Twelve-in-a-row Leinster Champions Dublin were given their sternest examination in years in the province as an unheralded Kildare came close to pulling off the shock of the championship so far at Croke Park this afternoon.

Not since the infamous 2011 semi-final against the Lilywhites have Dublin escaped with a winning margin of less than three points in Leinster and it was only a surge in the last ten minutes plus injury time that saw them finally reel in a determined opposition who played without fear or favour.

Where has this Kildare side been all year? Having been pulverised by Cork and Derry in the League before winning their last two games against Limerick and Meath to avoid relegation, they didn’t appear to have put in place a sufficiently watertight defensive structure to come anywhere near Dublin on Croke Park’s wide-open spaces.

But that five goal first half hammering in last year’s Leinster Final seemed a distant memory today and Ryan was clearly not fooling himself when he said after the win over Wicklow that they had been planning for Dublin since half-time in last year’s encounter.

Here, they played fourteen or fifteen behind the ball when out of possession, but it wasn’t just a case of marking space. Kildare relished the physical challenges, encouraged them almost, and with every turnover their confidence grew, their tackling crisp and their free concession minimal. Dublin were getting nothing easy here this time.

When Kildare attacked, they did so at a pace that clearly worried a raw enough looking Dublin defence shorn of the likes of Mick Fitzsimons, Eoin Murchan, and the retired Jonny Cooper.

That all made for a fascinating first hour in which Kildare gave as good as they got and if anything were the better side as they built up a four-point lead by the 41st minute.

They would rue their missed chances though, none more so than Jack Robinson and Ben McCormack. Robinson, playing his first championship match in Croke Park, hared through on Dublin’s goal as early as the second minute but his shot was placed at a height that wasn’t going to beat a goalkeeper of Stephen Cluxton’s experience, the eight-time All-Ireland winner who was recalled in a late change.

Remarkably that would prove to be the only goal chance of the game, indicative of Kildare’s improvement since last year but also perhaps a strangely heavy-legged Dublin performance.

Clogherinkoe’s Robinson had a decent game, but he will look back on a free off the post that went abegging while McCormack and Kevin Flynn (both short) and Paddy McDermott (wide) also failed to press home Kildare’s advantage in the opening half.

The sides were level at 0-3 each after the opening 23 minutes with Darragh Kirwan and Paddy Woodgate with two frees, one from almost on the sideline, only drawing three Paul Mannion scores from play in reply.

Kildare hit the accelerator in the run-up to half-time as we waited for a Dublin surge that wasn’t coming. Woodgate, McCormack, and Kirwan were all on the mark from play and Robinson found the range with two frees with Dublin only managing points from Ciarán Kilkenny and Ross McGarry from play and a free from a somewhat subdued Con O’Callaghan.

A shock was starting to look likely when Kildare scored the first two points of the second half, through a wonder point from McCormack near the wing and a Woodgate ’45, floated confidently over the bar at the Hill 16 end.

That put them 10-6 ahead but two points in a minute from Seán Bugler and Colm Basquel reined the gap back to two. McCormack, who ran Dublin ragged at times, won a soft enough free in the ‘D’ which Robinson converted but that 47th minute point would be their last for twelve minutes.

Dublin had called in Jack McCaffrey and Cormac Costello at half-time and they gave the home side impetus. They also had the broader scoring threat than Kildare and Lee Gannon, O’Callaghan and Cian Murphy scored their first points of the day from play to emphasise that point while Ryan’s side were starting to look tired with McCormack dropping two hasty efforts short.

Dublin were rushing shots too, though, many from un-Dublin-like positions, and when substitute Neil Flynn fired over a fine effort on 59 minutes, Kildare were back in front (12-11).

Ultimately, though, it was Dublin who knew how to close out a tight game, and Kildare would not score again in the final sixteen minutes of playing time. McCaffrey equalised immediately after Flynn’s point and when Costello was stopped by a Mick O’Grady shoulder to the chest, he put Dublin ahead with a close-range free.

McCormack dropped another short and Paul Cribbin was just wide from a long way out, but the game was up for the Lilywhites when Lorcan O’Dell’s low effort was tipped over for a point by Mark Donnellan.

With Louth and Armagh doing them a favour elsewhere, Kildare have secured their spot in the Sam Maguire qualifiers, the draw to take place on Tuesday, and if they can replicate this effort and performance they won’t look particularly out of place.

Dublin’s laboured performance on the other hand, might warrant a reassessment of their Sam Maguire credentials after a positive spring to date.

KILDARE: Mark Donnellan; Eoin Doyle, Shea Ryan, Mick O’Grady; David Hyland, Kevin Flynn, Jack Sargent; Kevin O’Callaghan, Aaron Masterson; Paddy McDermott, Ben McCormack 0-2, Alex Beirne; Jack Robinson 0-3 (3fs), Darragh Kirwan 0-2, Paddy Woodgate 0-4 (2fs, 1’45). Subs: Paul Cribbin for Beirne 45, Neil Flynn 0-1 for Robinson 48, Daniel Flynn for Kirwan 56, Kevin Feely for Masterson 62, Jimmy Hyland for McCormack 68.

DUBLIN: Stephen Cluxton; Daire Newcombe, David Byrne, Lee Gannon 0-1; John Small, Cian Murphy 0-1, Tom Lahiff; Brian Fenton, James McCarthy; Ross McGarry 0-1, Seán Bugler 0-1, Ciarán Kilkenny 0-1; Paul Mannion 0-3, Con O’Callaghan 0-2 (1f), Colm Basquel 0-1. Subs: Cormac Costello 0-1 (f) for McGarry HT, Jack McCaffrey 0-1 for Lahiff HT, Lorcan O’Dell 0-1 for Basquel 49, Paddy Small for Mannion 58, Killian O’Gara for Bugler 64.

REFEREE: Fergal Kelly (Longford)

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