16 July 2017 – Dublin 2-23 Kildare 1-17 (Leinster SF Final, Croke Park)

james mccarthy scores goal kildare-750x456

What to think? I went into it convincing myself that anything under a ten point gap would be a measure of success for a developing Kildare side. An uncomfortable attitude for a Leinster final considering it’s been eight years since we sampled one and seventeen since we won one.

Almost 24 hours later, a re-watch (ok, two) and still struggling to process it rationally. Would hate to be a journalist trying to make sense of it in time for a Sunday night deadline.

Let’s start with the positives before getting into the nagging doubts:

  • Bar one or two who couldn’t really get to the pitch of it, most of the players “turned up” – this was no repeat of the league final or the 2015 disasters against Dublin and Kerry
  • Some of them really did “give it a rattle” – special mention must go to Kevin Feely, David Slattery, Keith Cribbin and Johnny Byrne in that regard
  • If anything we shaded midfield with Feely giving Brian Fenton a rare, searching examination and to Kildare eyes at least coming out on top
  • After a “typically Kildare” calamitous period when we conceded 2-4 without reply the game seemed over but for once the heads didn’t drop and by half-time we’d clawed our way back into it
  • We were the highest scorers against Dublin in Leinster since Meath’s goalfest in 2010
  • We were the first team to finish within 9 points of the Blue Machine in Leinster for four years
  • The missing support was back after deserting the team in the last few years. Great to see.

Plenty there to build on for Cian O’Neill and the management team. Importantly psychologically to have stood our ground and matched Dublin on the scoreboard for the final hour of the game including injury time. With promotion to Division One in the bag and comprehensive statements of superiority over Laois and Meath behind us, this was always going to be as much about holding on to that feel good factor as about annexing an unlikely Leinster title. Some Lilies will baulk at that “defeatist” approach but rationally that’s where we are at. And by and large it was therefore “job done”.

Now to the negatives. We could have done a whole lot better in a few areas and for all the progress made these are largely not new issues for Kildare football:

  • For a young team that has struggled with Dublin and Croke Park in recent years, to set up with a patently impaired Eoin Doyle sitting in front of the full back line with NO protection in front of him was suicidal. While O’Neill’s logic in not wanting to change a style of play that has paid seasonal dividends has some logic there were surely ways to tweak the formula without fully compromising it. The obvious one would have been pulling Fergal Conway into that hole and perhaps starting Paul Cribbin at wing forward with an inside forward sacrificed.
  • The ease with which one handpass found a Dublin goalscorer in acres of space in front of the Kildare goal was straight out of the manual of Kildare defending over the past five years. There had been signs of more aggression defensively in the games to date but the full back line in particular were at sea in that opening quarter and even with more protection in front of Doyle it may not have been enough. Still so much work to do on defending.
  • Kildare more than broke even at midfield but it was largely down to the almost heroic performance of Feely, who delivered a Gary Brennan-like audition for All-Star contention. But Feely himself is not a speedster and for all Tommy Moolick’s qualities in the tighter provincial surroundings with more run-of-the-mill opposition, for the Lilies to take the next step they need a more mobile alternative there. James McCarthy was a perfect role model in blue.
  • It seems churlish when you’ve just shot 1-17 against the All Ireland champions but there were too many Mayo-like qualities to our attacking. Despite the net-bulging pre-match routines we’ve seen all year, our execution on goal chances was poor with only one converted out of three. Flynn’s was a game-changer at least in theory. It would have brought the gap down to three points and at least interrupted what was largely a training session for Dublin after their power burst early in the second-half. I have no doubt they’d have answered those questions but it would have been nice to see them asked. Aside from the missed goal chances Kildare shot wildly at times as is our tradition unfortunately. Shots into the keepers hands (manna from heaven for Stephen Cluxton) and Hail Mary efforts into the Hill end merely added fuel to the Dubs’ fire.
  • The early second-half fade out was back. Kildare had bust a gut to get back within four points by half-time but Dublin put on the after-burners at half time and were out of sight again within 10 minutes of the second period.
  • A minor point perhaps but does it serve any great purpose to send stalwarts Emmet Bolton and Eamon Callaghan into the fray in the final 10 minutes rather than give younger squad members such as Cian O’Donoghue and Chris Healy a chance to sample a Leinster Final?  O’Neill would no doubt argue that Callaghan set up the goal for Brophy but Healy is one for the future and has shown himself to know where the goals are. O’Donoghue meanwhile has had precious little game time and Kildare are crying out for defensive cover as evidenced by the decision to start with Doyle.

