This is no time for the Lilies to wither and die
KILDARE have been down this meandering back road before: trying to shake off the negative vibes of a demoralising Leinster exit.
More often than not, in response, they have achieved a strange kind of glory - no cups but the plaudits that come with consistent renaissance leading all the way to August.
But that was during the Kieran McGeeney era, and they've never quite faced a challenge like this: coming back from a 19-point annihilation at the hands of Dublin, and with just six days to get the battered bus back on the road.
True, they lost to the same Sky Blue bogeymen by 16 points two summers ago, so no great change there. But that was in the last weeks of McGeeney's tenure: even with a raft of new faces, the team had flatlined in 2013 and the All-Ireland dream was dying.
Now, the scenario looks bleaker still for Kildare, and arguably the current hotseat incumbent too. The Lilies will be playing Division Three football next February. Jason Ryan has been hit by retirements and various other player opt-outs in recent months ... now, this week, two more have jumped ship in the guise of Athy duo David Hyland and Darroch Mulhall.
The perception was that Hyland would probably start against Offaly in Tullamore this Saturday (2.0) - he played for an hour last Sunday after the early finger injury shipped by Ollie Lyons. Mulhall was a different case study: the forward has been frozen out of first-team action this summer, stuck on the bench for the two outings with Laois and the Dublin semi-final.
Retired Kildare defender Andriú Mac Lochlainn admits to being surprised by their double-whammy departure, declaring: "You are not playing for Jason Ryan, you are playing for Kildare and the county. No you don't step away, no matter what."
Yet Mac Lochlainn is critical of the manager for Kildare's singular failure to suffocate Dublin's rampant A-list attackers.
Alluding to one of Ryan's post-match quotes ("At certain stages during the game we thought we had the bus parked") he counters: "I don't know what match he was watching, but he didn't have the lads set up that there was any bus parked.
"I don't blame the lads. You need to have a system and be well drilled. There were guys getting back to a certain extent, but no one 'D-d up' to use the basketball term (about putting up your defensive guard)."
As Mac Lochlainn surmises, there were "plenty of lads back but no one defending … everyone has to know what you are doing, and you have to get a hand on."
Maybe it's just as well that Kildare, in their deflated state, now face a team promoted from Division Four rather than three-in-a-row Division One kingpins. Moreover, a team those forward talisman, Niall McNamee, remains "a doubt", having missed Offaly's opening qualifier win over Waterford with a broken bone in his hand.
Offaly manager Pat Flanagan views last Sunday more through the prism of Dublin's provincial omnipotence than as a reflection of Kildare's incremental decline.
"When Dublin came under a little bit of pressure - which wasn't a whole pile - in the second half, they introduced All Stars and players of very high calibre. It just gave them the lift again to go on and dismantle Kildare a bit further," he reflects. "I think they will do that to most teams, that's the worrying side about it."
Yet, according to Mac Lochlainn: "Jason has to take a lot of this on the shoulder, and he will have a hard job … to get them believing in himself and in his instructions, if the instructions led to them getting a 19-point whipping."
He adds: "From Jason's point of view, I don't know what he can do to rescue it. But I know, if I was in the dressing-room, there is a way to rescue it and that's making the senior players take responsibility. I don't mean a coup; they should always do that.
"They need to circle the wagons. Offaly are waiting in the long grass," he warns. "Offaly are our neighbours and they always up their game against Kildare, and they will revel in this. The Dublin game is gone but you are trying to salvage something for the respect of the Kildare jersey.
"You may be lucky enough to wear it now, but you are only ever minding it for as long as you can."
Offaly have faced their own recent Leinster inquisition, squandering a seven-point lead at home to Longford.
"On the day of the match, I asked each individual to either be 100 per cent committed or just to walk away ... nobody actually left the panel, and everybody has worked exceptionally hard since. That, in itself, is very rewarding from a manager's point of view," says Flanagan.
This contrasts with Kildare's tale of defections - but while describing this as "difficult" for his counterpart, Flanagan warns: "As far as Offaly are concerned, we know that we've started from a very low level."
He concludes: "The bottom line is that they probably would have been expecting defeat against Dublin. I think Jason Ryan has already said that it's not new territory for them going into the qualifiers, so I assume that they will be getting themselves up as much as they possibly can for this game, and that he can get something out of the remainder of the summer."
Offaly's job is to stop them.