WATCH - Kildare boss slams 'shocking' call as Westmeath chisel out victory
Heady times for Westmeath, but strange times as well.
Westmeath 1-12 Kildare 1-11
Back-to-back Leinster final appearances for the first time in their history arrive in the midst of three successive National League relegations.
Next spring they'll operate in Division Four, but in three weeks time they'll face the All-Ireland champions for championship silverware. Figure that one out.
Kildare might have pulled it back at the death, but Cathal McNally's goal was disallowed after Tommy Moolick was deemed to have fouled goalkeeper Darren Quinn in the build up.
"For me it's a totally legitimate goal, the keeper actually dropped it before there was any contact," claimed Kildare manager Cian O'Neill. "It's a big call - whatever about the small calls, let's get the big ones right. I'd like to look at it again but from looking at it on the big screen I thought it was shocking."
Westmeath's comeback was not quite as spectacular as last year's rally against Meath, but they did this the hard way too, falling six points behind early in the second half when they looked destined for the Qualifiers.
Perhaps with last year's experience in the bank, they never panicked and had Kildare's advantage wiped out inside six decisive minutes.
Paul Sharry clipped over a point and Ray Connellan, who looks bound for the St Kilda in the AFL, added two more before James Dolan grabbed their crucial goal.
John Heslin found Callum McCormack, who had only just come on the pitch, and he put Dolan clear. The Garrycastle man has a happy knack in front of goal and he made no mistake to bring the sides level and give Westmeath all the momentum.
There were just over 20 minutes to play at that stage and it looked like a poor game was set up for a grandstand finish.
Instead it turned out we were in the midst of a Kildare systems failure that would ultimately cost them the game.
The Lilies would go a staggering 28 minutes without scoring and that fallow period allowed Westmeath to open up a three point lead that proved too big to bridge.
Kildare boss O'Neill agreed that his side should have done more to quell Westmeath's purple patch. "I think their heads got scrambled in that period," he said.
"But I don't think they were scrambled at the end. If anything, I think they were leaving everything on the field to get that draw. We've seen it before. There were a couple of individual errors.
"I'd like to look back on it in the cold light of day but my recollection is we made some very silly individual errors to let them back in.
"We had a kick-out that went wrong, we had a turnover out the field. As any good team should do, they punish you."
Inevitably, questions will be asked once again about why Kildare keep coming up short in Croke Park.
"It keeps on coming up. Is it Croke Park? Because I've seen that happen on other pitches this year where we've let teams in or back into a game," said O'Neill.
"Certainly, the big games that people watch and listen to are in Croke Park. Once again, when they went six points up I don't think anybody was saying: 'Jeez, it's Croke Park'. The game just went away from us. It's an easy rhetoric to throw out there but the fact is the stats don't lie.
We had the game in our hands and threw it away and no matter if it's Croke Park or wherever, if that's not resolved very quickly, years go by and you don't get what you think you should out of it."
For Kildare native and Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin it brought a difficult week to an end. The Clane man said he didn't "sleep for the past two nights" at the thoughts of facing his own county.
But once again he produced his team at the right time after a disastrous league that saw them relegated from Division Three.
"That was my fault," he said of the relegation. "There was certain things we got wrong - 12 players didn't finish until the end of November and I told them to stay off until after Christmas to get little niggles right.
"And then we probably brought them back too early in the O'Byrne Cup. Then a lot of these lads carried injuries through the league.
"Paul Sharry had to go off for an operation and he came back in time for the last few games but we took the chance. We thought we'd stay up without him but it was a call we made to make sure and have him for the championship."
Westmeath had trailed by a point at the break (0-7 to 0-6) after a first half that was sorely lacking in entertainment as the sides mirrored each other's defensive set ups. However, Westmeath made their second half ascendancy count to set up another Leinster final with Dublin.
"You have to be realistic, especially with the panel we have - there's a lot of young lads brought in this year," said Cribbin. "It's going to be a huge task. But getting to the Leinster final is the start of it. You have to get there to see what we learned from last year. That was our goal."
SCORERS - Westmeath: J Heslin 0-4 (4f), P Sharry (1 '45) 0-3, J Dolan 1-0, K Martin, R Connellan 0-2 each, C McCormack 0-1. Kildare: N Flynn 0-4 (4f), T Moolick 1-0, E Bolton 0-2, N Kelly, A Tyrrell, J Byrne, F Conway, E O'Flaherty 0-1 each.
Westmeath: D Quinn 6; J Gououd 6, K Maguire 7, K Daly 6; J Dolan 8, A Stone 6, F Boyle 8; G Egan 7, D Corroon 7; D Lynch 6, P Sharry 7, R Connellan 7; J Connellan 6, K Martin 6, J Heslin 7. Subs: C McCormack 7 for Stone (47), J Egan 6 for J Connellan (57), R Foley 6 for R Connellan (63), R Gorman 6 for Maguire (74).
Kildare: M Donnellan 7; P Kelly 6, D Hyland 7, O Lyons 7; J Byrne 6, E Doyle 6, C O'Donoghue 6; T Moolick 7, F Conway 7; M O'Flaherty 6, E O'Flaherty 7, E Bolton 7; A Tyrrell 6, N Kelly 6, N Flynn 7. Subs: C McNally 6 for Tyrrell (45), K Murnaghan 6 for Bolton (50), C Healy 6 for Kelly (BC 54), C Fitzpatrick 6 for O'Donoghue (57), E Callaghan for E O'Flaherty (60), R Houlihan for Byrne (68). REF- D O'Mahoney (Tipperary)