Johnston star turn for Lilies as Kingdom's fall continues
And still the parachute won't open for Kerry.
They tugged mighty hard on the cord in Newbridge and, while the rate of descent slowed, they remain on a downward spiral as they prepare to head north to Ballybofey for Sunday's clash with Donegal.
That's in sharp contrast to Kildare who powered to a third successive victory, quite an achievement in what is the most competitive Division 1 grouping for quite a few seasons. They did so off a highly productive first 50 minutes which yielded 2-7, leaving them six points clear and looking to be headed for a straightforward victory.
However, they tensed up on the home run and, with Kerry finally establishing a sense of rhythm which was missing from their previous two games, they hit Kildare for five unanswered points to leave the Lilies leading by just one as the game ticked into injury-time.
It was a tense time for Kildare and their supporters in the 6,000 crowd, but it all ended satisfactorily after sub Paddy Brophy kicked a late point.
Kildare's barren period – during which they went 21 minutes without scoring – included a missed penalty by John Doyle whose shot was saved by Brendan Kealy in the 57th minute.
Kildare were four points ahead at the time but the miss sent them into their shells, while Kerry expanded in a manner that suggested they may emerge from the lethargy which has afflicted their early season.
"We just panicked a bit after we missed the penalty, our structure broke down," said a relieved Kieran McGeeney.
It might have cost Kildare dearly on another day, but their enterprise up to then had secured a sizeable deposit which ultimately proved to be enough. Much of it had been banked by Seanie Johnston, who was the dominant figure in the first half, scoring 1-2 and winning two frees which Doyle pointed.
Johnston tormented Shane Enright with his smart positioning, jinking sidesteps and excellent finishing, all of which played a considerable role in opening up a three-point lead (1-5 to 0-5) at the interval. Ominously for Kerry, they shot eight wides in the first half, a wastefulness which continued in the second period when they doubled the total to 16.
"Even if we had got a quarter of them, we'd have got over the line," reflected Eamonn Fitzmaurice ruefully afterwards. The bare statistics look bad for Kerry, but credit must go to a well-constructed Kildare defence who applied huge pressure to the ball carriers and kickers.
There was plenty of energy and movement in the Kerry attack but, in the absence of several regulars, it took a long time for them to really stretch the Kildare defence.
Kerry's recovery was built off the growing influence of Johnny Buckley around midfield and the impact of Kieran Donaghy when he moved close to the Kildare goal. Buckley finished the day on four points, most of which were kicked from long distance off open play and placed balls.
Kerry's final quarter surge, which saw them out-score Kildare by 0-5 to 0-1, gives them hope for the weeks ahead but with Donegal, Down, Cork and Tyrone and still awaiting them, they face a real battle to avoid being relegated for the first time since 2001.
"I think all the teams are going to take points off each other so it's going to be very competitive. We have to start getting points on the board or else it's going to be a foregone conclusion that we're going down. We don't want to go in that direction," Fitzmaurice said.
Still, he was hugely encouraged by a performance which marked a significant improvement on the sloppy efforts against Mayo and Dublin.
"We'd be pleased with the second-half display," said Fitzmaurice. "When Kildare got the second goal, we went six points down and it was kind of deja vu. Were the lads going to go into their shells, were they just going to accept it?
"But they didn't, and they showed good stuff and came back; we were probably slightly unlucky in the end. We had a couple of goal chances that on another day would have gone in. I think that Kildare's second goal came from a line-ball decision that the lads were saying they didn't touch. That might have gone our way.
"You get those breaks sometimes but we didn't get them today. Still, the attitude and workrate was a big step up from where it was a couple of weeks ago."
For all that, Kerry are bottom of the table and, ominously, have a scoring differential of -18 points, which could prove very damaging in the long run.
The mood is much more upbeat for Kildare, who have marked their return to Division 1 with wins over Donegal, Cork and Kerry and are looking towards a place in the semi-finals rather than worrying about relegation.
It's all very different to a year ago when Kildare headed into March off two defeats in Division 2. Since then they have won eight and drawn one of nine league games across two divisions.
Johnston's arrival as an opportunist forward has strengthened their attack to a significant degree, while Tomas O Connor is becoming increasingly important as a target man.
Johnston started the second half in the same scintillating form he completed the opening period, scoring a point after a blistering run by Daniel Flynn straight from the throw-in, but with the supply lines drying up after Doyle scored Kildare's second goal in the 46th minute, he found it much more difficult to make progress.
"We delayed putting the ball in a wee bit in the second half. We need to be able to do that for 75 minutes," said McGeeney.
It's something to address on the training ground, a challenge made all the easier by their excellent start to the 2013 season.
Man of the match: S Johnston (Kildare)
Scorers – Kildare: S Johnston 1-3, J Doyle 1-2 (0-2f), N Kelly, E Bolton, P Brophy 0-1 each. Kerry: J O'Donoghue (3f), J Buckley (2f) 0-4 each, J Lyne 0-2, T O Se, P Crowley 0-1 each.
Kildare – S Connolly 8; E Doyle 7, M Foley 7, H McGrillen 8; P Kelly 7, M Conway 6, E Bolton 7; D Flynn 7, P O'Neill 6; B Flanagan 7, N Kelly 8, M O'Flaherty 6; S Johnston 9, T O'Connor 7, J Doyle 7. Subs: A Smith 6 for O'Flaherty (45), P Brophy 7 for N Kelly (57), O Lyons 6 for Bolton (60), C McNally 6 for Flanagan (60), E O'Flaherty for Johnston (70)
Kerry – B Kealy 8; M O Se 7, A O'Mahony 6, S Enright 5; T O Se 7, K Young 6, E Brosnan 6; K Donaghy 7, J Buckley 8; J Lyne 7, D Walsh 7, J O'Donoghue 7; BJ Keane 5, M O'Donoghue 5, K O'Leary 6. Subs: Darran O'Sullivan 6 for O'Donoghue (26), P Crowley 6 for Enright (45), B McGuire 6 for Keane (51), F Fitzgerald for T O Se (67)
Ref – E Kinsella (Laois)
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