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Magic Johnston blooms for Lilies as hard-fought win over Faithful sets up showdown with Dublin

A BIT early in the year for conspiracy theories but Kieran McGeeney had one anyway about his former Armagh playing colleague and Kildare sideline cohort Aidan O'Rourke after his own team had made sure of their spot in next Saturday night's 'glamour' O'Byrne Cup final clash with Dublin in Parnell Park (7.0).

The Kildare boss reckoned, after watching his team beat Offaly by 1-12 to 1-9 in Tullamore, that O'Rourke had spared the horses somewhat against the Dubs in Drogheda yesterday, possibly in a bid to avoid an early-season collision with McGeeney's men.

"It's going to be a good game," he said peering forward to next Saturday night in Donnycarney, perhaps wary of investing too much on the match, as indeed did many of Kildare's supporters on last year's January meeting.

"But I see Aidan tried an experimental team against them. He's a shrewd boy, so he is."

"It will be hard to measure," Geezer continued. "Dublin can probably put out three teams in the national league and still compete. But it will be a good test for us before Donegal."

As was yesterday, when his team overcame the loss of Mikey Conway to a red card (second yellow, 52nd minute) and a flinty, determined Offaly team by three points on a day when Seánie Johnston started for the first time in a Kildare jersey and, more importantly, showed what all the fuss was about.

It's been something of a recurring critique of Kildare that they don't possess 'natural' forwards, this despite the fact that they have consistently been amongst the highest average scorers in the Championship for the past three years.

Yet Johnston yesterday showed perhaps just what they had been lacking.

It was his instinctive link play, braveness and team application that shone on a dank day when little else really did.

Johnston wasn't just getting on the end of moves (seven points, three from play) and finishing them off under intense pressure (Offaly regularly had 12/13 men behind the ball) on a sludgy turf.

No, Johnston's winter repertoire included the acts of creatively stitching together a forward line looking, understandably, like they were playing from memory and instinct rather than rehearsal or set piece.

"I thought he did very well," praised McGeeney. "He won a lot of possession and he was very brave going for the ball. He was getting a lot of attention in there, so happy with that."

Offaly started the better and had a goal on the board from Eoin Carroll after just three minutes and it took until Mikey Conway's penalty in the 32nd minute for Kildare to achieve parity.

The Kildare captain walked after 52 minutes though, for a second yellow and while Johnston was undoubtedly the best forward on the pitch, Offaly's claustrophobic approach to defence left Kildare reliant on half-backs Eoghan O'Flaherty (two) and Emmet Bolton (one) for important scores.

At the other end, Niall McNamee hit five points (four frees) but crucially, stuck a penalty wide for the second time this season in the 69th minute with Offaly trailing by a goal.

Emmett McDonnell, the previously unheralded manager of Offaly, who has already managed the Faithful to as many competitive wins in 2013 as they managed in the entirety of 2012, had to endure a question about the 'Offaly revolution gathering pace', and instead settled on the fact that yesterday's result was a mixed blessing.

"In one way it would have been great to win because we would have had an extra game against Dublin next week and that would have been huge preparation," he noted.

"In another way, it's more important that we get ready for the first round of the league.

"We wouldn't be happy getting a good run in the O'Byrne Cup and then losing to London in the first round of the league. We can focus on that now."

SCORERS - Kildare: S Johnston 0-7 (4f), M Conway 1-0 (pen), E O'Flaherty 0-2, E Bolton, C McNally, P O'Neill 0-1 each. Offaly: N McNamee 0-5 (4f), E Carroll 1-0, D Kelly, R Brady (f), A Sullivan, P Cunningham 0-1 each.

KILDARE: S Connolly; O Lyons, M Foley, H McGrillen; E Bolton, M Conway, E O'Flaherty; G White, P O'Neill; M O'Flaherty, C McNally, B Flanagan; D Flynn, T O'Connor, S Johnston. SUBS: J Byrne for McNally (52), R Kelly for E O'Flaherty (60), P Brophy for O'Connor (60), R Sweeney for Bolton (70).

OFFALY: A Mulhall; S Pender, S Sullivan, P McConway; D Hanlon, B Darby, D Kelly; A McNamee, R Brady; G Guilfoyle, B Connor, E Carroll; M Mitchell, N McNamee, A Sullivan. SUBS: P Cunningham for Mitchell (40), E Rigney for McConway (41), P McPadden for Carroll (64), Young for A McNamee (66)

WIDES - Kildare: 11 (7+4), Offaly: 6 (3+3).

RED CARDS - Kildare: Conway (52, 2nd yellow).

YELLOW CARDS - Kildare: Conway (43, 52), Offaly: Carroll (34), A McNamee (56).

REF: Joe Curley (Meath). ATT: 3,400.

MAN OF THE MATCH: S Johnston (Kildare).