McEnaney delight as Meath sink Lilywhites
When asked afterwards whether he was worried when Kildare scored their only goal, Seamus McEnaney curtly replied that he wasn't worried from the moment he left his house in Monaghan earlier that morning.
If he really had that faith in his players, he was in a very, very small minority. Rarely can a Meath public have had so little belief in a team bound for Croke Park for a championship match of this nature.
On the back of five victories in the last five meetings between the teams, the assumption was this would be business as usual for a Kildare team with designs on bigger things. Especially against a Meath team that could point to the absence through injury of anything up to six frontline players.
Kevin Reilly's defection with an Achilles injury -- he came on late in the game to play an important role when Bryan Menton sustained an injury -- looked to have killed any reasonable hope midweek that Meath could pull a surprise, given his record on the in form Tommy O'Connor.
Just about everyone bought the assumption that this was a done deal -- except of course the Meath players themselves. It makes this result all the more remarkable. Only this week the Offaly manager Tom Coffey likened Kildare to a machine and drew a comparison with the All Blacks. They have attracted that level of admiration. But their growing stock has clearly been built on shaky foundations and on assumptions that they would draw greater conviction from closing out the league final against Tyrone in April the way they did.
When the pressure came on and Meath weren't going away in that second half, they just didn't respond and doubts over their mental strength will inevitably resurface.
Every time they looked like stretching their lead, Meath had a response. When Alan Smith turned a 0-8 to 0-7 deficit into a two-point lead with three unanswered points, they restored parity within four minutes. It was that way all afternoon.
After five years of Kieran McGeeney's stewardship Kildare are still without a Leinster championship. McGeeney can, of course, point to the county's record before he came, but the level of expectation built up in recent years demanded much better than this.
Perhaps complacency played a part and subconsciously it may have been impossible not to visualise a Leinster final date with Dublin in the future. McGeeney disputed that afterwards, but then he'd have to, wouldn't he?
A Leinster title would have been tangible reward at this stage of the cycle. Now it will be a real act of faith to believe they can get much further than last year. And if they don't?
The absence of leadership was stark for Kildare. When Johnny Doyle couldn't provide it nobody else stepped into the breach.
Emmet Bolton tried hard, Tommy O'Connor won great ball and Alan Smith showed opportunism when the chances presented themselves. But that's where the credits stop rolling.
With eight players under 23 and five effectively in their first championship season, Meath discarded the baggage of those five previous defeats to Kildare and drew up a new script. The thrust for this victory came from most of those players.
Conor Gillespie dominated midfield, Alan Forde set the tone with a few early runs that forced Kildare into positional switches, Damien Carroll picked up breaks and distributed like a young Trevor Giles, while Donal Keogan's hard edged defending eventually forced Kildare to withdraw Doyle. Menton dealt impressively with O'Connor's physical threat.
It is to McEnaney's credit that he placed his faith in players that don't carry big reputations. "We have played players, not on names but on form," he said. He courted no personal vindication afterwards, but privately this was a massive result for
a manager who has been under enormous pressure since the moment he first signalled an interest in the job.
He showed nerve to face down those who wanted him out in April and he has showed nerve in giving youth its fling over the last five weeks too and continuing to inject more pace and athleticism into the team when a return to the default position of constant long ball might have been a safer route. Suddenly Meath look like they have a future again.
Kildare finished the game with 14 men after Daryl Flynn's second yellow card on 52 minutes. Both cards could be legitimately disputed though he did slide his boot in quite forcefully on Damien Carroll for the second.
More perplexing for Kildare will be the Meath goal as Carroll teed up substitute Peadar Byrne for his third of the campaign. Kildare should probably have had a free out against Stephen Bray for what was clearly a third-man tackle when Alan Forde was being surrounded on the ground. But referee Michael Collins elected to throw the ball in instead and Meath got the break to create the opening.
McGeeney didn't have the inclination to complain afterwards about either decision. "Refs make the decisions and they always find a way of being right so it is what it is," he said.
"There were a lot of strange decisions ... you can say it after you win a game because it's taken as something constructive, but when you lose it sounds like crying. I'll just have to take it on the chin and pretend these decisions don't make a difference."
They may not have made as much difference as previous decisions that have gone against Kildare. Meath had started building momentum again after Kildare's goal, a ricochet off Mickey Burke after David Gallagher had saved from Mikey Conway on 55 minutes. That gave Kildare a 1-11 to 0-12 lead as they entered into what has traditionally been their strongest period of any match. But Meath's response was a Brian Farrell point, created by Bray who had made an instant impact on his introduction in the 40th minute.
Kildare didn't score again after the goal and the withdrawal of three more forwards in the 62nd minute failed to have the desired effect as Dermot Earley, Eamonn Callaghan and Rob Kelly came into the fray. By then, Kildare were a broken team.
In contrast, all of Meath's substitutions worked, with Bray an influence, Byrne getting the goal and Jamie Queeney rounding it off with two points from two touches. At the end, McEnaney faced the Meath crowd in the Hogan Stand and pumped his fists. He's been criticised for such celebrations in the past -- most notably when they drew with Tyrone to preserve Division 2 status. This time he deserved the moment.
Scorers -- Meath: B Farrell 0-6 (4f), P Byrne 1-0, G Reilly, J Sheridan (1 '45) 0-3 each, J Queeney 0-2, S Bray, D Carroll, A Forde all 0-1 each. Kildare: M Conway 1-1 (0-1f), E O'Flaherty (2f, 1 45), A Smith 0-3 each, J Kavanagh, J Doyle, T O'Connor, E Bolton all 0-1 each.
Meath -- D Gallagher 7; D Keogan 8, B Menton 7, C Lenihan 4; D Tobin 8, S McAnarney 7, M Burke 7; C Gillespie 9, G Reilly 8; B Meade 5, D Carroll 8, A Forde 7; B Farrell 8, J Sheridan 7, C Ward 5. Subs: E Harrington 7 for Lenihan (18), S Bray 8 for Ward (40), P Byrne 6 for Meade (47), K Reilly for Menton (66), J Queeney for Forde (66).
Kildare -- S Connolly 7; P Kelly 6, M Foley 7, O Lyons 6; P O'Neill 5, M O'Flaherty 5, H McGrillen 6; E Bolton 7, D Flynn 6; A Smith 8, E O'Flaherty 5, J Doyle 5; J Kavanagh 6, T O'Connor 7, M Conway 5. Subs: P Fogarty 5 for Doyle (49), E Callaghan for Conway (62), D Earley for O'Connor (62), R Sweeney for O'Neill (62).
REF -- Ml Collins (Cork)