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Tuesday 12 November 2019

Keaney won't want epic odyssey to end where it started

Conal Keaney is elder statesman of Dublin
Conal Keaney is elder statesman of Dublin

The first time Conal Keaney sprang onto a senior championship field, full of teen spirit and towering ambition, was on May 20, 2001. How do I know this? Because I was there, in Nowlan Park.

Not that I knew a whole lot about Kevin Fennelly's first sub in. I was more absorbed in the match, which ended in pandemonium after Laois centre-back Paul Cuddy struck a free from the far side of Ballyhale into the bottom corner of Brendan McLoughlin's net.

Well, not quite that far: as my match report noted, Cuddy "thought he was 20 yards from goal, neutrals in the press box reckoned at least 30 and, by the end of the week, folk in Castletown will probably have it down as a 65."

The winner came some four and a half minutes into injury time. Back then, the GAA had just adopted a glasnost approach to time-keeping transparency and three minutes had been announced.

Even with a couple of further injury-time hold-ups, let's just say that the losing camp were in high dudgeon after.

Why hark back 18 years, ahead of Sunday's All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-final between the same counties? Good question. We are talking totally different eras.

And yet, improbably, Conal Keaney has straddled both.

"I suppose the cockiness of me at that time, I nearly expected to start against Laois!" he told The Herald in April 2016, on the occasion of his first inter-county 'retirement'.

As Eoghan O'Donnell remarked in this week's build-up, there's a joke in the Dublin camp that Lee Gannon, part of this year's senior panel, was born in the year Keaney made his debut. We suspect they may be a year out - yet the fact it's even believable tells you all you need to know.

Keaney's senior baptism came as he was counting down the weeks to his Leaving Cert. It would be another week before Stephen Cluxton made his SFC debut.

Six All-Ireland medals later, Cluxton is still driving Dublin from the front. All six of those medals were amassed after Keaney had reversed his lengthy mid-career switch to the footballers.

Keaney, 37 in September, is still chasing that elusive All-Ireland. But to say that only a Celtic Cross would deliver the belated validation he deserves is to miss the point.

No matter what happens for the rest of this summer, Keaney's place in Dublin GAA legend is assured. When they needed him against Galway last month, he stood taller than anyone. No country for old men? Unless you're Man of the Match.

As O'Donnell remarked, the joke may be that he's "the grandad of the team" but the respect he enjoys among his younger peers is absolute.

"He might be one of the greatest servants of Dublin hurling ever," the full-back said. "He's the type of person that when he talks, everyone just shuts up and listens."

This would be a good week to heed his counsel. Keaney has never been shy about his belief in Dublin hurling and the breadth of their ambition, but he has seen enough pain to know that every match, every opponent, must be accorded complete respect.

He will have noted Laois's progression under Eddie Brennan, to a point where they are - beyond dispute - the fifth best team in Leinster.

He might even remind his younger colleagues, several of them toddlers at the time, that his Dublin odyssey began with last-gasp heartbreak to Laois. He won't want it to end the same way.

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