Tyrone book place in final with Kildare win
Stephen O’Neill’s finishing crucial for Mickey Harte’s side after Lilywhites held halftime lead
Tyrone: 2-15 Kildare: 2-11
Two kicks somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous, one from the left, one from the right, a moment of pure optical illusion thrown in too, and no defender on earth could have done anything about.
If this game is remembered for one thing - beyond booking Tyrone into the Allianz Football League final for the first time in 10 years - it will be those closing points by Stephen O'Neill. They pulled the final curtain down on Kildare's challenge, and even in seeing they were hard to believe, the likes of which Croke Park has rarely witnessed.
Don't just take my word for it: "It was worth coming to Croke Park to see those scores alone," said Tyrone manager Mickey Harte. "I don't think you'll see two better scores than the last two he took out there today. There was just something else.
"It just shows the class of player he is, still doing it at his age, having been around the block so many times. Although I don't think we had to wait until today to discover that."
O'Neill finished with four points in total, and might well have finished off Kildare's challenge a lot earlier had he been given more ball in the first half, but his last two points, in the last two minutes of normal time, ultimately made up for any Tyrone shortcomings earlier on.
First, on 68 minutes, with Kildare still loitering dangerously close, having closed the gap to 2-12 to 2-11, O'Neill swung in from the right of the Kildare goal, sold Peter Kelly a dummy that left him falling helplessly to his knees, and with that whipped the ball, left-footed, cleanly between the posts.
Mark Donnelly then added a bit more breathing space - bringing his tally for the afternoon to 1-1 - before O'Neill swing in again, this time from the right of the Kildare goal, and despite almost cornered between the end and side lines, whipped over another score of pure majestic beauty, this one from the right foot.
Not bad for a 32 year-old, who briefly retired from the game completely in 2008, partly due to a chronic back injury. "I don't believe I've seen better points, for a lad, when I first saw as a minor, who was very much left-footed," added Harte. "Now, at the end of his career, his kicking points from totally acute angles with his right foot. There's a great lesson in that for young players, not to lean on one side of your play. Work on the other one too. But what he's doing at the moment is just unbelievable, the power and the strength he has too, is fantastic."
O'Neill will clearly be the target man now as Tyrone prepare to take on Dublin in the league final on Sunday week, although Tyrone's overall consistency of performance still needs some work. They enjoyed a nice advantage at the start of both halves, and yet struggled to retain it, and if Kildare had been more clinical with their shooting (they finished with 11 wides) then they result might well have different, something manager Kieran McGeeney certainly highlighted afterwards.
Kildare did enjoy a one-point lead at half time, 1-6 to 1-5, taking advantage of the stiff breeze, and some pretty poor Tyrone work rate, particularly around the middle of the field. McGeeney, surprisingly, also started with six of his under-21 players that next Saturday face Galway in an All-Ireland semi-final - Mark Donnellan, Paul Cribbin, Daniel Flynn, Niall Kelly, Sean Hurley and Paddy Brophy - yet they all came through this safely, making a big impact too.
Tyrone started out with the greater intent, going 1-1 in front inside the opening 10 minutes, the goal coming off the boot of wing back Matthew Donnelly, who finished with 1-2. Kildare responded well, three points from Pádriag O'Neill helping them find their grove, before Brophy found the net on 28 minutes, finishing off a strong attack that first saw Eoghan O'Flaherty's shot well saved.
McGeeney would have been well aware that Tyrone came out in the second half against Kerry last Sunday a completely transformed team, yet Kildare allowed them to do likewise here, temporarily at least. A point from Martin Penrose was swiftly followed by a goal from Mark Donnelly, that move set up nicely by O'Neill. Back in front, 2-6 to 1-6, that signalled an increase in scores that injected fresh life into the game, John Doyle pressing forward with increasing menace, hitting two points from play, and adding two more frees.
The momentum, however, was slowly grabbed by Tyrone, as they pressed five points clear. Sean Cavanagh was drifting in and out of the game but showed up for a little more possession, and struck two frees, while substitutes Aidan Cassidy and youngster Conor McAlliskey made a telling contribution too, adding three points between them.
Then, bang on the hour mark, a goal from Cribbin gave Kildare some hope of late reprise, and they got back to within a point on 68 minutes thanks to Brophy again, before O'Neill had the last words - of pure poetry.
TYRONE: N Morgan (0-1, a free); PJ Quinn, C Clarke, C McCarron; Matthew Donnelly (1-2), C Gormley; C Cavanagh, S Cavanagh (0-2, two frees); D Carlin, P Harte, Mark Donnelly (1-1); M Penrose (0-1), S O'Neill (0-4), D McCurry (0-1, a free).
Subs: A Cassidy (0-1, for Harte, 23 mins, inj), Justin McMahon for McNamee, C McAlliskey (0-2) for McCurry (both half time), A McCrory for Quinn, C McGinley for Carlin (both 62 mins).
KILDARE: M Donnellan; M Foley, O Lyons, H McGrillen; P Cribben (1-0), P Kelly, E Bolton; Daniel Flynn, P O'Neill (0-3); E Doyle, N Kelly, E O'Flaherty (0-1); P Brophy (1-1), S Hurley, J Doyle (0-6, four frees).
Subs: T O'Connor (for Daniel Flynn, 50 mins), S Johnston for Bolton (54 mins), E Callaghan for Niall Kelly (62 mins), A Smith for Doyle (64 mins).
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare)