'Priceless' Donnelly lifts gloom for Tyrone
Tyrone 1-16 Kildare 0-18
It often takes a flash of brilliance from a marquee player to get over the line in a sticky situation and Mattie Donnelly delivered in spades for Tyrone yesterday in a pulsating finish at St Conleth's Park, Newbridge.
It wasn't his best game in a Red Hand shirt as he struggled to deal with Kevin Feely's aerial ability but with the sides level for the seventh time in the 76th minute, the Tyrone captain barged forward to kick an outrageous point off his weaker left foot under intense pressure.
His next act of dragging Kildare's Keith Cribbin to the ground to ensure he couldn't contest the resulting kick-out wasn't his finest moment but when his side needed something special to stop the rot of successive league defeats, Donnelly provided it.
It's no wonder he has taken the mantle of skipper from the retired Seán Cavanagh and Tyrone boss Mickey Harte hailed his "priceless" injury-time winner as they picked up their first league points in dramatic circumstances.
"If you didn't today you're three and nought - not a great place to be. Three and one still doesn't leave you out of the woods by any means but at least there's a wee bit of optimism there," the three-time All-Ireland-winning manager said.
"You've the possibility to stay away from the very bottom. That last point of Mattie Donnelly's was priceless in terms of league points."
It could have been much different had Feely - who was a midfield powerhouse throughout and unerring from placed balls - and goalkeeper Mark Donnellan not spurned scoreable frees in the closing minutes.
That combined with a bad call from referee Paddy Neilan when not allowing the 'advantage rule' to develop as lively substitute Chris Healy was played through - with at least a point at his mercy - left Lilies boss Cian O'Neill rueing his luck after a "cruel" blow and successive one-point defeats.
"They worked their backsides off and even when things were going against them in the second half, in previous weeks or years that could have been four or five very quickly, to be fair to them. Same with the response to the goal, they didn't let it affect them," O'Neill said.
"Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck and that's something that hasn't been on our side recently. That match could have went either way, just a couple of things went against us and some of them weren't our fault unfortunately and they're the fine margins."
With Fergal Conway on form in attack, the Lilies raced into a four-point lead but the visitors eventually got into their groove with Niall Sludden particularly impressive as he fired over three first-half points.
Kildare were the better side in the opening half and led 0-8 to 0-4 after 25 minutes but the tide quickly shifted as Lee Brennan and Conor McAliskey - once again operating as a potent two-man full-forward line - began to get a better supply and looked threatening.
The pair combined to draw level when a dangerous delivery from Cathal McShane was knocked down by McAliskey and the onrushing Brennan collected before making no mistake and firing low to the Kildare net to tie affairs.
McAliskey was unlucky not to hit the net himself when a short kick-out by Donnellan was intercepted and his lobbed effort went just over the bar. On the other hand, Kildare rarely threatened Niall Morgan's goal throughout the contest as Harte's side finished the stronger to lead by one at the break, 1-8 to 0-10.
The closing 35 minutes was back and forth in an expansive and enjoyable game but most of the drama was saved for the closing ten minutes as Feely and Donnellan were unable to punish Tyrone indiscretions before the former fired over a free to level it, much to the relief of a vocal home support.
It looked like the relegation four-pointer was going to end all square but Donnelly had the last laugh with a spectacular winner. Harte could breathe a huge sigh of relief but with a trip to Monaghan up next in a fortnight - and a McKenna Cup final with Donegal next Saturday - he knows the tasks aren't going to get any easier.
"It's a battle all the way and you look at the teams you have to play, you can't look ahead and say, 'These are easy games.' It gives us that bit of confidence to believe that we can pick up a couple of points. Picking up points, we haven't done (that) for a long time. To get this today is very, very vital for us," Harte said.
As for Kildare, it's three defeats from three since gaining promotion to the top tier but O'Neill is confident that they belong among the game's elite.
"A lot of people didn't see it happening last year but when you get here you want to stay here. That's what's really hurting at the moment. If we were being beaten by seven, eight, ten points, maybe you could reflect and say that maybe it's a year too soon, maybe two years too soon," he said.
"But we're not, we're close, the margins are very fine. So we do belong here.
"We just need to do a little bit more, a little bit extra to get over the line. But we're learning every week and that's the key thing, we're improving.
"The graph, from a performance perspective, which ultimately long-term is the most important thing, is definitely on an upward trend.
"There's disappointment but there's not panic. We're training well. The lads are in great form. They're going to be really pi**ed off after that today. No more than last week."
SCORERS - Tyrone: L Brennan 1-3 (3f), N Sludden 0-3, C McAliskey (1f), M Donnelly and C McShane 0-2 each, T McCann, N Morgan (f), D McCurry and P McNulty 0-1 each.
Kildare: K Feely 0-9 (8f), F Conway 0-2, B McCormack, P Kelly, M Donnellan ('45), N Kelly, C O'Donoghue, D Flynn and P Cribbin 0-1 each.
TYRONE - N Morgan 7; HP McGeary 7, P Hampsey 7, C McCarron 7; T McCann 8, R Brennan 6, C McLaughlin 6; M Donnelly 8, P McNulty 7; C Meyler 7, N Sludden 8, P Harte 6; L Brennan 7, C McShane 7, C McAliskey 7. Subs: C McCann for McNulty (7 blood), McNulty for C McCann (10), M McKernan 6 for McLaughlin (39), D McCurry 7 for R Brennan (43), R McNamee 6 for McNulty (54), C McCann 6 for L Brennan (59), M Bradley 6 for McAliskey (61), K McGeary for McCann (77).
KILDARE - M Donnellan 7; M O'Grady 7, D Hyland 8, J Byrne 7; P Kelly 7, E Doyle 7, C O'Donoghue 7; K Feely 8, T Moolick 6; N Kelly 6, P Cribbin 6, F Conway 7; B McCormack 6, D Flynn 7, P Brophy 6. Subs: J Hyland 7 for McCormack (h-t), L Flynn 7 for Moolick (48), C Healy 7 for Kelly (55), K Cribbin 6 for Conway (61), C McNally 6 for Brophy (65).
REF - P Neilan (Roscommon)