THERE'S NO disguising the fact that we're in the depths of winter, but there was enough drama in the last ten minutes of this Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup match in Newbridge on Sunday last to match anything we are likely to witness when the championship comes around.
Wexford had lost their way completely in the third quarter after a competitive first-half and seemed destined for inevitable defeat when they slumped behind by 0-11 to 0-4 a mere eleven minutes after the re-start.
The gap remained at 0-13 to 0-7 and Kildare appeared to be cruising when the visitors launched a storming finish as Daithí Waters picked out fellow midfielder Craig Doyle for a point with ten minutes remaining.
P.J. Banville then earned a free which he tapped over before Shane Roche kicked a marvellous leftfooted effort from the right corner after more good work by Doyle, and all of a sudden Wexford were within striking distance (0-13 to 0-10).
A foul on influential substitute Redmond Barry enabled Roche to narrow the gap to just two points a mere 17 seconds into added time, but the drama was only starting. Kildare had switched off completely and Wexford were intent on punishing them to the full, taking a dramatic lead in the 72nd minute when Graeme Molloy fired in a high ball which looked like a point attempt as it veered to the right.
Daithí Waters competed for possession as it dropped, knocking it into the path of Shane Roche who fired home to leave Wexford with a scarcely believable 1-11 to 0-13 lead. It certainly stunned the local supporters who made up 95% of the decent attendance on a miserable day as the goal was greeted with near-silence.
All Wexford had to do was hold out for the remainder of added time, but naive defending denied them at the death. Too many players were sucked towards the ball on the left wing as Kildare attacked, with Morgan O'Flaherty ghosting into a great position unmarked on the right corner. Substitute James Eaton picked him out with an inch-perfect crossfield pass, and the wing-forward coolly stepped inside Brian Malone before planting a low shot past Anthony Masterson for the winning goal.
A bout of handbags ensued when Kildare tried to prevent a quick Wexford kick-out, and after taking a long time to sort out a fairly straightforward incident, referee Maurice Deegan dismissed Graeme Molloy and Emmet Bolton on second yellow cards while David Murphy was also booked. They were two of the softest sendings-off that one is ever likely to see from the Laois official who awarded 49 frees, 24 to Wexford.
Alas, there wasn't enough time to hit back as the final whistle blew with the visitors attacking, and it was a frustrating way to end a game which had seemed beyond them for so long.
While Kildare were through already and Wexford couldn't qualify, one wouldn't have thought that from the keen nature of the exchanges. Clearly Aidan O'Brien's side looked on this as the best-possible preparation for the National League opener at home to Longford on February 3, while the more experienced players had the added incentive of trying to claim early-season bragging rights over former manager Jason Ryan who is now a Kildare selector.
A much-stronger team started than against Carlow I.T. four days earlier, and it was nip and tuck throughout the first-half when the gap was never more than one point. It took just 15 seconds for the ever-classy Johnny Doyle to steal a march on Joey Wadding and kick the first of his four points from play, and the veteran attacker was the main difference between the sides in the long run.
Newcomer Cathal McNally sent a low shot wide when a goal was on in the fifth minute, and Wexford quickly levelled through P.J. Banville thanks to a fine pass into the right corner by David Murphy.
Brian Malone was fouled near the endline and Shane Roche made it 0-2 to 0-1 before Johnny Doyle replied from a free and McNally restored Kildare's lead after 12 minutes.
Kevin Gore drilled over the equaliser but Doyle made it 0-4 to 0-3 from a free, and four Wexford wides followed in quick succession - two apiece from Gore and Aindreas Doyle.
Anthony Masterson did a Stephen Cluxton in the 32nd minute, being summoned from goal to kick a free from 45 metres over the bar after Craig Doyle was impeded. However, another excellent Johnny Doyle point left Kildare ahead at the interval by 0-5 to 0-4, with Shane Roche wasting a good chance of an equaliser in added time when he kicked the sixth Wexford wide from a total of seven.
Wexford resumed with Redmond Barry at centreforward and Kevin Gore on the edge of the square, but they simply couldn't get their hands on the ball in the third quarter as Kildare surged clear with six unanswered points in eleven minutes.
Mikey Conway converted a free off the ground before Emmet Bolton surged forward for a trademark point with his fist. Conway and Johnny Doyle added frees while Cathal McNally and Doyle also raised white flags from play, leaving Wexford in serious trouble. Their sole attack in that spell might have yielded a goal though, with a quick footpass from Redmond Barry finding P.J. Banville who rounded Michael Konstantin on the turn but fired to the right and inches wide.
Shane Roche finally got Wexford off the mark from a free nearly 14 minutes into the half, with Johnny Doyle responding from play at the beginning of the last quarter when he won a Pádraig O'Neill delivery. Two Redmond Barry frees narrowed the gap to 0-12 to 0-7 before Doyle had a goal chance which was blocked for a '45, with Mikey Conway sending that over the bar via Daithi Waters' fingertips. It didn't seem viable for the Slaneysiders to win the game from that point, but they really rattled Kildare in the closing stages and were a little unfortunate not to hold out although it would have been robbery.