With rumours of Doyle’s broken thumb emanating from Naas from the middle of the week all eyes were on the team captain in the warm-up. Joy at seeing him emerge from the tunnel soon dissipated quickly as he seemed unable or reluctant to touch the ball with his injured left hand. I was convinced his appearance was merely a tactical ruse and that he wouldn’t start but sure enough he went through the normal captain’s duties and – shades of Glenn Ryan in ’98 – it became clear that our no.6 was going to battle through the pain barrier.

The match programme further dampened the enthusiasm as it became clear that Neil Flynn was unavailable to come off the bench with another hamstring strain the reported issue.

Kildare started well though with Flynn taking an early pass from Slattery and slicing one over the bar at the Davin End after only 21 seconds. Kildare looked hungry and Moolick won possession from Cluxton’s first kick out before wandering into the edge of the square in time to pluck Doyle’s high ball from the air for an early goal chance. Sadly he didn’t connect well and both his tame effort and Cathal McNally’s follow-up were smothered by the alert McCarthy.

Paul Mannion, who never reached the heights of his Westmeath tour-de-force settled Dublin with a point from the right hand side and although Feely secured an uplifting mark and Keith Cribbin followed it with a second, Kildare’s attack was looking cumbersome and Dublin began to go through the gears. By the 9th minute they were 0-3 to 0-1 ahead with Ciaran Kilkenny shrugging off Cribbin and then Con O’Callaghan getting his dream day off to a start with a point off Donnellan’s fingertips. Meanwhile McNally had followed Conway with a shot dropped short into Cluxton.

The ghost of Leinster Finals past revisited Kildare in the next two minutes as Dublin looked to have killed off the game with two quick-fire goals. The ease with which Kilkenny opened up the Kildare defence to put Rock in the clear for the first goal was matched by the calmness of the low finish inside the left hand post. Cribbin was the closest (a relative term) to the Dublin forward with the full back line gone AWOL.

Soon James McCarthy was playing a 1/2 with O’Callaghan on the left and could probably have stopped for a few selfies at the front of the Nally Stand before edging across the face of the Kildare goal and side footing home under little pressure.

In the blink of an eye Dublin had eased eight points clear and Kildare looked set for a pasting to rival the 2013 and 2015 ones. Nothing had changed it seemed. Game over with an hour to go.

A scrappy period followed as Kildare gasped for air and Dublin became uncharacteristically wasteful for the only period of the game. Jack McCaffrey, Fenton, Rock and Kilkenny all blazed wide to grant Kildare a reprieve during the seven minute gap before their next score. Eventually on 18 minutes McCarthy buried the in-rushing Flynn with a crushing shoulder and Dublin went straight down to the Hill end for O’Callaghan to fire over his second. Dublin had reached the spread already (9 points).

The Lilies shook themselves though and between that point and half-time they’d outscore Dublin by 0-9 to 0-4 to make a game of it.

McNally started the recovery from 21 metres after taking a pass from Brophy before a jet-powered Cribbin raced through the Dublin cover to fire over from a central position. A goal might have been on but the Johnstownbridge man played the percentages.

On 23 minutes Rock needlessly grabbed Mick O’Grady’s leg to prevent the Celbridge man from getting up with the ball and the Ballymun man was gone on a black-card. If Kildare fans thought that was a seismic loss given his free-taking role they would learn otherwise pretty quickly. If anything Dublin were strengthened by the introduction of a rejuvenated Bernard Brogan while the cool-as-ice O’Callaghan proceeded to shoot the lights out from play and placed balls in his first Leinster final, finishing with a remarkable 12 points.

Kildare were warming to their task though with the likes of Slattery and Cribbin making inroads and they narrowed the scoreboard further with their third and fourth points on the trot as Dublin went eight minutes without a score. Niall Kelly, playing well within himself unfortunately for the second game running, won a free which Feely despatched and then McNally notched his second from out on the left.

