Croker crossbar breaks Lilywhites' hearts as Down get upper hand
ANOTHER nailbiter at Croke Park. And more heartbreak for Kildare. There were white flags flying on all sides but there was no hint of surrender in how the Lilywhites went down at Croke Park yesterday.
It was a green flag for a goal that they wanted to see at the end, of course, and only the width of a crossbar stopped it from happening.
That plank of wood halted an unlikely comeback after Kildare trailed Down by seven points with little more than 10 minutes to go. They almost closed that gap. Almost.
They had come in their droves from both counties and -- while Croke Park was nowhere near the sell-out it was for last week's All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Cork -- the 62,182 from Down and Kildare made it a unique occasion.
Bands of supporters enjoyed the fine weather as they lined the streets of the capital before the game.
Some of them marched in lines and formed processions with banging drums and rallying war cries. Both counties stood on the brink of ending more than a decade of waiting to reach an All-Ireland Final -- and the crowd sensed it.
Noise levels inside the stadium as both sets of players marched behind the Dublin Fire Brigade Pipe Band before throw-in were deafening, and a sea of flags went up to remind the players just what was at stake.
The build-up to the game -- while electrified by the belief that all those years of hurt could soon be at an end -- was also tinged with a sense of grief.
You could have heard a pin drop in what had been a booming cauldron just moments before as a minute's silence was observed in honour of Down teenager Patrick Dinsmore who collapsed and died during a Minor football match eight days ago.
The match was also the stadium's first with the new Hill 16 fence to stem pitch invasions.
They were taking no chances, though, as a host of football and hurling stars appeared on the big screen at half-time and appealed to fans to put safety first at the end of the match.
Everything seemed to go off without a hitch and a GAA spokesman said afterwards they were happy with how it went.
The controversy would be on the pitch, however, when Down stole a march on Kildare in the twelfth minute. Benny Coulter appeared to have entered the square too early before he punched Marty Clarke's left wing delivery to the net.
Kildare fan Peter Kinsella (29), from Maynooth, said he couldn't believe the decision after the game.
"It was never a goal," he said. "It was totally obvious and everybody knew it except the officials. Everything went against us today."
The Mourne men would hold all the aces thereafter until Eamon Callaghan smashed in a 58th minute goal and gave Kildare hope.
But sub Robert Kelly sent his last-minute close-range free crashing against the crossbar, with 14 of Down's 15 men standing on the goal-line, before referee Pat McEnaney blew up and sent the red and black sections of the crowd into raptures.
The men in white fell to their knees as the Down players leapt for joy before roaming from one section of the crowd to the next -- enjoying the adulation of their fans.
Brendan O'Rourke (57), from Teconnaught, Co Down, brought his 11-year-old daughter Caoimhe to her first game in Croke Park and the pair were elated after the final whistle.
"We're extremely happy," he said. "It's a very special day because it's been so long since we've been there. We'll give Cork a right go in the final now and I don't think they'll give us many problems," he said.
Among the fans at the match were Ronan Keating's estranged wife Yvonne with the couple's eldest child Jack (11).
Ronan and Yvonne issued a joint statement at the weekend reaffirming their intentions to split -- but that didn't stop Yvonne and Jack enjoying a day in Croke Park.
At least until the green flag failed to rise with that final kick.
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