By Richard Commins

Glenn Ryan downplayed the significance of it all and that’s the tone you expect from the manager of a Division 1 team after a draw, but there was a palpable feelgood factor back at a packed St. Conleth’s Park on Sunday afternoon as a brave, battling Kildare side rediscovered some of their lost football soul.

Saying a team is carved out of its manager’s image is a well-worn cliché but a backs-to-the-wall comeback with three competitive debutants and three returnees in weather borrowed from Atlantic shores had more than a whiff of the legendary former Kildare captain about it.

Ryan’s predecessor Jack O’Connor had seen his native county build up a five-point lead shortly after half-time but they didn’t count on one of the bravest Kildare second periods in years.

The defence was outstanding, turning over the vaunted Munster men irrepressibly during the second half as the likes of David Clifford became peripheral figures. A series of defiant turnovers and interceptions gave them a platform to chip away at Kerry’s lead.

They were still four points behind entering the last twelve minutes, however, and it had a lot of the hallmarks of the familiar moral victory despite all the good work entering the home stretch.

But with every tackle, every high catch, and every point, the belief grew both on and off the pitch, the crowd doing their bit as the Lilywhites kicked over the last four scores of the game to earn a point that was as much unexpected as it was welcome.

The full-back line of Shea Ryan, Mick O’Grady and Ryan Houlihan were outstanding as were two debutants, Tony Archbold and Jack Sargent, and one returnee, James Murray, in the line ahead of them, while substitute Kevin Feely helped to wrestle the momentum away from Kerry with an influential second half in a holding midfield role.

Kevin Flynn and Paul Cribbin, who scored two points apiece, covered every blade in pivotal midfield and centre-forward roles while Jimmy Hyland and Paddy Woodgate accounted for the remainder of the scores between them.

After a bright Kildare start yielded a typical long-range point from Cribbin and a second from Flynn, they were hit with a sucker blow.

Gavin White overlapped on the left-wing and despite the back-tracking Flynn’s attention, managed to get a handpass off to the unmarked Killian Spillane who shot low to Mark Donnellan’s net in the fourth minute, although there were a few doubts about the legitimacy of Spillane’s offload.

After that, Kerry seemed set to keep Kildare at arm’s length, with the holders finding defensive gaps more easily than their counterparts, for whom target man Daniel Flynn was tightly marked by Jason Foley, albeit with a bit of help from his defensive friends.

Seán O’Shea turned over Donnellan’s kick-out immediately after the goal and scored a fine point before full-forward Flynn’s weighted pass into Hyland gave the Ballyteague man the chance to twist and turn his way to the first of his six scores.

An O’Shea free and an excellent Paudie Clifford point from play stretched Kerry three clear before Hyland worked hard to win a free, converting it himself.

Matters took an ominous turn between the 15th and 20th minutes, with the crowd muted by three Kingdom points in succession. O’Shea burst through the middle and was taken down by Ben McCormack, for which he was lucky to receive only a tick. O’Shea pointed the free himself.

Kildare were too loose at the back now and first corner back Tom O’Sullivan and then star forward David Clifford found far too much space in enemy territory to make it 1-6 to 0-4.

The irrepressible work rate of Hyland up front stirred the crowd again and the corner forward fired over a point from a free and another from play after a soaring mark in the middle from Ryan.

David Clifford rounded off the first half scoring with a stunning effort from the 45-metre line to give his side a four-point interval lead but he might have been wiser to take his point when dummying Houlihan and blazing wide.

Kildare introduced Feely for the injured Kevin O’Callaghan and Neil Flynn for the now yellow-carded McCormack at half-time.

Kerry must have been confident enough in the interval dressing room and after a couple of poor Kildare efforts, Paul Geaney found far too much room to make it 1-8 to 0-6 shortly after the restart, his only score of the game.

Inspiration was needed and captain Mick O’Grady took a break from doing a fine man-marking job on the younger Clifford brother to lead a surge upfield that ended with Raheens’ Paddy Woodgate notching his first competitive senior inter-county score.

The next fifteen minutes saw a game played at close to championship intensity during which Ryan’s improving defence turned over five or six attacks in succession and held Kerry scoreless.  That not only gave them a platform to stay in the game but, importantly, got the big crowd well and truly behind them.

Still, the home side only managed one score during that spell, Kevin Flynn starting a move with a dispossession in midfield that he ended himself with a point. Kerry almost got in for a goal but Paudie Clifford registered their first point in eighteen minutes to stretch the gap to four again.

Cribbin fired over another inspirational one into the town end for Kildare but despite heroics all over the pitch there were still four points between them, 1-10 to 0-9 after Tony Brosnan’s 58th minute score for Kerry.

To their credit, Kildare produced the sort of finish we haven’t seen since the 2018 “Newbridge or Nowhere” game against Mayo.

Woodgate scored two points in a row (one a free, the second after a break forward from substitute Paddy McDermott), to narrow the lead to two before a magnificent Hyland point after great work from Daniel Flynn made it a one-point game two minutes from the end of normal time. Geaney almost got in for a goal in the next attack but ran into the formidable form of Donnellan.

In a frantic injury time, Brosnan shot wide from a scoreable position and from the kick-out Feely soared high to claim possession. Fifteen patient passes later, a push in the back by Adrian Spillane on Cribbin earned a free 25 metres out.

After a nerve-wracking couple of minutes while Cribbin was attended to, Hyland coolly slotted the kick to give Kildare a precious point, one more than they got over seven games when last in the top-flight four years ago.

KILDARE: Mark Donnellan; Mick O’Grady (capt), Shea Ryan, Ryan Houlihan; Jack Sargent, James Murray, Tony Archbold; Kevin O’Callaghan, Kevin Flynn 0-2; Padraic Touhy, Paul Cribbin 0-2, Ben McCormack; Paddy Woodgate 0-3 (1f), Daniel Flynn, Jimmy Hyland 0-6 (3fs). Subs: Kevin Feely for O’Callaghan HT, Neil Flynn for McCormack HT, Paddy McDermott for Tuohy 51.                                            

KERRY: Shane Murphy; Dan O’Donoghue, Jason Foley, Tom O’Sullivan 0-1; Paul Murphy, Tadhg Morley, Gavin White; Seán O’Shea (capt) 0-3 (2fs), Adrian Spillane; Michéal Burns, Paudie Clifford 0-2, Dara Moynihan; Killian Spillane 1-0, David Clifford 0-2, Paul Geaney 0-1. Subs: Brian O Beaglaoich for White 27,Jack Savage for Burns HT, Tony Brosnan for K. Spillane 47, Greg Horan for Moynihan 51.                                                        

REFEREE: David Coldrick (Meath)

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