The challengers had edged within five points and it was largely tit-for-tat from here to half time with the game flowing nicely and brewing into a really competitive contest.

O’Callaghan opened his free-taking account on 26 minutes before Byrne ventured forward to score a sweetly struck point with his left foot. Brogan then evaded Ollie Lyons for the first time but unfortunately not the last and effortlessly stroked over his first of five points. Cribbin then set up Brophy for his first point before O’Callaghan again stretched it to six points with another free.

Arguably the moment of the game – from a Kildare point of view at least – arrived two minutes from half time when Flynn showed all of his raw power and pace under the Hogan Stand to keep the ball in play around midfield. He breezed past Fenton at speed before audaciously unleashing a sliced effort straight between the posts from out near the sideline. Brilliant improvisation.

The gap was down to four shortly afterwards when Slattery punctured the Dublin defence once more to point.

Brogan and Feely swapped injury time points and the game was surprisingly very much on the boil as they went in at half time to loud applause. Finally a competitive Leinster Final.

For a while.

Half-Time: Dublin 2-8 Kildare 0-10

Kildare had to be dragged out by the fourth official after the half time break as Dublin waited impatiently for the Lilies to complete the running repairs. No changes were made by O’Neill with Conway in particular being given time to regain his normal form. It didn’t happen and perhaps Paul Cribbin could have been introduced at that juncture. As it was he appeared ten minutes later when the damage was done. Not that Conway alone was at fault – it was just one of those leaden-footed days that can afflict any player.

An early score or two would have really put this in the melting pot but Dublin don’t do fairytales and Kildare didn’t help themselves either. An unnecessary prod into the back of Philly McMahon by Doyle handed O’Callaghan an easy opening point of the second period and while Kelly finished off a lovely passing move with his only score of the game, Dublin moved into overdrive, outscoring Kildare 0-8 to 0-1 to kill the game between the 39th and 52nd minutes. Brogan notched three sublime efforts from play, O’Callaghan added three more to his tally and Paddy Andrews and Kilkenny were also on target with Dublin at their clinical best. Feely provided the lone reply with a free after Kelly was fouled.

Kildare had squandered a game-changing opportunity when only six behind in the 41st minute though. Slattery, elusive as ever, finished off a meandering run with a perceptive pop-pass to Flynn who was in the clear and bearing down on Cluxton’s goal. A cooler head would have rolled it low. Jamie Clarke would have stopped for a quick cuppa and switched to soccer mode before dribbling around the keeper. Sadly Flynn did neither and his shot was at a perfect height and close enough for Cluxton to enhance his reputation further. If that’s possible.

As if to ram home the importance of that miss Dublin went up the other end and scored through Andrews. Kildare had gone from a possible 3 points gap to 7 in the blink of an eye and in truth the game was now truly up.

Benches emptied and scores were swapped as the game veered towards its end. The points spread kept it interesting and it would have been easy for Kildare to drift to a 15 point defeat or worse. Thankfully they didn’t and that’s important psychologically as they regroup over the next two weeks.

As the game entered injury time the spread was back at 9 points with scores from substitute Shane Carthy and two more from O’Callaghan while frees from Feely (2) and Brophy along with one from each from play from Fionn Dowling and the hard-working Brophy kept Kildare very competitive on the scoreboard.

Substitute Brian Howard and yet another from O’Callaghan pushed Dublin eleven ahead in stoppage time before Kildare got just rewards for their efforts. In entirely different circumstances to his early goal at the same end in the 2013 semi-final, Brophy was on hand to elegantly take a Callaghan high ball over the head of Michael Fitzsimons before applying the sort of low, soft finish that Flynn could only dream of.

Fittingly O’Callaghan finished the scoring with his sixth free as Dublin proved the bookies right with a nine point finishing margin.

