Bolton leads charge of the white brigade
SOMEONE, some day, will probably write a thesis on Kildare's ability to surf the treacherous waters of the football qualifiers and always land on the beach with their hairdos and shorts unruffled.
Under Kieran McGeeney, their phenomenal four-year unbeaten run through the scenic route has now stretched to 11 games. Yet all that separated them from Meath in this titanic third-round battle in Navan on Saturday night was their greater fitness and composure.
Beating the same team twice in a summer -- a feat only previously achieved by Kerry and Derry in the qualifiers -- and the Royals for a fourth time in a year, was another milestone to add further momentum to the charge of the white brigade.
But this was a lot more perspiration than inspiration and doubts still remain about their finishing. They needed 20 men to run themselves into the ground, and some late heroics from wing-back Emmet Bolton, to get over the line on a flattering scoreline.
Meath matched them right until the last five minutes and, to their credit, did not quibble afterwards that Kildare got a soft penalty in the opening minutes, or that the game swung hugely on a facial injury to Seamus Kenny which no one seemed able to explain.
After trailing by two at half-time (1-6 to 0-7) Meath, now with the wind advantage, had battled back to draw level when Kenny was ordered off after 56 minutes for a 'temporary substitution' with blood gushing down his face. He never returned and nine minutes later the man he'd been marking -- Bolton -- popped up unmarked to grab the lead.
And after Ronan Sweeney had extended Kildare's lead to two, the Eadestown wing-back started a move inside his own '45' that ended with him palming the ball into the net after receiving a flicked pass from Tomas O'Connor.
That 1-2 in three minutes decided the game. Meath would get two late points but the screw had eventually been turned.
Meath manager Seamus McEnaney admitted that Kenny's loss was pivotal.
"I don't know what happened him but he got seven or eight stitches across the forehead and him and Ciaran Lenehan going off (concussed) had a crucial bearing," he said.
Stephen Bray was then given the job of marking Bolton but McEnaney stressed: "we're not pointing the fingers anywhere. It's a team game and you go to the man closest to you to put pressure on him." But he did point out that winning 'break ball' is Kenny's speciality and that Kildare won four in a row once he'd departed.
No sooner had Bolton run the length of the field to score the winning goal than McGeeney whipped him off. And his reason spoke volumes about the nature of the team the ex-Armagh star has moulded in his own image in the past four years.
"Not to put too fine a point on it, he was f***ed!" the Lilywhite boss quipped. "But that's exactly what we are looking for, honesty. You run yourself into the ground and put your hands up."
Apart from excellent work-rate and vast endurance levels, he has also instilled ice in their veins.
Kildare's famous 'second-half surge' -- scoring more and conceding less than their opponents -- went missing for a full 30 minutes, largely thanks to Meath's own tenacity. The introduction of Mark Ward had wrestled back Kildare's early midfield dominance and they were scoreless for 13 minutes before Bolton's interventions.
Yet they kicked on when the home side faltered momentarily after Joe Sheridan dropped a scoreable chance short and Cian Ward missed a 50-metre free. Sniffing blood, Kildare went for the kill, helped also by an inspirational block by Brian Flanagan on Sheridan.
From there on their superior late fitness finally prised open some channels for their running game and, typically, many of their bit-part performers were playing vital roles.
McGeeney's faith in his relatively inexperienced full-forward line -- apart from Tomas O'Connor, whose 50-50 duel with Kevin Reilly was worth the admission alone -- was not rewarded.
But James Kavanagh excelled off the bench for the second week in a row, and Sweeney and Flanagan provided vital legs and interventions in the last five minutes.
Despite pre-match injury worries, John Doyle expertly dispatched his second penalty in a week though, while working tirelessly, he was not his usual self. Yet Daryl Flynn did well on his call-up to fill the void of their latest midfield injury (Hugh Lynch).
They restricted Meath to just four points from play and defenders Mick Foley, Hugh McGrillen and Morgan O'Flaherty were outstanding.
But their backs actually scored more than their forwards, who squandered several good goal chances, and the fourth-minute penalty, while technically a correct decision by referee Joe McQuillan, was a bit soft considering O'Connor inadvertently did a 'reverse Joe Sheridan' as he tumbled to the ground.
Ironically, Meath earned almost as many plaudits as Kildare from this defeat. Cian Ward more than made up for his profligacy of a week earlier, Sheridan and Shane O'Rourke provided fantastic leadership until some late errors of judgment and their defence was rock solid.
But, apart from Mark Ward, they couldn't match Kildare's bench, which is so much longer in gestation.
McEnaney's managerial future remains in the balance -- "that's not a question for tonight," he said -- but for once he wasn't indulging in hyperbole when he lavished his players with praise and said: "the performances were starting to come against Louth and Galway and tonight again, but when you're out of the championship it's gut-wrenching."
Scorers -- Kildare: J Doyle (1-0 pen, 0-2f), E Bolton 1-2 each, H McGrillen, M O'Flaherty, P O'Neill, E Callaghan, F Dowling, J Kavanagh, R Sweeney 0-1 each. Meath: C Ward 0-8 (5f, 2 '45), S Bray (1f) S Kenny 0-2 each, B Farrell (1f), S O'Rourke 0-1 each.
Kildare -- S Connolly 8; A MacLochlainn 7, M Foley 8, H McGrillen 8; E Bolton 8, G White 5, M O'Flaherty 8; J Doyle (capt) 7, D Flynn 8; P O'Neill 6, E O'Flaherty 7, E Callaghan 6; F Dowling, 6 T O'Connor 7, R Kelly 5. Subs: J Kavanagh 8 for Kelly (24), B Flanagan 8 for White (h-t), C Brophy 6 for Dowling (48), R Sweeney 7 for E O'Flaherty (55), O Lyons 7 for Bolton (67).
Meath -- B Murphy 7; C King 7, K Reilly 8, G O'Brien 6; S McAnarney 7, M Burke 8, C Lenehan 8; S O'Rourke 8, B Meade 5; P Gilsenan 6, J Sheridan 8, S Kenny 7 (capt); S Bray 7, G Reilly 5, C Ward 8. Subs: M Ward 8 for Meade (23), B Farrell 5 for Lenehan (30), J Queeney 5 for G Reilly (46), A Moyles 5 for Queeney (63).
Ref -- J McQuillan (Cavan).