Sunday is the day when either Galway or Kildare will be found out at Croker

THE passing of Puck Fair and the approach of the second All-Ireland footballsemi-final is an unfailing harbinger to the coming of winter. The summeris now almost over and already the days are closing in. In a matter ofweeks, this year's championship season will be consigned to the historybooks.

THE passing of Puck Fair and the approach of the second All-Ireland footballsemi-final is an unfailing harbinger to the coming of winter. The summeris now almost over and already the days are closing in. In a matter ofweeks, this year's championship season will be consigned to the historybooks.

Already it has been an eventful journey for Mick O'Dwyer and the Kildarefootballers. Against all expectations they are poised for a return to CrokePark and, if they can get over Galway on Sunday, they will have reached theirsecond All-Ireland final in three years. Even if they fall short in thatambition, it has still been an amazingly successful season for theLilywhites.

Before the start of the championship few would have given them a chanceof progressing very far. Indeed, there were many who felt they might notget past the first round game against Louth who looked promising when beatingOffaly in Division 2 of the National League some weeks earlier.

There were good grounds for such negativity. Since losing the All-Irelandto Galway in 1998 after a most disappointing second half performance, Kildareappeared to have gone into free fall. They had failed miserably to Offalyat the first round of the Leinster championship last year and then followeda most dismal National League campaign when they suffered relegation forthe first time since O'Dwyer's arrival ten years ago. On top of all that,their star midfielder, Niall Buckley, had emigrated to America.

But contrary to all expectations, Kildare have been a revelation this yearand after the manner in which they swamped Dublin in the replayed Leinsterfinal two weeks ago, anything is now possible. Their season may be extendedfurther and nobody will dismiss their chances when they face Galway onSunday.

However, this is their stiffest test to date. The manner in which Galwayhave demolished all opposition west of the Shannon this year has been nothingshort of awe-inspiring and all the indicators would suggest that JohnO'Mahony's team have recaptured the style and enterprise that hallmarkedtheir 1998 All-Ireland winning campaign.

But what must be a worry to Galway supporters is that their team have onlyencountered the most feeble of opposition to date and only Sunday's gamewill tell whether this has positive or negative values. It may mean thatGalway have been able to time their advance to the semi-final perfectlyand that they will have been successfully built up by O'Mahony with thisgame in mind from a long way back.

On the other hand, the lack of anyworthwhile opposition encountered to date could leave them vulnerable tothe fitness and hunger that Kildare have shown along the way to a Leinstertitle. It is their trump card because in several other areas Kildare arestill not the finished article.

Make no mistake about it, this is the day when either Galway or Kildarewill be found out.

Beating New York, Sligo and Leitrim by huge margins does not give the Galwayplayers or their supporters any reason to feel overly confident. They havebeaten nothing of any substance yet and the real test will come on Sunday.

But having said all that, one must concede that Galway have looked an awesomeforce thus far in the championship and one can only judge them on what theyhave achieved to date. They looked particularly brilliant when disposingof Sligo in the semi-final at Markievicz Park on a day of incessant rainwhen it might be presumed that the conditions would militate against theirfree-flowing attack.

But, far from being inhibited by the weather, the Galway forwards put on anexhibition that day and they were out of sight by the time the half-timewhistle blew. If the Galway attack, notably the full-forward line of Savage,Joyce and Finnegan can repeat that form at Croke Park, they will make it verydifficult for Kildare to advance.

But who is to say that the enigmatic Kildare men are not capable of doingjust that? By now, Croke Park has become almost a home ground to them andtheir familiarity with the pitch and its surrounds could be worth a fewpoints to them. Since their first game against Louth, they have lined outon five occasions at GAA headquarters while Galway have not played theresince their All-Ireland victory two years ago.

Given the state of the present redevelopment programme when one side ofthe stadium resembles a building site, Kildare's five games at this venuesince last June could be a definite plus in their favour.

For Sunday's game, Kildare will have to peak for the sixth time this seasonwhile for Galway this is their first real test. Whether the Lilies cankeep going to the well indefinitely is the big question. When they lostto Galway two years ago the popular belief was that the team was burnedout after an arduous campaign which saw them beat Dublin (after a replay),Laois, Meath and Kerry.

They were also hit by injuries to four key players,namely Glen Ryan, their inspirational captain; Anthony Rainbow, NiallBuckley and Brian Lacey. Another first choice player, full-back, Ronan Quinn,was unable to start.

This time around, Kildare look to be in a healthier position. They have noinjuries of any consequence, have put the loss of Buckley behind them andhave already shown this year that they are imbued with a fierce passionand will to win. Their second half display against Dublin in the replaywas the most un-Kildare-like performance that anyone could remember becauseit was quarried out of desperate circumstances when they faced a six-pointhalf-time deficit after being outplayed for most of the opening 35 minutes.

For this transformation in attitude and application, Mick O'Dwyer must begiven full credit. During the interval against Dublin he called for a ``fireand brimstone'' performance and he got it. In previous years, Kildare teamswould cave in once the going got tough. They were perceived to be the softestof soft touches but not any more.

Victory on Sunday would push the O'Dwyer era in Kildare to new heights butGalway look the safer bet. They have recovered from the loss of their keyplaymaker, Jarlath Fallon, have discovered a fine midfield talent in JoeBergin and have a much better attack than Kildare. All of this should beenough but don't rule out this ``new wave'' of Kildare footballers, so unliketheir predecessors, who will fight tooth and nail and claw until the finalwhistle blows. They may not be finished yet.