Keaney ready to put best foot forward

TOMORROW, Conal Keaney will take to the pitch against Westmeath as Dublin’s key forward but it was against the same opposition two years ago when the former hurler suffered one of his worst lows after swapping the hurley for the boot.

It was in 2004 that the Ballyboden St Enda’s man finally decided that his dual county commitments would have to cease and that hurling would be the one to fall by the wayside.

Though an undoubted talent with a football, it was generally accepted that his true calling was with the stick and the wisdom of his decision to throw in his lot with Tommy Lyons’ squad was called into question when Westmeath dumped them from the Leinster championship that year.

A bad day for Dublin was made all the worse for Keaney by the fact that he had struggled to make any sort of imprint on the game. After 48 minutes he was called ashore.

“It was difficult, it always is when your form is a bit down,” said Keaney of his rookie year. “But then you get a score, a good pass away, anything, and your confidence lifts. I was always going to give it a couple of years ... I knew things could only get better.”

Indeed they did. Twelve months later, he was unrecognisable from the dejected figure swapping places with Ray Cosgrove on the bench in that Leinster championship defeat.

He plundered 1-4 in the first game against Longford, another 0-3 against Meath and after two quieter performances against Wexford and Laois he caught fire again in the two All-Ireland quarter-final jousts against Tyrone.

He kicked another three points in the drawn game and five in the replay. Though those figures were scant consolation at the time, he can appreciate their importance now.

“Yeah, I had a good day that day. I always had belief in myself. The managers and the selectors always knew the football was in me and that it was just a matter of getting it out of me.”

This year he has hit the ground running again scoring 16 points in Dublin’s three games to date, seven of them from play, the rest being frees.

His biggest haul was the seven points he bagged down in Pearse Park against Longford. With Dublin squeezing through by a margin of just two points, that haul was the most important.

The strides they have made since have been enormous. The memory of Pearse Park was flushed out of the system by the 14-point destruction of Laois and their ambitions were buttressed further by the nine-point defeat of Offaly in the Leinster final.

The first team in over a decade to retain that particular provincial title, their names are rarely mentioned these days without the words ‘Sam Maguire’ following soon after. Keaney seems to be taking that with a pinch of salt.

“It’s funny, we’re the form team at the moment but, after the Longford game, everybody was writing us off ... It’s a media thing. They’re building us up to be world beaters at the moment.”

Though he waves away talk of All-Irelands, he will admit that the jigsaw pieces are falling into place.

Their dominance of Leinster has been consolidated, their biggest two potential rivals are lined up for battle on the far side of the draw and — apart from one or two outstanding areas — Paul Caffrey seems sure as to what his starting 15 should be.

To cap it all, this Dublin team seems to enjoy the perfect balance of rookies, old hands and men like Keaney just entering their prime.

Three of his colleagues from the U21 All-Ireland winning squad of 2003 will probably start alongside him against Westmeath while another handful will be sprinkled liberally among the subs bench.

“A lot of us have grown up and played together so you’d know how they’re going to react when they come under pressure,” said Keaney.

“There’s a good few younger lads on the team at the moment and there’s a good few older lads too. We bounce off them when we need to.”

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