Kildare fans have developed a certain gratitude for small mercies. For those of us of a certain vintage, we should really have gained sense by now. As each year feels a little colder in our bones so the creaking old structures in St. Conleth’s Park become less welcoming. An old dear mistakenly ventured under the stand towards the mens’ “toilets” and was rugby tackled by her husband as if she was inches from stepping on a landmine in Aleppo.
The much-maligned O’Byrne Cup has provided some stand out memories. From Tommy Carew’s hat-trick in Allenwood against Wicklow in 1980 and my first memory of Kildare winning anything in the final two years later – a young Shay Fahy goaling against the same opposition on the darkest, dankest day. To more recent times and a rumbustious extra time triumph over the Dubs that saw us lift the trophy in Parnell Park in 2013.
Never mind the 29 point combined margin of defeat in the two games that followed that year against the noisy neighbours in proper competitions. Kings of January!
A New Year brings renewed optimism – or perhaps blind hope – and the chance to run the rule over new faces. Here, we saw four of them, the 3 Sarsfields lads starting and Pascal Connell from Athy coming on from the bench. But the line-up had a familiar look. With a spine buttressed by Donnellan, Hyland, Doyle, Moolick and Niall Kelly, the youngsters were not being thrown mercilessly to the lions.
If it wasn’t for the ridiculous inclusion of the colleges in this competition, Kildare could have been further strengthened by the fit again Dan Flynn and Paul Cribbin along with Kevin Feely. Youngsters Chris Healy and Mark Hyland were also denied a chance to stake a claim.
Kildare’s engine spluttered loudly as the game got underway. Longford were more direct and better at breaking the gain line in rugby parlance. The first score from play from the outstanding forward on the pitch, Robbie Smyth, put the visitors 0-3 to 0-1 ahead by the 9th minute but the game was staccato.
The home side veered sideways whenever they reached the opposition 45 as the apparent dearth of quality forwards in the panel looked telling. Wing forwards Fergal Conway and Keith Cribbin could both be considered more natural backs but this wasn’t tactics. It was needs must.
In the 10th minute however, Conway stumbled through an opposition tackle and went against his better nature by swinging a heavy leg at it and watching it wobble between the posts. For all his prowess last season when he was Kildare’s most improved player, I don’t think we’re going to see the Celbridge man shooting the lights out in Croke Park this summer.
An economical Longford cruised into a 0-6 to 0-3 lead by the 25th minute. They were good value for it. The Lilies couldn’t get out of second gear despite the energy levels of Conor Hartley in particular, who was foraging brightly in the centre forward position. The full forward line of another debutant Ben McCormack, Kelly and Neil Flynn were getting reasonable possession but little was coming off for Kildare.
The game turned though in the last 10 minutes of the half. Flynn shipped a heavy belt and free-kick duties switched to Fionn Dowling who notched three from various distances before half-time. McCormack was also on target with his first senior point.
The pivotal moment though was Kelly’s sumptuous 29th minute goal. Fed by an astute pass from the recovered Flynn, the Athy forward capped a clever display with a neat finish to the bottom left hand corner to put Kildare in front for the first time. Curiously this was only Kelly’s second ever outing in the competition and his first for four years having made his debut in that final win in 2013.
Half time score 1-7 to 0-7.
Kildare cemented the win in the third quarter. Hartley started the half with a superb second point with Flynn, McCormack and Dowling all scoring fine efforts from range. Smyth landed two for Longford but Kildare’s lead was never less than four points and they were always comfortable.
Hartley added his third point before tiring somewhat but his clubmate McCormack came further out the field and grew into the jersey more as the game went on. We know this lad can score. He destroyed Cavan in the All Ireland Minor quarter final 18 months ago and here he found the range with two more classy points to join Hartley on three.
Not a bad return for the two youngsters. Neither is the finished article of course and McCormack illustrated that by failing to play in better placed colleagues on a couple of occasions. Confidence or greed? Time will smoothen those rough edges.
Further back the field the other Sarsfields new boy, Shea Ryan was composed and unfussed at left half back. Bigger tests lay ahead of course and he’s operating in an area of the field where Kildare have an abundance of options.
Mick O’Grady settled seemlessly back into the fold. The Celbridge man looked a little sturdier physically than before and will provide a credible alternative to Hyland the elder at full back. But it was Eoin Doyle who was the stand out player at the back for Kildare.
While his direct opponent Smyth had the upper hand in the first half, Doyle was imperious as the game wore on, powerfully slamming shut the central channel from the no.6 position with some inspirational blocks and interceptions.
A mention too for Dowling. Hard to imagine the Suncroft lad made his debut some six years ago as a raw 18 year old. Few would have mourned his exit from the panel over the last year or two. 19 of his 37 competitive appearances have come as a substitute but he produced a performance out of nowhere from the bench in the second half in Castlebar last July.
He’s had to wait 5 months for another opportunity but took it with both hands here. Bar one miss with his left foot his free-taking was flawless and his fetching and distribution at midfield was impressive.
Two minutes from the end O’Neill sent on Sean Hurley for his first appearance in a Kildare jersey in three years following his return from Fremantle. Kildare will be considerably stronger if they can team him with his clubmates Daniel Flynn and Paul Cribbin later in the season. In soccer parlance that’s like three new signings.
Kildare play Carlow IT on Wednesday before a trip to Tullamore where Offaly will try once more to halt their dismal recent run against their neighbours. That one should determine whether Kildare are still in the running to create some more O’Byrne Cup memories.
Kings of January!
See match details see our Line Ups & Scorers section
p.s what of “The Mark” I hear you ask? It was a total non-event here and it is unclear what problem it will really fix. To this spectator’s recollection there were only two oportunities for players to take a mark. Dowling resisted the temptation and got on with the game. Longford did stop the game for one and probably regretted slowing down a potential attack. No marks for the Mark then here.