A first provincial title at this grade since 2008 and a place secured in the NFL semi-finals with a game to spare has left Kildare looking forward to the unfolding season with renewed optimism and no little anticipation.
Kieran McGeeney isn't noted for outbreaks of exuberance but he will be delighted with how things are progressing on all fronts. The seniors have made significant progress this year and his U-21's took it a stage further in Portlaoise last night when they wore down a defiant Longford side in a highly entertaining game.
Already installed as favourites to win the All-Ireland final prior to this victory, Kildare's odds will shorten even further as they look ahead to the semi-final clash against either Galway or Roscommon.
Kildare weren't as dominant as they had been against Meath and Laois, when they scored a total of 5-37, but they still delivered a powerful performance which ultimately proved too much for Longford. Still, the fact that Longford were only three points adrift and pressing forcefully at the finish underlines the tenacity and persistence they brought to the challenge.
There were times when Kildare looked as if they would pull away for a comfortable win but, in front of a crowd of 5,759, Longford refused to yield and as their efforts intensified over the final 10 minutes, they raised a whole series of questions that the Lilywhites found difficult to answer.
Kildare led by 1-12 to 0-8 after 43 minutes but failed to score from there to the finish of a game that included five minutes of stoppage-time after impressive Longford corner-forward, Robbie Smyth was stretchered off late on. His absence was a considerable loss in those closing minutes as the momentum was very much with Longford and his ability to make decisive breaks might well have proved crucial.
Longford kicked four unanswered points in an exciting finale, leaving Kildare battling to protect their hard-won lead. In fairness, they did it calmly, holding possession and bringing the various lines into play which made it difficult for Longford to get their hands on the ball.
Kildare's keep-ball approach near the end was in marked contrast to the more adventurous approach which served them well as they set the tempo earlier on. Having led by four points at half-time, they made what proved to be a decisive break straight from the restart when midfielder Sean Hurley won a penalty after timing his run forward to perfection.
Paddy Brophy scored with an expert finish and when Padraig Fogarty put Kildare eight points ahead, it looked as they were poised for an easy win.
However, Longford showed that their advance to the final, which included a win over last year's All-Ireland champions Dublin, was build on solid foundations as they set about launching a revival package.
They cut five points off Kildare's lead from there to the finish but had left themselves with too much to do. Their debrief will certainly include an examination why they started both halves so slowly, conceding a total of 1-7 in the opening 10 minutes of either period.
Kildare sprinted from the starting blocks in a white surge and led by 0-5 to 0-1 after 10 minutes of the first half during which they stretched the Longford defence close to breaking point. Mindful, no doubt, of how Kildare had mauled Meath and Laois into submission, it was a testing time for Longford but they held their nerve and countered with two points.
Both goals had a lucky escape, first when Longford keeper Paddy Collum blocked Padraig Fogarty's drive in the 12th minute and then when a shot from the bar rescued Kildare off Paddy Thompson's angled shot.
Mark Hughes' accuracy from frees was crucial to Longford as they forced tackling errors from the Kildare defence and he also showed from open play that he had the capacity to cause damage. However, he wasn't enjoying the same supply as the Kildare attack, for whom Brophy (2), Fionn Dowling and Niall Kelly hoisted four more points in the final 10 minutes of the half to lead by 0-9 to 0-5 at the break.
Longford missed two good chances just before the interval when Hughes dropped a free short and Robbie Smyth hit the post.
While Longford will regret some missed chances, they can have no complaints about the result because overall Kildare were the more accomplished side. Crucially, they held a height advantage in several departments, especially around midfield where Sean Hurley was the dominant figure.
Thomas Moolick impressed too while the attack put together some excellent link play at various stages. Their mixture of long and short was most effective for much of the way, although Longford did succeed in closing them down in the final quarter.
It was all very disappointing for Longford, whose wait for a first Leinster U-21 title goes on after six attempts in finals. It certainly won't be of any consolation to them but they were beaten by an extremely good side which has plenty scope for improvement.
However, McGeeney won't be pleased with the manner in which they allowed Longford back into contention on the home run but in terms of hardening the side it was a valuable experience after easy wins in the earlier rounds.
Kildare certainly have a lot to recommend them and will now take it in pursuit of All-Ireland glory while Longford must come to terms with a second Leinster final defeat in three seasons. It's a setback, especially as the seniors are on their way out of Division 2 but several of this team are likely to make quite a contribution to the re-build over the coming seasons.
Scorers – Kildare: P Brophy 1-2 (1-0 pen), N Kelly 0-3, F Dowling, S Hurley (1 '45'), P Fogarty 0-2 each, T Moolick 0-1. Longford: M Hughes 0-5 (3fs), R Smyth (1f), D Gallagher 0-2 each, B McKeon (1f), D Mimnagh, J McGivney 0-1 each.
Kildare – M Donnellan; S Higgins, D Hyland, M Konstantin; P Cribbin, F Conway, J Byrne; T Moolick, S Hurley; D Flynn, L McGovern, P Fogarty; P Brophy, F Dowling, N Kelly. Subs: H Mahon for Dowling (47), T Gibbons for McGovern (62).
Longford – P Collum; R Keogh, B O'Farrell, D Bennett; D Farrelly, P McCormack, D Cooney; P Thompson, D Gallagher; D Mimnagh, B McKeon, R Connor; R Smyth, M Hughes, J McGivney. Subs: C Farrelly for Thompson (40), A Dalton for Connor (40), C Lynn for Smyth (56), S Clarke for Gallagher (58).
Ref – B O'Shea (Dublin)