By Micil Glennon
Offaly v Kildare, Croke Park, 5pm
For the second year in a row Offaly are pitted against Kildare in the opening round of the Leinster Championship.
Unfortunately, the meeting comes too soon for a Faithful side at the start of a rebuilding process.
Although the cornerstone, under new manager Emmet McDonnell, has been laid down in the shape of promotion back to Division 3, Kildare are years ahead in their mission to build a team that can compete with the top dogs.
Whatever outside chance the Faithful County had of causing an upset was made even more difficult when Sean Pender, Richie Dalton and Ross Brady, all of whom started the Division 4 final loss to Limerick, were dropped for missing training.
McDonnell meanwhile hands Championship debuts to Eoin Carroll, Daithi Brady and Johnny Brickland.
Against Limerick in the Division 4 league final, Offaly managed to convert only 12 scores from 32 chances, a statistic that is not good enough.
But one aspect that has improved is work ethic.
Star forward Niall McNamee explained to Midlands Sport: “We’re tackling hard, we’re working hard. If your man goes up the field, you have to follow him. In years gone by, I hold my hand up myself, if my man went up the field, you’d look up and ask someone else to do it for you. That can’t be the way. You have to mind your own patch, he has drilled that into us.”
Kildare are at the other end of the spectrum.
This is Kieran McGeeney’s sixth summer in charge and, with the expectation levels always high in the county, he will be disappointed that they have no major silverware in the cabinet.
Last summer’s campaign was overshadowed by the Seanie Johnston affair and by the time that calmed down, the Lilywhites found themselves in an All-Ireland quarter-final where they were swatted aside by Cork.
The draw has been kind, once again, and this meeting affords them a chance to ease into Championship mode, and get another run out in HQ.
McGeeney names five debutants for the Croke Park clash, which will see the first outing for the Hawk-Eye system.
Under-21s Mark Donnellan, Paul Cribbin, Daniel Flynn, Niall Kelly and Paddy Brophy start and Eamonn Callaghan has been handed the captain’s armband.
The Kildare squad features five players who played under McDonnell at St Mary’s Edenderry, providing the manager with some extra insight.
However, last season there was a 13-point gap in Portlaoise (Offaly keeper Alan Mulhall also made two great saves), with a desperately unprepared Offaly side competitive for just 15 minutes.
The commitment and attitude have certainly improved but the gap is too wide to close in a season. The goal for Offaly will be to make the fight last a bit longer.
Kildare: Mark Donnellan, Peter Kelly, Michael Foley, Hugh McGrillen, Eoin Doyle, Eamonn Callaghan (c), Emmet Bolton, Daryl Flynn, Daniel Flynn, Paul Cribbin, Niall Kelly, Eoghan O'Flaherty, John Doyle, Tomás O'Connor, Paddy Brophy.
Offaly: Alan Mulhall, Brian Darby, Paul McConway, Daithi Brady, Eoin Carroll, Shane Sullivan, Michael Brazil, Alan McNamee, Brian Connor, Graham Guilfoyle , Johnny Brickland, David Hanlon, Anton Sullivan, Niall McNamee (c), Ken Casey.
Live television coverage of Dublin v Westmeath from 18:40 on Saturday 1 June on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage of all the day’s action featuring Dublin v Westmeath from 15:00 on RTÉ Radio 1, RTÉ RnaG and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).
Live television coverage of Derry v Down (Football) and Clare v Waterford (Hurling) from 13:30 on Sunday 2 June on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage of all the day’s action featuring Clare v Waterford from 14:00 on RTÉ Radio 1, RTÉ RnaG and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).
Highlights and analysis of all the weekend’s action on The Sunday Game from 21:30 on Sunday 2 June on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only).