Meath 2-16 Kildare 0-17
Led from the front by Stephen Bray, Meath sprang a nasty surprise on Kildare at Croke Park in yesterday's Leinster football semi-final. Troubled by injuries, Mick O'Dowd's team had been expected to be beyond doing much more than putting up a feisty display in the county's best traditions.
Showing no such limited ambition, Meath were physically assertive, fast on the break and sufficiently productive in front of goal to record a deserved victory even though Kildare mounted a credible second-half recovery to trim the deficit from its widest, 12 points, down to five with 12 minutes left on the clock.
By this stage Meath were visibly tiring and looked unable to keep up with the tempo of Kildare’s relentless attacks.
They were equally unable to stitch a few restorative points into the fabric of the contest to keep their opponents at arm’s length and got outscored by 0-8 to 0-1 between the 51st and 64th minutes.
Just when it looked like the whole thing might become extremely anxious for Meath the tension eased somewhat as Kildare kicked a couple of wides to stall their momentum and
popped up at the Hill end to kick a point that restored the two-goal advantage.
Even so, there were still just five points in it in the 69th minute when Kildare replacement Alan Smith, who had a mixed day bringing energy and urgency to the attack as well as a couple of points but also kicking the same number of wides, rattled the woodwork with a shot that could have set up a fraught injury time.
Meath simply coped better with what the match threw up. Manager Mick O’Dowd made a couple of tactical switches to the published team and got his match-ups right.
In the absence of Mickey Newman, Andrew Tormey did well from the paced kicks, including a penalty awarded at the very end of the first half.
Bray tormented a couple of markers and Damien Carroll’s constant pressing caused endless trouble.
Kildare manager Jason Ryan mentioned the physicality of Meath's defence and in particular Kevin Reilly's robust stewarding as being a difficulty for his younger, less experienced players but all around the pitch, they let their opponents dictate the trend of the match until it was too effectively late to retrieve it.
It wasn’t just physical attrition either; Meath’s defenders were sharp and vigilant, getting in a number of blocks and tackles to make sure they weren’t conceding anything too easily.
Kildare’s peculiar, linear bunching configuration never worked as well as it had against Louth in the quarter-final, as Meath dealt capably with the lack of width.
The match started well and for most of the first half it was neck and neck. Not until the 15th minute did more than a point separate the teams and by the 20th it was level again. Meath lost corner forward Brian McMahon early on with concussion but Joe Wallace came on and made an impact.
In fact Meath could have had a couple of goals before they actually registered their first. Carroll’s 15th minute shot rebounded downwards off the crossbar – Tormey eventually pointing.
Bray then had a chance but shot wide with support inside and Mark Donnellan had to make sharp saves when Dalton McDonagh latched onto the rebound after Shane O'Rourke's effort had hit the post.
It was a trip on McDonagh that earned the penalty in injury-time and Tormey dispatched it for a 1-9 to 0-7 lead and suddenly Kildare were facing an uphill task.
This became as vertical as the team’s formation in the early stages of the second half, as the winners helped themselves to an unanswered 1-4 in the opening six minutes.
McDonagh got the goal in the 38th minute, sliding the ball into the left-hand corner of Donnellan’s net after smartly picking up a break. Points followed from Carroll, a Tormey free, a fine score by Bray and a Paddy O’Rourke free.
Fogarty’s free got Kildare back on track in the 46th minute although it didn’t really feel that way given the score now read 0-8 to 2-13. But as Meath became a bit careless up front and sat back to contemplate the big lead, it began to diminish.
Pádraig O'Neill and Tommy Moolick picked up the pace from the middle – the former's shooting yielding three points and the latter's two as well as a pair of wides – Smith and Eamonn Callaghan began to threaten in attack and in steady increments the margin reduced and Ollie Lyons made a number of well-judged runs from defence.
The break in Kildare’s momentum saved Meath from a more searching test but with a strengthened team and plenty of experience of playing Dublin in Leinster finals, O’Dowd’s side will be a serious proposition in next month’s final.
MEATH: 1. P O'Rourke (0-2, 45 and free); 19. E Harrington, 3. K Reilly (capt.), 5. P Harnan; 10. D Tobin, 6. D Keoghan, 7. D Carroll (0-2); 8. B Meade, 11. S O'Rourke (0-1); 9. B Menton, 13. G Reilly (0-1), 12. A Tormey (1-4, 1-0a pen, two frees); 20. D McDonagh (1-0), 14. S Bray (0-4), 15. B McMahon. Subs: 25. J Wallace (0-1) for McMahon (9 mins), 18. A Flanagan for Meade (50 mins), 21. S Kenny for Carroll (58 mins), 22. D Bray (0-1) for McDonagh (61 mins), 4. M Burke for Reilly (63 mins).
KILDARE: 1. M Donnellan; 2. H McGrillen, 3. M Foley, 4. E Bolton; 5. O Lyons, 6. Fl Conway, 7. K Cribbin; 8. T Moolick (0-2), 9. P O'Neill (0-3); 10. C McNally, 11. E Callaghan (capt; 0-3), 12. S Hurley; 13. N Kelly (0-1), 14. PFogarty (0-6, four frees), 15. P Brophy. Subs: 23. A Smith (0-2) for Brophy (33 mins), 17. G White for Hurley (43 mins), 18. C Fitzpatrick for Foley (43 mins), 22. E Doyle for Bolton (47 mins), 20. E O'Flaherty for McNally (50 mins), 26. T O'Connor for Fogarty (67 mins). Referee: C Branagan (Down).