TOM Howard got exactly what he expected: a battle.
Kildare were the physically more imposing side. They were playing on their home turf – one of the tighter hurling grounds in the country – against a more inexperienced Kerry side they hoped to boss. They didn't quite manage it.
Kerry coped with the Lilywhites. They weren't allowed play their preferred brand of open, running hurling. Instead the Kingdom adapted admirably to the conditions and to the opponents they faced and played this game on its merits. They can play better than this and they will play better than this. On this occasion, however, it was far more important that they demonstrate grit and determination, the will to win.
It's on days like this, with backs to the wall, that you really learn about players and teams. Some guys had good days, other guys not so good. It's all part of the learning curve for a young side. With two points in the bag, with another morale boosting victory secured, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Progress is being made, momentum is being maintained.
When Kildare came at them in the last ten minutes a lesser team might have crumpled. The return to the fold of Liam Boyle ensured they didn't. He was magnificent on Saturday afternoon, especially in those final few minutes when he burst out in front of his man and cleared ball that badly needed clearing. At one stage in the second half the Kingdom led by eight points. Whether Kerry switched off or whether Kildare were just finally getting the rewards their efforts deserved is largely irrevelant at this stage.
The locals hit 1-2 without reply (Mark Delaney nabbed the goal) and reduced the margin to just three with about five minutes left on the clock. Kerry had every reason to be nervous. Kildare surged. Kerry (with Boyle and Darragh O'Connell leading the vanguard) resisted. Padraig Boyle hit a beauty to make it a four point game. Paul Divilly hit yet another free to put the game back in the melting pot. Kerry weren't certain of their victory until the final whistle blew. Yet another lesson. Never ever take anything for granted in the game of hurling.
They showed resolve then, they showed resolve too at the beginning of this match. Kildare started brightly. They hit the game's opening two points – a free from Divilly, a point from play from Gerry Keegan – before a Shane Nolan free kept Kerry in touch. Kildare were, in most facets of the game, the better side. They were (like we've already said) stronger and had more possession of the ball, but their lack of a cutting edge was apparent too.
They went three points to one up (full-foward Billy Nolan scored from play), after that Kerry asserted a measure of control over the game – on the scoreboard at least. A couple of Darragh O'Connell efforts levelled it up, Shane Nolan and Divilly swapped frees. Fifteen minutes gone and all square. Kildare would have been kicking themselves. They seemed to be on top, yet they gave away far too many needless frees.
Like when Fiachra Ó Muineacháin pulled down Aidan Boyle. Shane Nolan converted the free. Kerry had the lead and, while they were pegged back to level scores once more before the game was out, they were never headed again. Nolan was running the show up front for Kerry as the other forwards (with the exception, perhaps, of Brendan O'Leary) struggled to impose themselves on the game.
Kerry's lead of one at half-time (nine points to eight) was probably a fair reflection. Kerry were that shade better, but no more than that. It wasn't until Nolan's brilliant second half performance that clear daylight emerged between the sides. The Crotta man really does come alive in the second half of games doesn't he? On 47 minutes Aidan Boyle fed him for a shot on goal. Paul Dermody directed it over the bar. A shot across the bows. Nolan was only warming up.
A minute later he gained possession at least thirty yards from goal. The obvious thing for him to do was to tap the ball over the bar. Instead he left John Doran in his wake, cut in, jinked and dashed and scored an irrestible goal. Aidan Boyle turned provider again for Nolan's second goal, turning over possession and finding Nolan who, again, made no mistake with the finish. At that stage Kerry led 2-13 to 0-13 – Willie O'Dwyer and Padraig Boyle extened their lead to the eight in the minute or two following the goal.
Eight points clear with less than ten minutes to go there was no way Kerry should have lost this game. That they could have is worrying. That they didn't when they could have done is encouraging.
Kerry: Bernard Rochford, Pat O'Keeffe, Liam Boyle, Tommy Barrett, Brian Murphy, Tom Murnane, Darragh O'Connell (0-2, 1f), John Griffin (0-1), Daniel Collins, Pat Joe Connolly, Darren Dineen, Brendan O'Leary, Willie O'Dwyer (0-1), Aidan Boyle, Shane Nolan (2-10, 7f, 1 '65) Subs: Brendan Brosnan for B Murphy, Padraig Boyle (0-2) for PJ Connolly, Colm Harty for D Collins, Rory Horgan for P O'Keeffe
Kildare: Paul Dermody, John Doran, Fiachra Ó Muineacháin, Patrick, Curtin, Niall Ó Muineacháin, Richie Hoban, Paudie Reidy (0-1), Mark Moloney, Kieran Divilly, Danny Butler (0-1), Michael Purcell, Paul Divilly (0-7, 6f), David Harney, Billy Nolan (0-1), Gerry Keegan (0-4) Subs: Ross Kelly for R Hoban, Mark Delaney (1-1) for D Harney, David Kennedy for B Nolan, Peadar Downey (0-1) for R Kelly
Referee: Jer O'Connell (Cork)