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Lilies will keep faith'

TOM COFFEY has dreams of restoring Offaly to its once-proud place among the contenders of Leinster football -- but he's also a realist. Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, a crumbling Faithful edifice can't be magically restored in the space of two months.

Doubtless this explains why Coffey wants a three-year term after this summer's interim appointment, prompted by the end-of-league resignation of Gerry Cooney.

While Offaly were careering towards Division Four last spring, those perennial All-Ireland pretenders from Kildare were heading onwards and upwards into Division One.

Little wonder, then, that Kieran McGeeney's men are seen as O'Moore Park shoo-ins tomorrow. If you're to believe the pre-match consensus, Offaly will be doing well to keep the final margin in single digits.

In his short spell at the Offaly helm, Coffey has done everything possible to rebuild his squad and its morale. But the clock is against him.

"We have trained every night possible -- full attendance -- and the lads have done their bit of work over the last eight weeks," he told the Evening Herald.

"We are going to try to do in eight weeks what they (Kildare) have done in four years, which isn't possible."

During his own playing days, this lion-hearted defender helped Offaly to a spectacular Leinster SFC coronation in '97.

It had been 15 years since their last provincial title and Tommy Lyons' trailblazers achieved this notable breakthrough from the unlikely base camp of Division Four, albeit winning it.

Now it is 15 years since '97, but there the similarities end. Offaly are heading for, not out of, the basement division. Cooney only lasted in the hotseat a matter of months, quitting after they finished bottom of Division Three with two points.


Re-enter Coffey, who had been among the original candidates last autumn only to withdraw after a protracted county board search mired in controversy.

"The first thing was to get bodies back on board," he explained.

"Obviously confidence was down and there would have been a cloud around the county, as to what the hell is going on there again.

"Gerry would have done good work," Coffey added, "and was well got with a lot of the players.

"I don't know what happened, but it finished up a bit loose and a few guys started to pull off; then results didn't come and a few more pulled off. He hit a wall.

"The one thing is, I wanted commitment for eight weeks, and I needed everyone to come on board -- either in or out. We looked for zero tolerance for eight weeks, to build up confidence and get a bit of atmosphere going in training."

Whereas the mood had been "very down and out", Coffey said there is a good buzz now.

"But that mightn't bring us through Kildare," he admitted.

Almost certainly not, if championship pedigree, recent form and a wealth of selection options count.

Defeat tomorrow would mean Offaly have gone five years without a solitary win in Leinster for the first time ever. They must buck that trend with four championship debutants but without their most gifted forward. Even though Niall McNamee made a cameo return in a challenge against Waterford last weekend, Coffey insisted it was "too big of an ask" to believe he would be ready for this competitive step-up, even off the bench.

For once, McGeeney doesn't enter the championship cauldron with a hand weakened by multiple long-term injuries. Vice-captain Eamonn Callaghan, coming back from recent groin surgery in Philadelphia, is the only notable absentee and he should be fit for their next outing. For other much-publicised reasons, Seanie Johnston will have to wait a while longer for his debut.

There has been inevitable speculation that Kildare's starting 15 won't take the field exactly as chosen. If the grapevine is to be believed, Mick Foley will revert to full-back, in which case either Daryl Flynn or Rob Kelly could be parachuted in at midfield.

Whatever shape they take -- barring a collective panic attack or some other unforeseen meltdown -- Kildare will be simply too, powerful and in-tune with their own game-plan against opponents who are only finding their feet.

ODDS: Kildare 1/16, Draw 16/1, Offaly 9/1

VERDICT: Kildare

KILDARE: S Connolly; A McLoughlin, H McGrillen, P Kelly; E Bolton, M O'Flaherty, O Lyons; M Foley, P O'Neill; J Doyle, E O'Flaherty, A Smith; J Kavanagh, T O'Connor, M Conway.

OFFALY: A Mulhall; S Sullivan, J Moloney, S Pender; B Darby, M Brazil, E Rigney; A McNamee, R Dalton; R Brady, D Currams, N Smith; K Casey, G Guilfoyle, A Sullivan.