Saturday 24 March 2018

Battle royale for Kildare

MANY inter-county managers have a default response when their players muddle their way through a mediocre league contest. "It's only March," they will tell you, whatever that means.

Well, Saturday night was March 3, to be precise. Yet it felt as if you'd been transported via time machine to July.

Here you had two teams going hell for leather, as if the consequences of not claiming that flying piece of leather were too grim to bear.

Only the Páirc Táilteann floodlights told you it was still early spring, not a see-sawing qualifier in the height of summer.

When it was all over, Kildare had prevailed by 0-18 to 2-11, their injury-time winner coming from the unlikeliest of corner-back sources. Then again, seeing Ollie Lyons slalom through a gap to fist that 72nd-minute point -- his second of the half -- tells you something about Kildare's version of 'Total Football' when the form gods are smiling on them.

Moments earlier, it was Meath who had almost edged in front only for their wandering back, Shane McAnarney, to strike an upright. It was that kind of night. Ultimately the visitors deserved it, by a whisker, because their ceaseless support play was complemented by a prolific return coming from 10 disparate scorers, three defenders included.

Glass-half-empty Lilywhites will fret about the ongoing dearth of goals, with a couple of possible chances spurned here. "If they cost us the game, yeah ... but if we're a point ahead I'm happy enough," insisted manager Kieran McGeeney.

It's a moot point whether a previously pointless Kildare wanted it more badly, because Meath never once relented during an oscillating second half and even twice looked to have stolen the initiative following goals from the lively Paddy Gilsenan (47 minutes) and substitute Donnacha Tobin (64).

"I wouldn't be happy with the way they got them," said McGeeney, "but our fellas never quit. Even with a couple of minutes left, they showed great character to come back and win it."

Meath, though, could claim something in defeat too. This was their fifth consecutive loss to the Lilies in the space of 19 months but, unlike last year, they performed far better in the process.

Typically, Seamus McEnaney didn't let the result get in the way of a bullish appraisal. "A serious performance," he declared.

"We were very, very unfortunate not to get a result, but I'm not disappointed because I thought that was one of the best performances we have got in a long time ... I couldn't ask for any more of those players tonight. They gave me everything."

Given the provincial draw, it's likely that these implacable rivals will renew battle in a Leinster semi-final on July 1. Kildare's desire on Saturday night, however, had nothing to do with psychological edges with one eye on summer.

Their need was more urgent because, having lost their opening two Allianz League fixtures, they were staring at another meandering spring stuck in Division Two -- at best.

Doubtless this explains why McGeeney recalled several of the old guard. And also why his players ran at the Royals so ferociously during the first 20 minutes. Even more central to that early supremacy was their midfield stranglehold -- they won 10 of the first 11 kickouts.

By half-time, John Doyle had got his hands on six kickouts while Eamonn Callaghan (who kicked a first-half brace) was another livewire presence around the middle third. The Kildare skipper and vice-captain were far less influential in the second half, partly, you suspected, because they'd run to a standstill.

Meath, as is their traditional wont, hung on during that opening blitzkrieg, gradually established their own foothold and then actually drew level. But then the impressive Eoghan O'Flaherty -- happily restored to attacking haunts -- and Callaghan edged the visitors 0-8 to 0-6 ahead at the midpoint.


Thereafter, it was rollercoaster stuff on an epic scale. Meath upped their game and, more than once, revealed a porous soft centre to Kildare's defence. Gilsenan, after being teed up for the first goal by Joe Sheridan, could have poached a second only to blaze over.

Substitute Tom Walsh exposed similar gaps when he raced through the middle before teeing up Tobin for his goal. Afterwards, McGeeney expressed some concern at Meath's ability to punch defensive holes but then reasoned: "We're coming against a top-of-the-table team, we're at the bottom. One team is flying with confidence, the other is looking for confidence. So you're going to get that."

Even after Lyons' match-winner, there was a hint that Graham Geraghty could have won an equalising free for Meath.

"We'd be disappointed that at a crucial time in the game, there was a few decisions that could have gone our way and didn't," said McEnaney.

"But we're not crying about that. The big positives for me were a serious performance from this team, we're going in the right direction, we're four points out of six ... not a bad place to be on the third of March."

Whoever said it was only March?

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