'They believe they are invincible at this age and that's a good thing'
Kieran McGeeney tells Cliona Foley that Sunday is not a 'do-or-die' game for his young Lilywhites
KIERAN McGEENEY is not sure if poker is the best analogy to describe the tactical tussle likely to be played out between himself and Jim Gavin on Sunday, but, if it is, he has certainly staked everything on one card.
Five of the county's current U-21s started Kildare's quarter-final victory over Offaly, two more of them came on and there's a dozen of them in the panel.
Their manager has thrown all his chips on the youth card this year, which the Lilies had been hot-housing for a few seasons.
Now comes Leinster's biggest barometer and he admits Sunday's provincial semi-final against Dublin will reveal "whether it's a wee bit early for the younger fellas or not.
"Whether we have the physicality this year to match the top teams has yet to be seen," he says.
"But I definitely feel those young fellas have the football and, mixed in with some of the older boys, we're hoping it will be a good combination."
In his six years in charge Kildare have never made less than an All-Ireland quarter-final yet the Dubs will, eternally, be the yardstick.
Two years ago, at the corresponding stage, Dublin only won by a very dubious free after Kildare had made a six-point comeback.
That summer ended in further heartache when a piece of genius from Kevin Cassidy in the dying minutes of extra-time finally finished them against Donegal.
Two years later Donegal are kings, the Dubs are regarded as the game's hot young things and Kildare, well, they're still trying to prove they can live with the big boys.
One piece of silverware remains the Holy Grail and while an injection of youth has given them more impetus and firepower, Dublin are also coming with a new team, not to mention a new manager who has moulded many of their glittering underage careers.
The sides haven't actually met that often during McGeeney's reign, but even this year, when Kildare were motoring well on their return to Division 1 – they beat Donegal, Cork and Kerry consecutively – guess whom their wheels came off against to the tune of 2-7 to 2-20?
"I've tried to forget about that one," McGeeney chuckles, leaning back in a chair at the county training ground in Hawkfield.
"The first half was competitive, but we went a wee bit off in the second.
"It was probably a good reminder to the players of the level they have to be at. We just fell apart a bit. We couldn't get our own kick-outs and a lot of things added into it, but we know it was a good indication of what we have in store now."
Like most modern managers, he can parse and analyse the Dubs' latest approach, noting their massive work rate, the amount of unnoticed running they do off the ball, the way their forward aces are fed the ball when they're running into, not out of 'the scoring D'.
Paul Flynn, he describes, as "the best pound-for-pound footballer in the country at present."
But Jason Ryan who, like Damien Hendy, joined McGeeney's new-look backroom team this year, could be particularly useful now.
When Ryan was Wexford manager, they gave the Dubs a fright twice and he is also credited with Kildare's significantly improved goal return this year.
They failed to take some good goal chances against Offaly and keeping their composure against a more voracious defence will be even tougher now.
"Even if you have good composure, the smallest push or pull can put you off," notes McGeeney (below). "When you have so many defenders back it's hard to get that clear-cut chance.
Dublin and Donegal, he explains, counter that by "attacking in twos and threes, coming off the shoulder.
"Andrews, Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, they seem to like driving into that 'D' and you've the likes of Andrews looping around and getting scores. It's very hard to defend against that."
But that's the modern game, he stresses. "Forwards are working more as a unit, they're setting up blocking runs, letting fellas come in off the blindside. Dublin will definitely offer a different challenge than the last day (against Offaly)."
Under Gavin they also tend to give up more goal chances, so can Kildare capitalise on that?
"Yes, they do but that's something Jim's been very unapologetic about. Their attitude is 'look, we're just going to score more than you!'
"And while they've given up a lot of goal chances, not many people have taken them," he points out. "Is that up to other teams or their own excellent work rate? I think you could make an argument for both."
Kildare recently had a training camp in Fota Island and beat Mayo by two in a reportedly cracking, full-blooded challenge game.
He knows this is being painted as another "do-or-die" game for himself and many of the team and accepts some element of that, but stresses that Kildare will endure long after this latest tussle with the old enemy.
"I wouldn't say this is 'do-or-die','' he argues.
"Kildare will make the breakthrough, there is no doubt about that, (because of) the amount of work that is going on at underage and with all those people and the county board all pushing in the right direction.
"And you try telling those 19-year-olds we have that this is the be-all and end-all of their careers, they're going to find that hard to understand," he counters.
"They believe that they're invincible at this age and that's a good thing, especially for Sunday."