McGeeney happy with heavyweight Lilywhites

On the field they will have 11 seniors and on the line they will have one current and one former senior inter-county manager. Oh, and a former European Commissioner.

This is no ordinary football squad and the fact that former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy is part of the backroom team only adds to the sense of intrigue surrounding this young crop of Kildare U21 footballers. After a 24-point demolition of Laois in the semi-final, the Lilywhites are red-hot favourites to land the Leinster U21 crown tonight against Longford.

Senior manager Kieran McGeeney took the reigns last year, when he opted to double-job, while former Laois and Offaly boss Tom Cribbin came on board as a selector.

It is a heavyweight line-up for a side that comfortably knocked out Meath and Laois. “People get mixed up between what skills are and what talents are,” says McGeeney, beating a familiar drum. “I think they’re (U21s) talented because they work hard and that to me is why they’re good. Kildare have never had a problem, in my five or six years, with skilful footballers but the talent to drive on and want, the desire – this lot seems to have it.”

McGeeney has been so impressed with the U21s he has handed seven of them their senior debuts since the start of the year and three in particular – Niall Kelly, Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy – have played a pivotal part in Kildare reaching the Allianz League Division 1 semi-final. Yet their opponents tonight are the ones with championship medals in their pockets.

“If anybody has a pedigree in terms of desire and want it’s them,” says McGeeney of Longford. “They were in the U21 final two years ago. They won the minor three years ago and there are 12 of those starting from it. They’re a good team, they’ve great structure. The way they play, they get men behind the ball and they break at pace. They’ve got a very talented full-forward line, a good half-back line and a big midfield.”

Longford’s 2010 Leinster minor victory came at Kildare’s expense when the midlanders beat the Lilies in a semi-final. It means that Kildare’s last piece of championship silverware dates back to 2008, when Glenn Ryan guided the county U21s to a Leinster title. The lack of success since is perhaps unsurprising given the county’s history but it has still been a constant carp against McGeeney.

“People will always use that as a stick to beat me with. I can’t do much about that.You prepare a team as best you can. In terms of change and personnel with this squad, I think we’ve brought it forward. We’ve been competitive every year in the championship – they weren’t before that. Although people in Kildare like to forget things outside of Mick O’Dwyer’s four or five year spell, Kildare haven’t been competitive in the championship. “It’s for 60 years. Sometimes people need to take a reality check.”

Rarely prone to apathy, Kildare’s support-base never lacks enthusiasm but even die-hard Lilies are taking it all in their stride these days. McGeeney was never going to raise expectations in a county that always likes to think of itself as All-Ireland contenders but the Armagh man, who recently graduated from blue to purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, has brought the county much closer to realising that dream.

“It’s about creating a culture within Kildare. Whether I’m able to reap the rewards of that as a manager or some other manager does, I don’t really have much of a problem with that. I have the naysayers taking the swipes at me anyway. I would feel in terms of improvement, this team has gone a long way in five years.”

At the moment McGeeney has the seniors riding higher than they ever have in the league under his command and tonight the U21s take the field in a Leinster final for the first time in five years. “You don’t get to too many All-Irelands or Leinster play-offs, whether it’s National League or whether it’s U21 championship, you don’t get too many chances at them. You have to take them when they come.”

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