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Lilies seek redemption

TWO arch-rivals collide this Saturday night, with bragging rights on offer. But is there more at stake for Kildare than Jim Gavin's Dublin?

STRANGE but true . . . since Kieran McGeeney first dipped his feet in the choppy waters of inter-county management, his Kildare troops have only met Dublin three times in competitive combat.

The current head-to-head record reads 2-1 to the Dubs. But if you were to judge your scorecard on cumulative tallies, the Lilies are actually two points better off - 2-40 to 3-35.

A case of lies, damned lies and statistics? We reckon so, for in the same five-year period Dublin have amassed one All-Ireland and four Leinster senior titles. Kildare, by frugal comparison, can boast an Allianz League Division Two title last season and an O'Byrne Cup bauble the year before.

Even the above head-to-head merits closer inspection. Dublin's two victories came after white-knuckle championship battles - they edged a thrilling Leinster final in 2009 by 2-15 to 0-18; and did likewise in 2011, Bernard Brogan's hugely contentious late free securing the provincial semi-final spoils by 1-12 to 1-11.

Placed in that context, Kildare's revenge mission last January - they won an O'Byrne Cup semi-final in Newbridge by 1-11 to 0-8 - scarcely amounts to a balancing of the books.

Dublin, at the time, were still emerging from their long-awaited and enthusiastically celebrated All-Ireland triumph. They started with just five of the players who had featured in their first 15 the previous September.

Kildare's relative dominance on the day was no huge surprise . . . and even then there was no trophy dividend from beating their nemesis. When the delayed final eventually happened, mid-league, an experimental Kildare surrendered a ten-point lead and were vanquished by a Dub in DCU clothing, Philly McMahon palming home an injury-time goal.

This weekend Kildare find themselves back in a third consecutive Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup final. That reflects positively on the squad, suggesting a desire to hit the ground running each season. Mind you, that has seldom been the issue with Geezer's Kildare; finishing summer on a Croke Park high has been the hard part.

They have developed an unwanted reputation as the nearly men of Gaelic football with high-profile scalps, not just trophies, in short supply. Now they've a chance to kill two birds with the one stone on Saturday night.

"To get into an O'Byrne Cup final against Dublin, from a Kildare point of view, is a great carrot," says Jack Sheedy, a former hero of the Hill but one with intimate knowledge of the Lilywhite club scene, having managed Moorefield for three seasons until last autumn.

"The O'Byrne Cup mightn't be the biggest thing for them to win, but to play Dublin in a final and to win it . . . you would have to look on that as a stepping stone."

Peter McConnon - a Kildare footballer from 1987 to '96, and their county U21 manager in '03 and '04 - will be wearing his broadcasting hat in Parnell Park, working as match analyst for KFM Radio.

He agrees that the chance to beat your next-door neighbours, with silverware on offer, will add spice to the occasion but it won't be a case of winners jumping for joy either. "It probably would mean a little more to Kildare than Dublin," he muses, "but in the overall context of next July and August, it will be very insignificant."

Critical

Which brings us to the bigger picture, Year Six under Geezer. "It's a very critical year for Kildare, for the development of this team, whether it will be seen as a successful or unsuccessful team," McConnon declares.

"One thing they really need to deliver is a Leinster title. That should be very much at the forefront of their minds.

"I'm not saying they haven't tried to win it the last few years, but they have come up short in the provincial stakes. A team consistently getting to (All-Ireland) quarter-finals and rated probably in the top 6-8 teams in the country need to be winning Leinster titles."

The team's legacy is at stake, according to McConnon, who wonders if people will be looking back in ten years' time, recalling a great bunch of players, but adding: "What did they win?"

Sheedy played against McConnon in the 1992 provincial final, at a time when Dublin held sway over Kildare and Leinster as a whole.

The two agree not just on Kildare's recent tendency to promise deliverance without quite getting "over the line", but also on the relatively cautious selection approach adopted by McGeeney's revamped management team this past month.

"They are essentially the same squad bar a couple of new players," says Sheedy.

He cites the relocation of Mikey Conway to centre-back but reckons the net could be spread even wider.

"Kildare football is very competitive and I would consider it to be at a very high standard," the former All Star midfielder surmises.

"I would be inclined to think that some of it is untapped ... they mightn't be ready to step into a championship team just yet, but if given the opportunity there are a lot of good footballers down there."

McConnon namechecks two new faces given their starting chance - Cathal McNally and Daniel Flynn - but adds: "Right through the O'Byrne Cup, I thought there wasn't that much experimenting done. I thought here's a great arena to put on a white jersey and see what you're made of."

The underlying message seems to be that McGeeney won't forsake the winning mentality for experimentation.

Saturday night in Parnell Park won't tell if that's the right approach; summer will.