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Whelan: Lilies are acid test of Blues' progress

SUNDAY: Dublin and Kildare's Croke Park collision falls just two weeks shy of two years when they last met in a thriller of a Leinster final.

In the meantime, both have grazed on the upper slopes of football's foothills without quite fulfilling the full extent of their ambition.

Both lost All-Ireland quarter-finals later that year, both made semis in 2010 and both have began the summer with a sense of purpose yet the question is: how have they changed since that epic tussle?

Both teams will be named this week and neither will be a distant relative to the respective XVs that lined up in that enthralling Leinster final of two years ago.

Yet in many more detailed respects, both teams have moved on significantly.


Cosmetically at least, most of the Dublin changes from the '09 Leinster final are in defence – no jolting shock there.

Of the team likely to be named for Sunday’s match, only Ger Brennan is expected to survive in a rearguard which has come under more scrutiny and been subjected to more upheaval than any in Ireland.

Flanking him that day; Paul Griffin, whose luckless streak has continued into downright catastrophe with injury and the Kilmacud Crokes man is resigned now to missing the rest of the season.

On the other wing, Barry Cahill has played most of his football this year in midfield although it is thought that even he is under pressure for a starting spot this Sunday.

Most notably, however, are the variances in the respective '09 and '11 full-back lines. Back then, David Henry, Denis Bastick and Paddy Andrews – all more widely noted for their exploits further out the pitch – wore the jerseys numbered two, three and four.

And this Sunday, participation from any or all of those players will be in much more advanced positions, if at all.

Rory O'Carroll has taken over the full-back jersey and for the first time since Paddy Christie in his majestic pomp, Dublin look like owning a number three specifically crafted for the role.

Mick Fitzsimons and Philly McMahon would, were in not for injury to the latter, man the corners for the ninth championship match in-a-row on Sunday.

“Certainly, the full-back line now would appear stronger than the full-back line that day,” says Ciarán Whelan, a sub in ’09 until half-time when his introduction helped kill the Lilywhite momentum and secure a sixth provincial medal for the Raheny man.

“But the way the team is set up, the full-back line of today is much better protected and not as exposed.

“The team of 2009...we played off-thecuff. We played a lot of attacking football. We played an orthodox system. There was no sweeper. It was six on six. It stood up that day.

“I think the lads probably showed themselves at club level that they were more natural out the pitch. But no doubt, the Dublin full-back line of today are much better suited to the style Dublin are playing now.


“But up until the Kerry game, they were doing a reasonable job. In hindsight, it looks natural enough but after the Kildare game, people would have been comfortable enough with the way things were moving on.”

Attack-wise, Dublin's starting six won't be as disfigured from the '09 version but there are subtle changes. In particular, the rebirth of Diarmuid Connolly this season has been a welcome development for Dublin.

Languid yet stylish and skillful, few questioned whether the St Vincent's man possessed the footballing attributes to cut it at the very top level, yet doubts persisted over his temperament – until now, maybe.

“I would like to think it was maturity on his behalf,” says Whelan. “He has been around the squad since Pillar's days and he has been in and out of it for various reasons. As guys develop a bit of maturity, their attitude improves. It looks now that he knows he's an integral part of the team.

“Maybe sitting in the stands last year and watching the lads progress so close to an All-Ireland final ... maybe that was the kick in the arse he needed to realise that if he wanted to be part of the set-up, he would have to change the way he approached it.

“I had been involved in squads and seen guys coming down that had something special and I had seen them go because they didn't have the attitude or the maturity. That was always my concern. But it looks like Pat has him on the right track now.


Whelan reckons, however, that the differences between the Dublin of his final season in blue and the current bunch are more deep-rooted than just personnel or positional and came as a direct consequence of their All-Ireland quarter-final apocalypse at the hands of Kerry. “We went into that Kerry game and I think if management were to reflect, they were complacent and they got it wrong and underestimated the ability of Kerry just because Kerry had performed badly against Sligo and Antrim in the qualifiers.

“After that Kerry game, there was a whole change of approach to the team rather than just personnel. Obviously, when you change the way you play, there is going to be a lot of positional changes that he decided to make. I think what has changed with Dublin most of all is the whole Dublin team approach,” he notes. “The mental approach and the defensive tactic.”


And what of the Lilywhites?

Over four years, Kieran McGeeney's train of thought can be traced right through the development and consistently upward curve of his team.

They came within two points of beating Dublin in '09 but Whelan says he knew that day that “they were moving in the right direction. It was just maybe that that game came too early for them.”


They kicked 18 points from play and 10 different players chipped in and if anything, they have spread the scoring burden even thinner since then and created a greater number of chances, despite recent errant behaviour in front of the posts.

“There was always a myth with Kildare that they would bottle it in front of the posts and kick a lot of wides,” Whelan says.

“I still think, looking at them since that day, that they have such a good spread of scorers and they're not overly reliant on any one player. They have continued that. Much has been made of the wides they've kicked this year.

“But they're creating loads of scoring opportunities. But it was the start on the road for them.

“And they've been on an upward curve ever since, bar that blip on the road against Louth, which surprised everybody.

“But they have moved on. Teamwise or personnel wise, there isn't a great change between the team. But it's just a greater experience which will give them more confidence and they have had a lot more time to become comfortable within their style.”

No doubt then that both have moved on, but then so too have Cork, Kerry et al. Sunday will be the acid test, however, as to which has evolved more efficiently and matured more comfortably.