TWO counties who are going through contrasting fortunes at senior level had their seasons so far summed up in Navan last night.
While this Meath side were game, they were ultimately outplayed by a Kildare team led by the youngsters who have helped drive the seniors to their 100pc record in the top flight of the National Football League.
Meath had the advantage of having already played in the competition – they saw off Louth with an impressive 3-13 tally. But once the Lilies blew off the cobwebs, they imposed themselves with an impressive second-half performance.
It took Kildare a full 20 minutes to get going as their much-vaunted full-forward line of Paddy Brophy, Fionn Dowling and Padraig Fogarty failed to fire. In the meantime, Meath pilfered points through three Daniel Queeney frees and the persistence of Eamon Wallace to open up a surprise 0-6 to 0-2 lead.
Kildare's awakening coincided with the introduction of Sean Hurley. The Johnstownbridge man was dropped from Kieran McGeeney's senior squad in 2011 after attending the Oxegen music festival but his first act here was to drop over a fine point for only the Lilies' second score. Kildare gained more traction around midfield and they finally got their hard-running game going for a goal on 25 minutes.
In a move right out of the senior side's playbook, Daniel Flynn – one of a host of young Kildare players on show who have made an impression for McGeeney's team – cut through the heart of the Meath defence with a fine run before off-loading to Niall Kelly. The Athy man lashed to the net beyond the dive of Conor McHugh in the Meath goal.
Within a minute, Liam McGovern had the sides level from a free before the impressive Kelly gave Kildare the lead for the first time.
In a rare Meath foray forward, Queeney landed his fourth point of the half with a fine long-range effort from play to halt Kildare's gallop and send the sides in level at the break (1-4 to 0-7) but there was still the feeling that Anthony Nolan's short whistle came at a good time for the Royals.
Kildare started the second half with two quick-fire scores as their tactic of dropping deep and running hard lines took its toll on Meath legs.
They looked to be pulling away only for Queeney's fisted goal to breathe new life into the Meath challenge.
However, Kildare never blinked and when Fogarty slammed home from close range just minutes later, the writing was on the wall for Meath.
Only Queeney and Wallace could provide any resistance against an organised Kildare defence. And when Harry Rooney saw his goal-bound effort smothered, Meath's campaign was finally over.
In all, Kildare were the better team, with their senior stars showing the form that has made McGeeney show so much faith in them.
There was the added bonus of a brief run-out for former AFL starlet Paul Cribbin, who seems to be getting over his injury nightmare.
And as news of Dublin's demise filtered through the stands, Kildare's Leinster and All-Ireland ambitions were handed another shot in the arm.
Even as the mist settled on Pairc Tailteann on a March evening, there are good times ahead for Kildare.
SCORERS – Kildare: P Fogarty 1-4, N Kelly 1-2, P Brophy 0-3, L McGovern (2f), S Hurley (1 '45') 0-2 each, T Moolick, F Dowling 0-1 each. Meath: D Queeney 1-4 (0-3f), E Wallace 0-2, B McMahon (1f), C O'Brien, P Fox 0-1 each.
Kildare – M Donnellan; M Konstantin, J Byrne, B Egan; D Hyland, F Conway, S Higgins; T Moolick, D Grehan; L McGovern, N Kelly, D Flynn; P Brophy, F Dowling, P Fogarty. Subs: S Hurley for Grehan (19), C Murphy for Dowling (56), H Mahon for Kelly (57), D McGlynn for Conway (58), P Cribbin for Flynn (60).
Meath – C McHugh; S Carty, C McGill, D McQuillan; B Dillon, B Moore, N Shortall; C Sheridan, C O'Brien; D Queeney, C Downey, S Barry; E Wallace, B O'Brien, B McMahon. Subs: F Toolan for Shortall (h-t), J Togher for C O'Brien (40), P Fox for B O'Brien (42), H Rooney for Sheridan (48), D Landy for Barry (53).
Ref – A Nolan (Wicklow)
• Tony McEntee resigned as manager of Crossmaglen last night. Despite leading the club to back-to-back All-Ireland senior club football titles and a three-in-a-row of Ulster titles this season, the management team of McEntee and Gareth O'Neill have turned down pleas from club officials to remain in charge for another season.