We now know that Kildare are facing into a last 12 encounter with Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh in two week’s time. It just had to be so! Unfortunately three dark clouds hang on the horizon as O’Neill and his management team regroup:

  1. Feely unfortunately and frustratingly was black-carded for the third time this season for an innocuous enough looking “third man” block on McCaffrey. That brings a suspension unless successfully appealed.
  2. With Feely unavailable Neil Flynn’s state of health becomes of paramount importance although Brophy and Dowling offer alternatives.
  3. Doyle has confirmed that an operation is needed on his broken thumb and it would appear highly unlikely that he will be fit to play.

Those worries are for another day. Right now it’s good to know we have a team again. Despite the reservations we can at least take that from yesterday.

Kildare Line-Up, Scorers and Ratings

  1. Mark Donnellan 6 – Unprotected for Dublin goals, calm and composed generally. Reasonable on kick outs.
  2. Mick O’Grady 6 – Not one of his better days. Quiet generally and didn’t impose himself physically as he had against Meath.
  3. David Hyland 7 – Grew into it after slow start. Suffered along with an open defence for most of the game but attacked the ball more aggressively as game wore on.
  4. Ollie Lyons 5 – Disappointing outing on the whole. Forward bursts were limited and was suffered when renewing acquaintances with Bernard Brogan.
  5. Jonathan Byrne 7 (0-1) – From the word go was aggressive and physical. Unjust yellow card for a robust but fair shoulder. Break-through season for the Allenwood man.
  6. Eoin Doyle 6 – Bravery personified playing with a broken thumb but was clearly hampered. Possibly a wrong call by captain and management.
  7. Keith Cribbin 8 (0-1) – Best of Kildare’s defenders. Broke forward with pace and showed up centre of Dublin’s defence. Half chance of a goal when he scored his point.
  8. Kevin Feely 9 – (0-5, 4f) – Towering display. Rare to see Brian Fenton lose a midfield battle but he did here. Brilliant marks, long range point from play and frees off either foot.
  9. Tommy Moolick 6 – You know what you get with Tommy. Works hard all day but lack of pace, mobility can be exposed at this level in Croke Park. Missed a gilt edged goal chance early on.
  10. Fergal Conway 5 – So disappointing considering his form of the last 2 seasons. Bad timing to have a nightmare but couldn’t get going and might have been called ashore earlier.
  11. Niall Kelly – 6 (0-1) – second game in a row he has played well within himself. Has the ability to take on more of a leadership role and impose himself but still relatively young.
  12. David Slattery – 8 (0-1) – Brave, energetic, pacey. Always tried to make things happen. Scored a fine point and set up Flynn’s goal chance. A revelation over the last two games.
  13. Cathal McNally – 6 – (0-2) – Tried hard as always and managed two points in first half but peripheral after the break.
  14. Daniel Flynn – 7 – (0-2) – Glimpses of his raw potential here but didn’t deliver consistently. One of the finest points I’ve seen from a Kildareman in Croke Park. But the goal chance….
  15. Paddy Brophy – 7 (1-3, 1f) – Scored 1-3 but flitted in and out of the game. Will get better as he settles back in. Took goal superbly but pity it didn’t come a bit earlier.

Subs:

Paul Cribbin 6 (for Conway 45); Fionn Dowling 6 (0-1) for Moolick 49), Peter Kelly 6 (for Doyle 52), Ben McCormack (for McNally 57), Emmet Bolton (for Byrne 63), Eamon Callaghan (for Feely B/C 64)

Dublin:

Stephen Cluxton; Philly McMahon, Cian O’Sullivan, Michael Fitzsimons; Eric Lowndes, John Small, Jack McCaffrey; Brian Fenton, James McCarthy (1-0); Con O’Callaghan (0-12, 6f), Ciaran Kilkenny (0-2), Niall Scully; Paul Mannion (0-1), Paddy Andrews (0-1), Dean Rock (1-0)

Subs:

Bernard Brogan (0-5 for Rock B/C 25), Shane Carthy (0-1 for Scully 47), Darren Daly (for McMahon 49), Kevin McManamon (for Andrews 52), Davy Byrne (for O’Sullivan 59), Brian Howard (0-1 for Fenton 67)

Referee: Anthony Nolan (Wicklow)

Attendance: 66,734 (although initially announced as 66,666 before Beelzebub was clearly thwarted by some Dublin supporters falling belatedly out of the local establishments)