Lilies seek to pen new history against Royal enemy
Hard to believe, but 20 years have passed since Meath and Kildare slugged it out in a trilogy that captivated an entire nation, not just a few pockets in the eastern province.
That was 1997. Meath were All-Ireland holders; Kildare a coming force. Each dugout was home to a bona fide managerial legend: Seán Boylan and Mick O'Dwyer.
And it took three games to separate them, including a classic first replay that went to extra-time and a second replay that passed in a blur of dismissals before Meath emerged ... only to be pushed into the abyss by Offaly. Back then, Leinster was not just a fully-fledged democracy (boasting four different winners between '95 and '98) but also hugely relevant in an All-Ireland context.
Maybe the absence of a 'back door' ensured as much, but the Leinster SFC champions were invariably competitive. Whereas today, the same applies in a far narrower context: the winners are competitive because they're invariably Dublin.
Enter Kildare and Meath.
Both teams are showing flickers of renewal under new or newish mangers.
Cian O'Neill has gained back-to-back promotions, and already his second championship has started more impressively than his first, in the guise of a 14-point pummelling of Laois.
Andy McEntee missed out on top-flight promotion, but at least Meath emerged from the league with momentum.
Now their year-one boss has hit the championship ground running with a record points haul for the county (0-27) in their Leinster quarter-final against Louth.
But both managers know that tomorrow evening's Sky televised Tullamore showdown is the first true barometer of progress in 2017.
Adding to the anticipation is the history of Meath/Kildare. A history that owes much to those epic tussles from two decades ago - not just the '97 saga but the following year's provincial final, when a son of Cork (Bryan Murphy) struck the goal that ended a 42-year Leinster SFC famine for his adopted Lilies.
Paul Cribbin was barely going to school in '98, but he knows all about the "powerful history" between Kildare and Meath. And so he should, coming from Johnstownbridge.
"My mother is from Meath and I live right on the Kildare/Meath border, so it gives that added bit of 'oomph' to it personally, for me and my brother Keith," says Cribbin, speaking through Dundara, Kildare's new media partners.
So how is life in the Cribbin household this week?
"Quiet!" Paul insists. "We set the boundaries last week that we won't have too much football talk in the house.
"We've a couple of relatives coming over from England to look at it, relatives on my mother's side who are Meath ... so it will be interesting."
Now, like many of his teammates, Cribbin is approaching his mid-20s and what should be the peak years of his career.
There were signs of this growing maturity against Laois, not just physically (in the ball-stripping intensity of their tackling) but mentally too (in how they responded to the jolt of a Donie Kingston goal after 57 seconds).
But that was Laois; this is Meath. Different story. As Eamonn Callaghan, one of Kildare's few veteran survivors, warns: "In the time I've been playing we've had some good days, had some bad days. The last two times we played them, we've been on the wrong side of the result."
Countering that, morale is "definitely higher. There's a buzz around the place," the former captain says, while stressing the need to "keep our heads and try and get that performance out of us".
Last word to the boss: "There's a lot of history between Kildare and Meath going back. But no one has ever played in the 2017 Leinster semi-final," says O'Neill. "So for us it's just a blank canvas.
"Ultimately it's going to be the team that performs to their very best and outmaneouvres the opposition over that 70 minutes ... so although it's nice to recount history it will have no impact on Saturday evening in Tullamore."