Late power surge gives Sarsfields crucial edge
Sarsfields 0-17 Athy 1-12
Sarsfields refused to take no for an answer this time and were rewarded for their dogged persistence with a powerful finish that rescued them from a perilous position where they seemed to be headed for a third season as county final losers.
As the light faded around St Conleth's Park, the Newbridge men switched on their personal generators, which provided the power that enabled them to squeeze Athy into submission in the final 10 minutes of normal time and five minutes of added time.
Athy seemed set for victory when they led by 1-10 to 0-10 after 50 minutes while also playing with a numerical advantage after Sarsfields defender Conor Tiernan was sent off on a straight red card in the 38th minute following a few separate flare-ups which erupted off the ball.
Tiernan could consider himself unlucky to be the only player hit with the ultimate sanction but with his colleagues under intense pressure, it looked as if it might be a handicap too far for Sarsfields.
Not so. They out-scored Athy by 0-7 to 0-2 in the closing 15 minutes, with the drama reaching its most intense as they hunted down an equaliser before extending their ambitions for a winning burst.
Man-of-the-match Ray Cahill kicked the equalising point from a disputed free early in stoppage time, with Athy claiming that the award should have gone their way.
Cahill, who kicked 0-9 (0-5 from open play), held his nerve and drew the sides level with a precision kick. Hughie Mahon had a chance to restore the lead for Athy but was off-target before substitute Alan Smith and Cahill added two more points for Sarsfields to clinch a memorable victory.
Smith, whose recent role has been reduced to that of an impact sub due to a groin injury, had also kicked an earlier point, which launched Sarsfields' rescue bid.
He made a sizeable contribution in a period when Sarsfields' relentless endeavour pointed to a squad that was obsessed by a determination to make amends for the county final defeats over the last two years.
"When we went down to 14 men in the second half, the lads showed terrific character. After losing two county finals in two years, there was an awful lot of hunger in the camp," said Smith. "We didn't always do ourselves justice today but we came good when it mattered most."
Athy captain, Mick Foley also mentioned the 14-man factor, suggesting that it drove Sarsfields to new heights of endeavour.
"Going a man down lifted them. They threw the kitchen sink at us near the end and unfortunately we couldn't hold out," he said.
"Sarsfields were determined not to lose a final for a third year in a row - you could see that in everything they did when they came back at us."
It certainly wasn't obvious early on when Athy settled much quicker to the task and led by 1-4 to 0-2 after 15 minutes, the goal coming from a penalty, converted by James Eaton after Niall Kelly was fouled.
Athy, who beat Sarsfields by 11 points in the first round of the championship, were playing a direct game, designed to get the ball to Eaton and Kelly as quickly as possible. However, once Sarsfields began to close down space, the balance switched their way and they kicked five unanswered points between the 20th and 26th minutes.
Athy added two more points to lead by 1-6 to 0-7 at the interval. Sarsfields had missed one or two goal chances but Athy had also kicked some wides from good opportunities. "We probably should have been a bit further ahead at half-time," said Foley.
Still, Athy looked in a winning position midway through the second half, only for gritty Sarsfields to re-launch for a big finish, which steered them towards the big prize.
"Athy got a great start but once we got into it we knew we had the forwards that could do damage. We should have had a few more scores in the first half but at least we were creating the chances," added Smith.
In the end they took enough of them to return to the Kildare summit for the first time since 2012 and take their case into a Leinster quarter-final on November 8.
Scorers - Sarsfields: R Cahill 0-9 (4f); A Smith 0-2; C Kavanagh, C Tiernan, B McCormack, G White ('45), S Campbell, M Byrne 0-1 each. Athy: J Eaton 1-2 (1-0 pen); L McGovern 0-3 (2f); N Kelly 0-2; R Bell, H Mahon, T Gibbons (f), K Feely, D Mulhall 0-1 each.
Sarsfields - A O'Brien; S Lawlor, S Campbell, A Scully; C Tiernan, C McInerney Aspell, D McDonnell; G Whyte, M Byrne; C Kavanagh, R Cahill, R Fitzgibbon; B McCormack, S Dempsey, D Nea. Subs: C Hartley for Demspey (40), A Smith for McCormack (49), C Scanlon for Nea (53), C Duffy for McInerney Aspell (57).
Athy - S Davis; M Hyland, M Foley, T Foley; K Mulhall, E Delahunt, R Bell; D McGovern, D Hyland; T Gibbons, K Feeley, H Mahon; N Kelly, P Dunne, J Eaton. Subs: L McGovern for Gibbons (38), D Mulhall for Dunne (47), D Holligan for Bell (53), P Connell for D McGovern (53), B Kelly for Delahunt (57), C Ronan for T Foley (61).
Ref - L Herbert (Sallins)