Doyle the Kildare lynchpin in serious display of intent
A brief synopsis of this gripping encounter must be relayed first to put the scale of Kildare's progression into its proper context.
They lost their iconic leader, Dermot Earley, when his knee gave way from beneath him in the opening minute. They then fell six points in arrears, 1-3 to be exact, to a Meath team that showed no ill effects from the fallout of their dramatic Leinster final with Louth. That itself took a certain amount of nerve from Meath.
From the 12th minute on, however, Kildare won the next 63 minutes or so by 2-16 to 0-9 with another performance of power, relentless running and conviction in the last third of the field. The outstanding performance of the championship so far? Right now, there doesn't feel like there has been a better one.
Maybe on closer scrutiny the flaws in Meath's defence will be magnified, their inability to stay the pace in a frantic second half catching up with them once again. But Kildare are playing football at a pace and rhythm that most teams will find difficult to live with. They operate in the knowledge that they have the staying power and game plan to withstand any situation.
A sixth successive weekend in action has culminated in a first All-Ireland semi-final for the county in a decade. After losing All-Ireland quarter-finals in successive years, they were determined not to cough up a third opportunity.
It's been quite a journey through the month of July, one that has seen the team take shape, grow in strength and have the ruthless conviction to put good teams away.
Just over five weeks ago they struggled with an Antrim team that had come to Newbridge, on the evening that Dermot Earley Snr was laid to rest, having blown up badly against Louth three weeks earlier. You wouldn't have given their chances of progressing this far much oxygen at that stage, with the shadow of assistant manager Paul Grimley's departure hanging ominously over the team.
But Kieran McGeeney had always weighted Kildare's preparations for peak performance towards the middle of the campaign, and that's how it has panned out. There's no one talking about Grimley's absence now.
The game was free-flowing with just 36 free kicks and it capped an exciting weekend at headquarters. Meath's loss means that, for the first time since the inception of the qualifiers in 2001, not one of the semi-finalists will come from the quartet of provincial champions. That's an argument for another day but one that tells its own story.
For Meath, there will be disappointment at how they failed to compete in the second half. Joe Sheridan had given them quite a platform early on with some marvellous points, while the work of Seamus Kenny and Graham Reilly around the fringes had Kildare readjusting their formation.
Brian Flanagan was taken off, Eamonn Callaghan followed in the second half and Morgan O'Flaherty was pulled back for defensive duties in line with the No 5 on his back.
But in defence, Meath were themselves living on their wits and for Lilywhites' James Kavanagh, Padraig O'Neill, Eoghan O'Flaherty and particularly John Doyle it quickly became apparent that they each had the beating of their direct opponents, with long diagonal balls in the direction of the Meath goalmouth causing endless problems.
Both Kildare goals came from that direct route, with the second coming three minutes into first-half injury time from Alan Smith after O'Neill had tracked an Emmet Bolton delivery behind the Meath defence to set him up for the killer blow.
That left Kildare just one point, 1-9 to 2-5, behind and the match appeared delicately poised. In reality it wasn't. Meath had let their early six-point lead evaporate and, after reeling off the next four points after Kavanagh's wonderful 29th-minute goal had brought about parity (1-5 each), Smith's effort had to have had a deflating effect.
For most of the second half Kildare forwards did as they pleased. Doyle was constantly on the ball, riding tackles, drawing fouls and hoisting over some magnificent points. His passing was equally proficient and the All Star that has eluded him for so long now looks in his grasp, regardless of how the season evolves from here.
In tandem was Eoghan O'Flaherty, who took over free-taking duties from distance and fired over three superb points to a cap a fine second-half display.
It won't unduly concern Kildare that for the sixth time in seven championship outings they were behind at the end of the first quarter.
McGeeney seemed to suggest afterwards that refereeing mistakes may have stirred Kildare more than anything else, a presumed reference to Meath's 12th-minute penalty when Aindriu MacLochlainn appeared to ground Brian Meade as he chased up a Sheridan shot off the crossbar.
Cian Ward's penalty was hit with sufficient power to just about get over the line after Shane McCormack had blocked it. This time the umpire at the near post had the conviction to make the right call.
When Doyle clipped a 13-metre free wide, it may have unnerved Kildare's class of '08 or '09. Not Kildare 2010, however. By the 29th minute they were level. Hugh Lynch, Earley's impressive replacement, floated an inviting delivery for Kavanagh to gather behind a stranded Eoghan Harrington. One on one with Brendan Murphy he did the smartest thing, selling the Meath goalkeeper a dummy and tapping with his left to an empty net.
Meath's recovery was quick and sharp, but short-lived, as Smith's goal put the first half in different light and their 1-9 to 2-5 interval lead was a precarious one.
That Meath could only add three more points after the break was as much down to improved Kildare defence than anything. Peter Kelly was once again a revelation until injury forced him out, Hugh McGrillen grew in stature and Michael Foley, Flanagan's replacement, got to grips with Sheridan.
The pressure on the Meath defenders coming out of defence was enormous. Gary O'Brien and Caoimhin King found themselves in isolation and making wrong decisions too often, and when O'Brien was hunted down in the 45th minute on the Hogan Stand sideline, it led to the lead point (2-8 to 1-10) for Bolton.
Soon Kildare were capitalising on every Meath mistake and were four points clear. The hard-working Brian Meade and substitute Jamie Queeney, from a free, gave Meath a chance of recovery but small things continued to go against them.
Eventually a contentiously awarded free allowed Doyle to lift the brief siege and Kildare were off again. Meath could take no more.
Frustration told when Kenny picked up a second yellow card at linesman Gearoid O Conamha's discretion and Kildare were ruthless in yielding yellow cards to prevent any late leakage themselves.
A job well done from a serious team with serious momentum. They'll hardly welcome a four-week break.
Scorers -- Kildare: J Doyle 0-8 (0-3f), E O'Flaherty 0-5 (0-3f), J Kavanagh 1-1 (0-1f), A Smith 1-0, P O'Neill 0-2, E Bolton 0-1. Meath: C Ward 1-2 (0-2f), J Sheridan 0-3, S O'Rourke, G Reilly 0-2 each, B Meade, J Queeney (0-1f), C O'Connor 0-1 each.
Kildare -- S McCormack 7; B Flanagan 4, H McGrillen 8, A McLochlainn 7; E Bolton 7, P Kelly 7, E Callaghan 5; D Flynn 7, D Earley; M O'Flaherty 7, P O'Neill 7, E O'Flaherty 9; J Kavanagh 8, A Smith 7, J Doyle 9. Subs: H Lynch 7 for Earley, M Foley 7 for Flanagan (37), R Sweeney 5 for Callaghan (46), G White 5 for Bolton (57), D Lyons for Kelly (62).
Meath -- B Murphy 6; C O'Connor 5, K Reilly 6, E Harrington 4; A Moyles 5, G O'Brien 4, C King 5; N Crawford 6, B Meade 7; S Kenny 8, S Bray 6, G Reilly 7; C Ward 4, S O'Rourke 7, J Sheridan 8. Subs: C McGuinness 6 for Moyles (50), J Queeney 6 for Ward (51).
Ref -- M Duffy (Sligo).