KILDARE 0-14 MAYO 2-13

By Richard Commins

A restructured Kildare side put pride back in the jersey but came up just short against a misfiring Mayo in front of a sparse crowd in Saturday’s All Ireland Senior Football qualifier at Croke Park, bringing an up-and-down year to an abrupt halt.

With five personnel changes from the drubbing by Dublin in the Leinster Final and with a more defensive structure that saw the returning Fergal Conway sitting back as a sweeper and Alex Beirne joining him in patrolling around the ‘D’ when Mayo had possession, Kildare looked like winners for most of the game.

They controlled the first half with an incongruously calm authority given the trauma a fortnight previously at the same venue, with Kevin Feely and Kevin O’Callaghan masterful at midfield, Kevin Flynn punching holes with lung-busting forward surges and the defensive wall raising questions of Mayo that were coming back unanswered.

To the credit of management and players, the recovery work done since the last day was impressive, the team playing with renewed aggression, energy, and organisation. Mayo struggle against a blanket defence and Kildare defended from 1 to 15 with the full-forward line working back ferociously in a first half that was encouraging both on the night and for the future.

Of course, with that sort of structure, getting the transition into attack right becomes more difficult and not something easily learned in two weeks, and despite a fine roving performance from Daniel Flynn and the hard work of the other three attack-minded players, wayward shooting and decision-making and a failure to add to just six goals scored all year ultimately cost them.

Despite none of the forwards registering from open play they held a 0-8 to 0-5 lead at the break, O’Callaghan weighing in with two fine points from piercing the heart of the Mayo defence, to go alongside Darragh Malone’s opener and four frees from Jimmy Hyland.

However, a close-range mark that went wide off the post from the otherwise excellent Daniel Flynn was inexcusable at this level. In all Kildare racked up seven missed attempts in that half.

It continued to look promising when the Lilywhites stretched a three-point half-time lead out to six within six minutes of the restart, the forwards finally finding the range with Ben McCormack, Daniel Flynn, and Hyland all on target from play and with Mayo looking lethargic and misfiring badly in attack, it looked as if Kildare’s greater intensity and energy would see them home.

But the game turned in a crucial spell between the 44th and 51st minutes as Mayo suddenly found their shooting boots, outscoring Kildare by five points to one (Neil Flynn) and, crucially, Kildare saw two goalscoring opportunities slip by.

First, Daniel Flynn breezed past three Mayo defenders but saw Enda Hession get in a crucial block to divert the danger. That Cillian O’Connor scored from the subsequent counterattack provided a massive boost to Horan’s side.

Then, with the gap down to three points on 50 minutes, McCormack got inside Oisin Mullen in the penalty area but was wrongly adjudged by referee Derek O’Mahoney to have picked the ball off the ground. Glenn Ryan felt McCormack was pulled back prior to the deemed infringement and he might have had a case.

Hitting the net on either occasion surely would have put the game to bed, even against renowned battlers Mayo. As it was, the seasoned Connacht men went back to the well once more and found sustenance.

Their late flourish had the Mayo trademark stamped all over it, even if you got the sense that they are living on borrowed time. This was surely one of their poorest displays under James Horan. And yet, Kildare still weren’t good enough to get over the line, illustrating the gap that still exists, like it or not, between them and the Division 1 elite.

The decision to change goalkeeper might look questionable in hindsight. Aaron O’Neill will no doubt have better days in the black jersey but won’t recall his championship debut with any great fondness. A fine tip over save in the first half was the high point but an increasingly ragged kick out as the game wore on undoubtedly sowed seeds of doubt in Kildare while encouraging Mayo.

They were still three behind on the hour mark, but two minutes later full back Mullen spun away from three would-be tacklers, played a one-two with Padraig O’Hora that opened the path to goal and buried it to O’Neill’s net at the Hill 16 end where Kildare have now conceded nine goals in three halves of football.

That levelled matters and, truthfully, you could only see one winner at that point with Kildare running out of puff and finding it harder to get hands on attackers. Fergal Boland shot Mayo ahead in the 65th minute, the first time since the game’s opening score they had been in front, and although the excellent Shea Ryan fisted an equaliser that proved to be Kildare’s only score in the game’s last 22 minutes, including injury time.

With Mayo putting O’Neill under pressure on kickouts – seven were turned over or went over the sideline in the second half alone – they had the momentum now and O’Connor and Darren McHale points saw them go two clear heading into injury time. O’Connor’s point came from an intercepted short kick out and might have been a goal but for a late dive and deflection from Mick O’Grady.

O’Neill tried to supplement the attacking effort as the game drifted out of reach, but paid the ultimate cost for that when Jordan Flynn, who most likely was going for a point, lobbed the backtracking Carbury netminder for a second, flattering, Mayo goal with the last kick of the game, five minutes into injury time.

Kildare will rue some wild shooting in the crucial middle of the second half. McCormack, Hyland, and Paul Cribbin, brought on before half-time for Beirne, were all wayward with point attempts as Kildare dipped below their season average of 58% for scores per shots. Hyland also missed a free that never seemed within his range from the right wing after some confusion as to whether he or O’Neill were taking it.

One that slipped away for sure, but Mayo knew how to get the job done and an eleven-point turnaround from the 44th minute onwards is hard to argue with.

It has been a curious, inconclusive, first season for the new management team. A league campaign full of promise at times ultimately ended in relegation and the table doesn’t lie even if Kildare rightfully earned plenty of sympathy.

But the real crunch games were the league decider against Mayo, the Leinster Final and Saturday’s last chance saloon and ultimately Kildare have come up short when the chips were down.

They may have happened, belatedly perhaps, upon a system of play that offers hope of being more competitive in the future, but we’ll have eight months to chew that one over with the season finished before we’ve reached the longest day.

KILDARE: Aaron O’Neill; Mick O’Grady, Shea Ryan 0-1, Ryan Houlihan; Darragh Malone 0-1, David Hyland, Kevin Flynn; Kevin Feely 0-1, Kevin O’Callaghan 0-2; Alex Beirne, Ben McCormack 0-1, Fergal Conway; Neil Flynn 0-1, Daniel Flynn 0-1, Jimmy Hyland 0-6 (5fs). Subs: Paul Cribbin for Beirne 31, Darragh Kirwan for N Flynn 54, Paddy McDermott for Conway 71, Brian McLoughlin for J Hyland 72.

MAYO: Rob Hennelly: Lee Keegan 0-2, Oisin Mullen 1-0, Enda Hession; Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen (capt), Eoghan McLaughlin 0-2; Aidan O’Shea, Matthew Ruane; Diarmuid O’Connor 0-1, Jason Doherty, Conor Loftus 0-1; James Carr, Jack Carney 0-1, Cillian O’Connor 0-3 (1f). Subs: Fergal Boland 0-2 for Doherty 29,Darren McHale 0-1 for Carr 44, Padraig O’Hora for Coen 46, Jordan Flynn 1-0 for O’Shea 60, Aiden Orme for Carney 70.

REFEREE: Derek O’Mahoney (Tipperary).

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