O'Neill hails home stretch efforts over fading Mayo
Kildare 0-21 Mayo 0-19
Kildare won the boardroom battle with the GAA to secure home advantage in St Conleth's Park, but they also triumphed where it matters most on a roller coaster Saturday night in Newbridge.
It really was Newbridge or Nowhere, with patrons thronging the town hours before throw-in, and any thoughts of an anti-climax after the venue drama during the week were quickly blown out of the water as Kildare raced into a 0-7 to 0-2 lead.
When Mayo recovered to lead 0-14 to 0-12 midway through the second-half it looked like the storm had been well and truly weathered, but the Lilies were in no mood for backing down.
They may have already won the David versus Goliath duel against Croke Park, but with Paul Cribbin outstanding in attack and a huge contribution off the bench from Chris Healy, Niall Kelly and Eamonn Callaghan, eyes were fixed on another shock.
Kelly, the smallest man on the pitch, made a crucial late turnover on the towering Aidan O'Shea - who was sent off for a second bookable offence deep into injury-time - in a moment that brilliantly summed up their defiance.
Andy Moran left home hearts in mouths when a late free was rifled over the bar from close range, but this was Kildare's night - their week, even - and vindication for Lilies boss Cian O'Neill, who toed a non-negotiable line on retaining the home fixture.
It's been a tough time for O'Neill's side - they had lost 12 competitive games in a row before their qualifier defeat of Derry - and he admits they "needed this" after a "black week" following their surprise Leinster SFC defeat to Carlow.
"People keep on telling you that you've no character, there's no leaders in the group. When people keep throwing that at you, they're actually questioning the moral fabric of these players," O'Neill said.
"I think they've just said enough is enough and to win a tight match like that is something we've been accused of not being able to do in the past, for very good reason. I just hope the players really kick on from it."
With the sides level on 0-17 apiece after 63 minutes, Mayo's nous for edging titanic clashes was expected to shine through, but Kildare kept their heads, with Peter and Niall Kelly both fisting over late points when a goal was on.
The ferocious tackling of Peter Kelly and Mick O'Grady inspired all around them as the influence of Cillian O'Connor and Moran was negated, while O'Shea's aerial dominance was halted in that crucial closing quarter.
The scenes at the final whistle encapsulated everything special about the GAA and O'Neill deserves credit for his display of resistance to the CCCC's decision, but the Moorefield clubman was quick to deflect any praise to his players, and new GAA Director General Tom Ryan for his role in the fixture rethink.
"It was a players' decision. This wouldn't have happened unless the players were 100pc sure that they were not rolling over on it. Once they made that decision, that was their job done, focus on the performance and I think you saw the outcome of that," he said.
"The bottom line was we were not going to play that match anywhere but here, end of story, simply because that's what the rule stated. We were entitled to it, we f***ing earned it.
"I know he wasn't front and centre, but I'm pretty confident in my own head that the intervention of Tom Ryan was critical to this being resolved the way it was. I don't know the man, never met the man, but I definitely know he's a reasonable man.
"What happened with the County Board working really hard behind the scenes with the GAA, it definitely wouldn't have happened without his intervention or his recommendation."
Given that Mayo have been the most compelling story in town for the guts of the last decade and narrowly lost the last two All-Ireland finals, it's strange that the end of their All-Ireland dream for 2018 is not the main talking point, but they just ran into a force of nature.
Paddy Durcan and Diarmuid O'Connor really took the fight to Kildare as they went out on their shields and, while Mayo boss Stephen Rochford poured cold water on it, there was a sense that this could be the end of an era for this side.
"They definitely died with their boots on out there. This group have served Mayo greatly over the last number of years and they'll dust themselves down and recover over what will be a long winter," Rochford said.
That will also allow Rochford, who has already served three years at the helm, to digest his future, but no rash decisions will be made.
"That would be the case no matter when you go out of the Championship, it is not necessarily a knee-jerk reaction to going out in Round 3. We will reflect. We have two years left on our term," he said.
"I don't want anyone reading into that either way. It is just a case of reflection, which would happen if you were going to the last Sunday of the competition as well."
O'Neill, who worked with Mayo for a year under James Horan, doesn't expect his charges to lose the run of themselves after "many false dawns for Kildare football over the years".
"They've come too far now to actually get carried away and underperform. I think we've come too far now. Maybe that was a bit of learning last year after the Leinster final," O'Neill said.
"We were getting pats on the back for a match that we lost by nine points and then underperformed the next day out. I think that's all part of learning and experience.
"There's a lovely quote that somebody gave to me this week - 'experience is something you gain when you don't get what you wanted'.
"So we didn't get that in Leinster, we've gained quality experience through the last three rounds. It's up to us to put that to good use now for the next week."
Man of the match
Paul Cribbin (Kildare)
A thorn in Mayo's side from start to finish, kicking four points from play as he delivered a tour de force for the Lilies when it was needed most.
Wides: Kildare 8 (5 first-half), Mayo 10 (4)
Frees: Kildare 16 (9), Mayo 17 (10)
SCORERS - Kildare: N Flynn 0-8 (6f, 1 '45), P Cribbin 0-4, D Flynn, K Feely 0-2 each, P Kelly, J Byrne, F Conway, N Kelly, E Callaghan 0-1 each.
Mayo: C O'Connor 0-6 (5f, 1 '45), P Durcan 0-4, A Moran 0-3 (1f), J Doherty 0-2, D O'Connor, S Coen, E O'Donoghue, K McLoughlin 0-1 each.
KILDARE - M Donnellan 7; P Kelly 8, D Hyland 8, M O'Grady 7; J Byrne 7, E Doyle 6, K Flynn 7; K Feely 7, T Moolick 6; F Conway 6, P Cribbin 9, K Cribbin 5; N Flynn 7, D Flynn 7, P Brophy 5. Subs: D Slattery 6 for K Cribbin (48), C Healy 7 for Brophy (52), N Kelly 7 for Moolick (54), J Murray for Byrne (68), E Callaghan for Doyle (72).
MAYO - D Clarke 7; C Barrett 6, G Cafferkey 6, P Durcan 9; L Keegan 6, K Higgins 6, C Boyle 6; S Coen 6, A O'Shea 7; K McLoughlin 6, J Doherty 7, D O'Connor 8; J Durcan 6, C O'Connor 6, A Moran 7. Subs: E O'Donoghue 7 for Boyle (56), D Vaughan 6 for J Durcan (58), C Loftus for Doherty (68), C Hanley for McLoughlin (black 72).
REF - D Gough (Meath)
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