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Saturday 26 May 2018

Keaney eyes are still on the prize in third coming

'I didn't come back not to win, that's the bottom line,' says Dublin's 35-year-old comeback kid

Dublin’s Conal Keaney tries to force his way past Tipperary’s Pádraic Maher during their Allianz HL Division 1 quarter-final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Conal Keaney tries to force his way past Tipperary’s Pádraic Maher during their Allianz HL Division 1 quarter-final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

If it were the teenage version of Conal Keaney, you might dismiss it as the precocity of youth. Except that Keaney is now 35 years young, in his third coming as a Dublin senior hurler ... and still he believes they can legitimately target the biggest prizes of all.

Can they ambush the Cats on May 13? Check. And use that as a springboard for a Leinster assault? Check. And maybe, then, Liam MacCarthy? Why not!

All this after an Allianz League campaign more topsy-turvy than Donald Trump's thought processes on Twitter.

Ultimately they survived in Division 1B but the bookies have made Dublin distant 66/1 ninth favourites for the All-Ireland SHC and 16/1 fourth favourites out of five for Leinster coronation.

But Keaney has never lacked confidence in what his various teams can achieve.

Progress

So, when asked if he has seen enough progress to make him believe Dublin can beat Kilkenny in their round-robin opener, his answer is emphatically short and sweet: "Yeah".

And does Leinster then open up?

"It does, yeah. Like, if you were picking the draw, you'd want to have Kilkenny in your first game and you'd want them at home."

So, does he believe there is provincial silverware up for grabs?

"Definitely, yeah. I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

Then, he reiterates: "I didn't come back not to win, so we're going to win the Leinster and we're going to win an All-Ireland - that's the bottom line."

On reflection, why else would Keaney return when Pat Gilroy (inset) came calling - if he didn't believe there was some tangible prize within reach?

Prior to this year's league, his last outing in Sky Blue had been a deflating All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Waterford. That was July 2015.

For Dublin's most famous dual player of this millennium (pre-Con O'Callaghan at least) there then followed an epic All-Ireland club football run with Ballyboden St Enda's ... after which, in early April 2016, the then 33-year-old exclusively told The Herald that he was retiring.

It's fair to infer he hadn't quite relished his one campaign under Ger Cunningham (albeit all he said on the matter, on retirement, was: "Off the field, things happened last year that I wasn't really overly comfortable with".)

Cunningham is now back on Leeside but Keaney is two years older. The irony is that his last Dublin football boss, Pat Gilroy, now becomes his sixth Dublin hurling manager. So why go back?

"I took a while to think about it. Any time you get a chance to come back and play with Dublin, anyone would take it," he says.

"I just had to make sure I was able to do it and the body would let me do it and if I was still good enough.

"So I came back and I had nothing to lose - if it wasn't working out Pat would tell me or I'd find out myself, so there was no pressure," says the Ballyboden St Enda's man.

"And, who knows, championship will tell if it was the right decision.

"But I'm enjoying the training in a good set-up and everything is exciting and I'm pushing as hard as I can."

For all the belief in his comrades, some just over half his age, Keaney accepts that Dublin under Gilroy are a work in progress.

The NHL1 quarter-final against Tipperary - near-perfect for the opening dozen minutes before the wheels came off - confirmed as much.

Mental

"I don't know if it's a mental issue," he surmises, "I think it's a series of bad decision-making. You make a bad decision, someone else makes a bad decision and, all of a sudden, a team gets a run on you and it is hard to stop them.

"If you just stick to the processes, stick to the plan, you get out of that."

Dublin revealed "small windows" of their potential over spring but veered away from doing the right thing "too many times". He remains convinced, however, that they will learn from it.

Hard to believe, it's almost 17 years since Keaney made his SHC debut, off the bench against Laois in May 2001. That was a week before future colleague Stephen Cluxton would make his SFC baptism for the Dubs, and barely a fortnight out from his Leaving Cert.

Brian Cody's Kilkenny have featured prominently in his previous two incarnations. An early high was the Walsh Cup final win of 2003: "The first ball came in and I think it was DJ (Carey) that put me on my hole with a shoulder!" he recounts. "I think we all kind of stepped up, and a lot of the younger lads just got very physical with them."

His second coming was notable for ambushing Kilkenny along the way to 2013 Leinster glory, plus their 2011 league final demolition of the Cats.

Now it's Kilkenny turn to be surprise league kingpins. "I think it will give them huge confidence," he ventures. "Cody is like Alex Ferguson - he's setting a new team out and he's changing his tactics. He's definitely getting lads all over the field to work really hard. I think it could be a really good year for them ... but it may not be either."

Still believing after all these years.

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