Kildare 1-21 Westmeath 2-15
The ball had yet to be thrown in for the second semi-final when Glenn Ryan was asked if Kildare’s performance against Westmeath would be sufficient to win a Leinster final. “I doubt it,” he conceded.
That was before Dublin dispensed the last provincial rites to Meath long before the half-time bell.
Suffice to say, the best two teams have qualified for this year’s Delaney Cup decider but no one in Kildare will be getting above their station just yet, based not alone on recent championship history but on the evidence of yesterday in Croke Park.
This enterprising scorefest showcased the best and the worst of Kildare. They leaked a goal after 12 seconds, yet their powers of recovery had already pushed them two points ahead after seven minutes and, thereafter, they never once looked likely to lose their lead.
Whether through Westmeath doggedness or Kildare carelessness, or a mixture of both, they found themselves just a goal ahead with one of the four signalled minutes of injury-time remaining.
Surely they weren’t about to sleepwalk their way into extra-time? Instead, they retained possession from Mark Donnellan’s short restart and ultimately held on, prompting the only minor complaint from Jack Cooney afterwards.
“I’m watching football a long time and there’s four and five minutes put up in injury-time, and there’s always 45-50 seconds extra played, and we got an extra seven seconds there today – and that included a booking,” the Westmeath boss bemoaned. “All we needed was one chance . . . and not five or six seconds added on.”
Fair point even if, in the overall scheme, a late smash-and-grab goal would have bordered on larceny.
For Ryan, though, it’s a case of mission half-accomplished . . . and now for the hard part. “We’re in a Leinster final and we’re very happy to be there,” he declared.
“We’re not around the block long enough to be turning our noses up at occasions that allow you to get to a Leinster final. Are there areas of improvement? Absolutely.”
Where to start with this curate’s egg of a performance? The positives are self-evident: Kildare under Ryan have morphed into a prolific attacking force. In their last four league and championship outings they have amassed 0-24 (Monaghan), 0-18 (Mayo), 2-22 (Louth) and now 1-21 against Westmeath.
By the 22nd minute against Louth, all six forwards had scored from play. Here it took the starting sextet just 20 minutes to emulate that feat.
Ben McCormack has already been around the block as a senior footballer but, right now, he’s arguably in the form of his life. He was the standout forward on show, especially in a first half embroidered by four booming points from play.
Jimmy Hyland (1-4, 1-2 from play) and Darragh Kirwan (0-5, four from play) both kept the scoreboard ticking over, even if Kirwan’s radar went askew late on.
Daniel Flynn had to settle for a brace of points, but that is to overlook his dextrous and selfless assists. He presented Hyland’s fisted goal on a seventh-minute plate, all after the impressive Kevin Flynn had pounced on a poor Jason Daly kickout. Kildare’s mercurial target man later teed up Alex Beirne for a goal chance saved by Daly, and showed slick hands in the construction of second half points for Kirwan and Hyland.
So far, so positive. Now for those areas in most glaring need of improvement. After McCormack’s fifth point, from a 52nd-minute ‘mark’ to ease them seven up, they only scored once more – from a Neil Flynn tap-over free – and even that after a 17-minute famine.
More worryingly still, they coughed up 2-15 – all bar one point from play – to opponents who failed to emerge from Division 3 this spring. Can you imagine what Dessie Farrell’s revitalised Dubs, still smarting from defeat in Newbridge last February, might tally if Kildare’s defence are so accommodating on Saturday week?
That generosity was evident from the opening throw-in when Ronan Wallace’s blitzkrieg run and precise offload teed up Ronan O’Toole’s green flag. “I suppose if you’re going to concede a goal it’s the best time to do it,” Ryan mused.
Those defensive gaps resurfaced even after Hyland’s seventh-minute goal had pushed Kildare into a two-point lead they would never relinquish. Mark Donnellan smothered a Jonathan Lynam effort soon after, but the Kildare ‘keeper was beaten for a second time on 33 minutes by wing-back Jamie Gonoud, who fed the unmarked Wallace and then fired home the loose ball after his colleague was tackled by the Kildare netminder.
Thus, after a ridiculously free-scoring first half, Kildare led by 1-13 to 2-6.
The second half was initially more of the same, favourites keeping underdogs at arm’s length even as Sam McCartan and Ray Connellan came alive for Westmeath.
“Halfway through the second half we were just hanging in there,” Cooney conceded. “Kildare were probably bossing it a wee bit, and we went through a phase where we kicked three or four wides and those few opportunities would have made a huge difference coming into the last few minutes.
“Probably the deciding factor was, in the first half, I think we gave them 1-8 off turnovers . . . and what Kildare are very good at this year is that counter-attacking part of the game and they punished us.”
More positively, O’Toole, who had started the game with a 1-1 burst, came alive again in the fourth quarter, adding a further brace as Westmeath outscored Kildare 0-5 to 0-1 down the home straight.
But ultimately, bar those opening minutes, they were always playing catch-up.
“Look, immensely proud of the lads,” Cooney proclaimed. “We’ll regroup now, we’ll focus on the Tailteann Cup . . . we totally respect the competition. And if we can get back up here to play in Croke Park, it means we’re in the Tailteann final and we’ll be pushing for that.”
Last word to Ryan: “It was a performance that got us over the line, kicked some good scores but I’d still be expecting an improvement in all areas for the next day.”
They’ll need it.
SCORERS – Kildare: J Hyland 1-4 (2f); B McCormack (1m), D Kirwan (1f) 0-5 each; D Flynn 0-2 (1m); P Cribbin, T Archbold, A Beirne, K Flynn, N Flynn (f) 0-1 each. Westmeath: R O’Toole 1-3; J Heslin (1f), S McCartan 0-4 each; J Gonoud 1-0; R Connellan 0-2; N Harte, L Loughlin 0-1 each.
KILDARE – M Donnellan 7; M O’Grady 6, S Ryan 6, M Joyce 6; T Archbold 6, J Murray 7, K Flynn 8; K Feely 7, K O’Callaghan 7; A Beirne 6, B McCormack 9, P Cribbin 7; D Kirwan 7, D Flynn 8, J Hyland 8. Subs: P McDermott 6 for Cribbin (49), D Hyland 6 for Joyce (54), F Conway 6 for O’Callaghan (58), N Flynn 6 for Hyland (61), A Masterson for Feely (70).
WESTMEATH – J Daly 6; J Smith 7, K Maguire 7, D Giles 5; N Harte 6, R Wallace 6, N Gonoud 7; S McCartan 8, R Connellan 7; D Lynch 6, R O’Toole 8, J Lynam 5; G Egan 6, J Heslin 7, A Gardiner 5. Subs: L Loughlin 6 for Lynam (34), S Duncan 6 for Gardiner (49), J Dolan 6 for Lynch (55), K Martin 6 for Egan (62), R Forde for Giles (67).
REF – S Hurson (Tyrone)