Wexford leave Lilies off the hook, but football is the loser
Kildare 0-9 Wexford 0-8
The question was barely airborne when Cian O'Neill began shaking his head from side to side. Did this, the lowest scoring Leinster football match in 15 years, feel like a win?
The silence in the stadium only a few minutes earlier when referee Rory Hickey, mercifully, brought this grim affair to an end had already provided the answer that O'Neill was happy to confirm.
"No. It feels like we're still in the Championship. But win or lose, we still would have been in the Championship. (So) your initial reaction is hugely disappointed with the second-half performance because we were relatively happy at half-time," noted O'Neill.
By that stage Kildare were four up (0-7 to 0-3), nothing flashy, nothing enterprising, just a solid shape that didn't point to any future trouble.
But for the next 40 minutes they scored just twice and were hanging on for dear life for much of the last quarter after the impetus of their only points from substitutes Eamonn Callaghan and Cian O'Donoghue quickly wore off.
Maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise that Kildare could lack such cohesion and just basic control of the ball. The promise of a few provincial underage titles in recent years shouldn't disguise that they are a very ordinary team.
Had they been playing a team with even slightly more ambition than Wexford they'd be fixing their minds to qualifiers now.
Perhaps nothing reflected that reluctance in Wexford more than two frees being kicked backwards and sideways in the closing minutes when they needed far more urgency and risk. Caution caught them in the end.
It was that type of game, largely risk-free with so much lateral and backward movement.
Even those closing moments weren't nearly as frantic as they should have been for such a close game. Neither side could shake themselves out of 'slow bicycle race' mode and as a consequence it matched the scoreline of Carlow's 2001 replay against Wicklow.
In contrast, the combined score here was lower than the lowest return, Wicklow's 18 points, from any of the six teams in the three preliminary round games last weekend.
If there is a silver lining for Kildare it was the prevention of goals. For the first time in 15 league and championship games played in Croke Park they kept a clean sheet. Small but significant given their experience in their last three visits with 14 goals leaked to Clare, Kerry and Dublin.
They set up with eight defenders, Morgan O'Flaherty and Emmett Bolton starting as wing-forwards but sprinting back to provide cover the moment Hickey threw in to start.
To their credit, conceding only eight points was a success for what they were trying to do and in Ollie Lyons, their captain, Eoin Doyle, who came back off such a long lay-off, and Fergal Conway they had some of their better performers.
"When they played in fear last year, they shipped seven goals against Kerry," O'Neill said.
"They didn't ship any goals today. Granted, the quality of football on show was poor. But that (clean sheet) is certainly a positive. So if you want to look at it pragmatically, when we had the ball we let ourselves down most, not how we set ourselves up."
O'Neill wasn't sugar-coating what happened beyond that, however. He spoke of a team playing with a touch of paralysis after the break. "We just seemed like we went into ourselves. We stopped doing the things that were working for us in the first half and were working quite effectively."
O'Neill doubted if there was any scarring from the Clare defeat four weeks earlier in the Division 3 final.
"I don't think players are thinking back to things that have gone wrong in the past."
Wexford can look to a few moments where they perhaps took the foot off Kildare's throat. They had a solid defensive platform themselves and manager David Power has done well to arrest the slide in recent years. But this was an opportunity they perhaps saw too late.
"The bottom line is that we weren't able to put the ball over the bar. We have to be self-critical there," said Power. "A lot of people have been doubting Wexford football. When I got the job, Wexford was on a downward curve but I think we've shown that we're getting back up, maybe not where it was yet but we're getting there."
Scorers - Kildare: N Flynn 0-3 (1f); A Smith 0-2; M O'Flaherty, O Lyons, E Callaghan, C O'Donoghue 0-1 each. Wexford: D Shanley (4fs) 0-4; J Tubritt, S Roche, C Kehoe, K O'Grady all 0-1 each.
Kildare: M Donnellan 7; P Kelly 6, D Hyland 7, O Lyons 8; R Houlihan 6, F Conway 7, E Doyle 7; K Feely 6, T Moolick 6; M O'Flaherty 6, E O'Flaherty 5, E Bolton 7; P Cribbin 5, A Smith 7, N Flynn 7. Subs: A Tyrrell 5 for Cribbin (47), C O'Donoghue 6 for Bolton (50), E Callaghan 7 for Smith (53), P O'Neill for E O'Flaherty (59), F Dowling for Feely inj (60), K Murnaghan for M O'Flaherty (71).
Wexford: A Masterson 7; J Wadding 6, J Rossiter 7, M Furlong 5; B Malone 8, S Donohoe 7, E Nolan 6; C Kehoe 7, D Waters 7; K O'Grady 6, PJ Banville 6, B Brosnan 7; D Shanley 6, C Lyng 5, J Tubritt 5. Subs: K Butler 6 for Furlong inj (7), S Roche 6 for Tubritt (ht), A Flynn 6 for Banville (47), R Tierney for Kehoe inj (57), S Byrne for Malone inj (63). Blood: Flynn for Shanley (16-18).
Ref: R Hickey (Clare).