCartan knows that it will be a very different story tomorrow.
In the win over Meath, the Kildare midfield duo Tommy Moolick and Padraig O'Neill were very impressive not only in terms of winning first phase possession but also when it came to putting scores on the board as the duo scored five between them.
"Kildare will be keen to make up for that Meath defeat at our expense and we can't let that happen. Their manager has emphasised since then the strong element of physicality that Meath brought to the table so there is a message there for us, I feel," insists McCartan.
In the 2010 match, Dan Gordon was at centre-half-back but he will be in midfield tomorrow alongside Peter Turley while Benny Coulter, another survivor from four years ago, will again link up with Mark Poland, who is now captain, in attack.
There were no starting places for the Johnston brothers Ryan and Jerome against Leitrim while Aidan Carr was used as a substitute with Ciaran McCartan making the most of his rare opportunity in the no 6 shirt.
Manager McCartan can look to players such as Brendan McKernan, Conor Garvey, Donal O'Neill, Niall Madine, Conor Laverty and skipper Mark Poland to fire up his side.
Their experience could prove crucial especially when it comes to totting up scores. The Kildare side is also backboned by seasoned competitors, players who have been round the block quite a few times with precious little if anything to show for their efforts.
This in itself will help to spur them on tomorrow.