Loosened shackles bear fruit for Lilies in 'gutsy' success
Kildare 1-22 Offaly 2-14
The relieved chatter in Newbridge afterwards maintained that Kildare had finally settled on a game-plan more suited to the team's inherent abilities, but Cian O'Neill wasn't so sure.
Here, Kildare abandoned the double-sweeper set-up employed by O'Neill in their two Leinster SFC matches this year and beat a fiery Offaly effort, but only made certain late on.
"We didn't feel like we needed to play that way today," O'Neill explained. "And we conceded two goals, so you've got to look at the evidence."
That evidence showed that against Wexford and Westmeath, his team conceded 0-8 and 1-12 respectively.
On Saturday evening, in a palpably tense St Conleth's Park against a team of arguably similar ability, they gave up 2-14, but the boon to their attacking potency was self-evident.
"The bottom line is, we're not playing Dublin," O'Neill continued, justifying his more restrictive methodology against Westmeath.
"And we're not playing them in the next round either. Any team that wants to aspire to success or greatness, they need to be flexible. But if you want to win Leinster, you're going to have to play Dublin at some stage."
Kildare's players looked much more comfortable in this less strait-jacketed style and flourished early.
They got their most dangerous forwards, Niall Kelly and Neil Flynn, on the ball much more often than they had done recently.
The omnipresent Tommy Moolick and Emmet Bolton carried ball with a conviction that wasn't noticeable in Kildare's Croke Park performances this year and by the 38th minute, they had sculpted a 1-14 to 0-10 lead.
But "silly errors and silly decisions", according to O'Neill, handed Offaly a route back into the game, courtesy of goals from a Nigel Dunne penalty and within five minutes, Peter Cunningham, directly off a Kildare turnover.
By the 58th minute, the match was level thanks in the main to continuation of what O'Neill called "this famed Kildare tradition of leaving the opposition back in". The mood in the terraces was darkening.
"The dangerous thing about playing at home is that if things don't go well, they can quickly go the other way," O'Neill noted of that anxious period before Offaly midfielder Eoin Carroll was sent off for a second yellow card and Eoghan O'Flaherty came off the bench to kick a couple of settling frees.
"But I didn't feel that happen. I didn't hear that when Offaly were coming back into the game. Normally, I can hear every bit of abuse that's directed at me…"
By the end, a visibly relieved O'Neill was taking hearty pats on the back for his team's ballsy finish.
"It's heartbreaking after a massive effort like that," sighed Offaly manager Pat Flanagan. "We're definitely not getting the rub of the green at any stage.
"I know we've let our supporters down again, but hopefully they'll understand that these boys fought tooth and nail right to the bitter end."
The qualifiers is a familiar terrain for Kildare and with such a mettle-testing evening behind them, they started to look forwards.
"Our focus going into today was redemption," O'Neill stressed. "Because we were so gutted after the last day. We really were. More than anybody knows. But now that we got over this hurdle, you've got to look at the facts there.
"And Kildare have a history of doing well in the qualifiers."
"But you have to be conscious against better teams and teams who have been around at the top level - they could really punish you for some of the mistakes we made today.
"Because it wasn't a great performance," O'Neill concluded, "it was a gutsy performance."
SCORERS - Kildare: N Flynn 0-5 (2fs), N Kelly, A Tyrrell (2f) 0-4 each, T Moolick 1-1, F Conway, E O'Flaherty (2fs) 0-2 each, D Dylan, C McNally, K Feely, A Smith 0-1 each. Offaly: N Dunne 1-7 (7f), P Cunningham 1-1 (1-0 pen), N Darby, J Maloney (1f) 0-2 each, N McNamee, G Guilfoyle 0-1 each.
KILDARE - M Donnellan 6; P Kelly 5, D Hyland 7, O Lyons 6; J Byrne 6, E Doyle 7, E Bolton 8; T Moolick 8, K Feely 7; A Tyrrell 7, M O'Flaherty 6, F Conway 7; C McNally 6, N Kelly 8, N Flynn 7. Subs: C Fitzpatrick 7 for Kelly (23), E O'Flaherty7 for Tyrrell (47), C Donoghue 6 for Lyons (52, BC), F Dowling 6 for Doyle (52), A Smith 6 for Flynn (53), K Cribbin 6 for McNally (71, BC).
OFFALY - A Mulhall 6; B Darby 7, S Pender 6, E Rigney 6; N Darby 7, P Cunningham 7, C Donohue 6; E Carroll 6, N Smith 6; M Brazil, N Dunne 7, G Guilfoyle 5; J Moloney 7, N Dunne 7, A Sullivan 6. Subs: C McNamee 6 for Guilfoyle (h-t), B Allen 7 for Brazil (65), J Gethings 6 for Donohue (66), J Lalor for Cunningham (76).
REF - P Hughes (Armagh)