A gritty but composed Kildare delivered a magnificent second-half performance to edge an absorbing Eirgrid All Ireland Under 20 semi-final against Down at Parnell Park on Saturday night. It sends them through to their second successive national final in the grade and their third in the six years since it was introduced.

Brian Flanagan’s side will meet Sligo, who they beat in last year’s semi-final, in next Saturday’s decider in Cavan (2.45pm), the Connacht side having overcome Roscommon, Mayo, Galway and, today, highly regarded Kerry en route to their first ever final at the under-20 or under-21 grades.

Kildare’s win was all the more satisfying and memorable for the obstacles they had to overcome. They fell behind to an early Jason Morgan goal and were 1-3 to no score behind when they lost midfielder Fionn Cooke to a suspected dislocated shoulder.

Then having put aside wayward first-half shooting and clawing their way into the lead with only eight minutes remaining, they were sucker-punched by a second Morgan goal. But back they came to clinch it four minutes into injury time with a wonder point from Jack McKevitt that brought to mind the famous Kevin Cassidy effort against the Lilywhites in 2011.

The break in play while Cooke was attended to gave Kildare a chance to re-organise and with Cooke’s replacement Seán Hanafin making an immediate impact they began to claw back the early deficit. There were 24 minutes on the clock when Hanafin curled over their first point from close range.

By half-time they had brought the lead back to three points (1-4 to 0-4) thanks to two Shane Farrell points and one from Oisín O’Sullivan, but that was a poor return for the success they were having off the Down kickouts and you feared they might rue the nine wides they’d shot in that half.

The Mourne men, managed by senior boss Conor Laverty, stretched their lead through Oisín Savage’s free on the restart but an opportunistic goal from O’Sullivan four minutes into the half, taking a high ball from club mate Adam Fanning and poking a shot to the roof of the net, brought Kildare right into it. Unfortunately, that was O’Sullivan’s last act as he had to depart injured.

Neither side scored for ten minutes after that, but Colm Dalton won a free which Farrell converted from 40 metres to level matters before Down goalkeeper Oisín Treacy (’45) and O’Sullivan’s replacement, Eoin Cully, swapped points to make it 1-6 apiece heading into the last ten minutes.

Two superb scores on 52 and 53 minutes put Kildare into the lead for the first time. First joint captain Farrell, later named official man-of-the-match, sent a booming shot over from all of 40 metres and then Niall Dolan audaciously sent a Maurice Fitzgerald-esque free from near the sideline over the bar off the outside of his boot.

Kildare seemed well set now but they seemed to lose concentration from the kick out and Down somehow had an overlap as Callum Rogers hared through their defence and offloaded for Morgan to drive a low shot to Cormac Barker’s net and give the Ulster Champions a one-point lead once more.

Kildare settled themselves again and calmly worked themselves into position to shoot two fine points from play, first from Fanning and then from the impressive Cully. But back came Down once more with Tom McCarroll finding room on the right to shoot a fine equaliser with two minutes remaining.

The drama didn’t end there though. A week earlier Kildare had equalised deep into injury time against Dublin and on this occasion crucial defensive turnovers from McKevitt and then Harry O’Neill gave them a platform to go in search of the winner.

Cometh the hour cometh the unlikely hero in young McKevitt. Deep into injury time they put together a 21-pass move back and forth across the pitch, probing for an opening and when Fanning found McKevitt the Naas man had the guts to take it on, unleashing a glorious shot with the outside of his supposedly weaker left foot and as soon as it left his boot no one was in any doubt about its destination.

Kildare had won by a point and McKevitt place in the county’s GAA folklore was secured.

KILDARE: Cormac Barker; Harry O’Neill, Tomas Von Engelbrechten, Ryan Burke; James Harris, James McGrath, Jack McKevitt 0-1; Fionn Cooke, Shane Farrell 0-4 (2fs); Ryan Sinkey, Callum Bolton, Colm Dalton; Adam Fanning 0-1, Niall Dolan 0-1 (f), Oisín O’Sullivan 1-1. Subs: Seán Hanafin 0-1 for Cooke 23, Ethan Mountaine for Harris 30, Eoin Cully 0-2 for O’Sullivan 35, Killian Browne for Sinkey 48.

DOWN: Oisín Treacy 0-2 (1f, 1’45); Fiachra McEvoy, Patrick McCarthy, Finn Murdock; Thomas Hardy, Jamie Doran, James Kelly; Odhran Murdock 0-1, Tom McCarroll 0-1; Cormac Greene, Oran Cunningham, Harry Magill; Oisín Savage 0-2 (2fs), Jason Morgan 2-1 (0-1m), Callum Rogers. Subs: Cian Cunningham for H Magill, Ryan Magill for McEvoy 48, Niall Toner for Doran 57.

REFEREE: Thomas Murphy (Galway)

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