Tyrone can edge past Kildare to be the 'winningest' in qualifiers
All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round three: Kildare v Tyrone (Newbridge, 5pm today)
THE chance to reach the 'Super Eights' is the real prize on offer for these two counties – but they'll also be competing for the title of 'the winningest team in the football qualifiers'.
Both have 29 victories to their name but Tyrone have achieved that tally in fewer matches (34 compared to 41 for Kildare). Only Gaelic football's 'big two', Kerry and Dublin, have better winning percentages in the qualifiers than the Red Hands, while just Donegal are also above the Lilywhites in that regard.
Mayo also had a better win percentage than Kildare – until they came to St Conleth's Park last year.
The whole 'Newbridge or nowhere' furore clearly helped the hosts in that match, the home crowd working themselves up into a frenzy to roar their heroes to victory over the westerners.
Even if there's a similar atmosphere this evening it's hardly likely to faze Tyrone. Mickey Harte's men have literally been here and done the job before – and they're a better team now. Certainly better than Kildare, although proving that on this pitch will be another matter.
In one sense, Newbridge isn't actually a fearsome venue to visit. Kildare did win their first qualifier here, a veritable classic against Donegal in 2001, but they then suffered home qualifier losses to Offaly (2004) and Louth (2007), and only drew with Antrim (2008) before winning the replay up in Casement Park.
Kieran McGeeney undoubtedly improved them from the autumn of 2007 onwards, and they won 15 out of 16 qualifiers (that draw with Antrim the sole exception). Yet although they defeated Derry (twice), Monaghan, and Meath, their Newbridge victories weren't against any teams of note: Cavan (2006 and 2008), Leitrim (2010), and Louth (2013).
Then Tyrone came to town in July 2013 and ended that unbeaten streak – and McGeeney's tenure.
For all their involvement in All-Ireland quarter-finals under 'Geezer', reaching the 2010 semis, Kildare are not quite a top level team, although they have ambitions to be, and Cian O'Neill appears to have them on an upward curve again.
The danger for Tyrone is that the Lilywhites have long had a tendency to raise their game against better opposition but slip up against lesser lights, although their most recent meeting with Antrim, last weekend, was an exception to that 'rule'.
This year in Leinster was more characteristic of them: they edged past Wicklow and needed a replay to see off Longford. Although they were whipped by 15 points by the best team around, Dublin, that Leinster semi-final could have been much closer had Kildare taken more of their chances, including three good goal opportunities.
As far as any lines of form go, both of these counties comfortably disposed of Antrim, Tyrone racking up their 14-point winning margin by half-time in the Athletic Grounds, Kildare going 15 clear with 20 minutes to go in Corrigan Park before also easing to victory over the last quarter hour with 14 men after top scorer Neil Flynn went off injured.
Presuming that was merely precautionary rather than serious, the Maynooth man – who scored 1-5 from play in Belfast – should be part of a dangerous inside-forward line along with Adam Tyrrell and Ben McCormack.
However, as noted above, Kildare needed a replay to get past Longford, conceding 3-15 in the drawn game at the neutral venue of Tullamore, whereas Tyrone went to Pearse Park and won pulling up, conceding a late 1-3 with 14 men, and still won by four points.
Still, Tyrone will remember that they had an extra man for the bulk of the second half at Newbridge in 2013 (after the dismissal of home defender Peter Kelly) and had to battle to the end for a two-point win – the same margin by which they defeated Kildare in an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2009.
The Red Hands' record in the qualifiers is firm evidence that they don't do complacency, certainly not under Harte. Their only defeats have come against Sligo in 2002, Laois (2006), Kerry (2012), and Armagh (2014), with only the last of those on home turf.
The home element will undoubtedly help Kildare, as will the confidence gained from their demolition of Antrim.
As Mickey Harte has noted, Kildare are physically powerful, including in their ranks a few Aussie Rules types. That physique is especially eye-catching around the midfield are, with Kevin Feely, Fergal Conway, and the option of Tommy Moolick, but Tyrone have big men too – Colm Cavanagh, Brian Kennedy, and Declan McClure. Whether or not the similarly strong – and versatile - Paudie Hampsey and Richie Donnelly are fit to feature, after missing out in Longford, remains to be seen.
Yet even if those two are not involved, Tyrone should have sufficient quality to inflict a third Championship defeat on the Lilywhites.
As the away team it will suit the Red Hands to play their tried and tested deep defensive system, with their counter-attacking now having the dual prongs of running the ball in numbers or kicking long to target men, notably the in-form Cathal McShane.
They were, almost to a man, pretty poor against Donegal but still only lost out by four points in the end.
Kildare went to Ballyshannon in the last round of Division Two, in what was effectively a promotion play-off, and were hammered by 13 points, 1-20 to 0-10.
The Red Hands appear to have more aces in their pack, including on the bench, although there are worries that the attack produces much more perspiration than inspiration.
Having said that, the half-forward line is top class, skipper Mattie Donnelly, Niall Sludden, and Peter Harte, and they can provide the ammo for the likes of McShane, Darren McCurry, and Connor McAliskey to shoot down Kildare.
Another difference in the visitors' favour could be that they travel in expectation, not merely hope.
For Kildare, reaching the last eight, as they did again last year, is an achievement.
For Tyrone, it's seen as a minimum requirement.
If Tyrone play fairly well they will win – and remove any doubts about them being the winningest county in the qualifiers.
Referee: Paddy Neilan (Roscommon).