Kildare 2-14 Westmeath 0-18
Kildare survived a late Westmeath onslaught to finally break their Croke Park hoodoo and book their place in only their fifth Leinster Final since their last title in 2000.
That they were able to do that after losing on their eight previous visits to GAA HQ owed much to the brilliance of Daniel Flynn. The supremely talented forward has been plagued by hamstring injuries this year and this was his first appearance since limping out of Kildare’s first league game against Cork after just half an hour.
He certainly played his part and created one goal and scored another in a crucial four-minute spell in the second half.
First off he teed up Jimmy Hyland in the 43rd minute and then scored himself after bursting through the Westmeath defence. Flynn famously missed a great goal chance at the same Hill 16 end of Croke Park in the 2017 Leinster final, when he hit his shot at a nice height for Stephen Cluxton to save, but this time he had the composure to put the ball under the body of the advancing Jason Daly.
Kildare manager Jack O’Connor was full of praise for the brilliant Johnstownbridge man.
"He's just got that x-factor," O'Connor said. "He has elite speed, and no better place to show that than in Croke Park. He gave a great account of himself. We didn't think there was 75 minutes in him but he was back there defending in the left corner back position at the end. I'd say he hadn't too much left in the tank when the final whistle blew. He was out on his feet. It's great to have him back, and we'll have his brother Luke back for the final, which is great with Kevin Feely potentially missing."
The Kerryman has worked with some of the best players to ever have played the game but he struggled to think of another player who combines Flynn’s electrifying pace and fearsome power.
“He’s just a different type of player,” O’Connor said. “The GPS numbers will tell you that he has elite speed. He’s definitely the fastest player I ever worked with. He plays the game with real joy as well, just plays off the cuff. A lot of people will tell you that players are overcooked now. You can’t really coach Daniel. You just let him off the leash and let him at it. Long may it continue.”
Those two goals created a six-point lead for Kildare after a closely fought opening half. The teams were level on five occasions during the first half, and Kildare led 0-11 to 0-10 at the break. That lead should have been decisive in such a close game but Westmeath came storming back in the last 20 minutes and both managers agreed that a 53rd-minute save from Mark Donnellan to deny John Heslin was a hugely important moment.
“If there is a better goalie than Mark Donnellan in the country then I’d like to meet him,” O’Connor said. “We’ve only conceded two goals this year, and both of them were our own mistakes, certainly not Mark Donnellan’s mistakes. He’s got everything: his composure, his shot stopping, the range of his kick-outs is phenomenal. There was one at the end where he took out most of the Westmeath team and found Daniel Flynn on the opposing 45. It was a time when we needed to relieve the pressure, so hats off to him, he’s having a great year.”
Westmeath manager Jack Cooney said: "I'm immensely proud of the lads. They took the sucker punch of the two goals and showed great character. They had a couple of chances for goals down the other end; their keeper brought off a great save. We kept at it and kept at it, even though the shooting boots were a bit off. To be quite honest I thought there was only one winner coming down the straight because we were playing all the ball, doing all the pressing, but we just couldn't seem to split those posts."
Westmeath’s efforts to get back into the game were hampered by 10 second-half wides but still got back to within a point in the 65th minute before Shane O’Sullivan sealed the win for Kildare with a brilliant effort in the 69th minute.
The only black mark for Kildare were injuries to Kevin Feely and Eoin Doyle, and O’Connor wasn’t confident that either would be back time for the final against Dublin.
“It’s just a pity for Kevin and Eoin, two real heroes for Kildare, real warriors. [The injuries] look serious but we’ll see if they’ll settle down but it doesn’t look great,” he said.
Few will give Kildare a chance as they attempt to bridge a 21-year gap since Glenn Ryan lifted their last provincial title but O’Connor is determined that Kildare will give a good account of themselves.
“We’ve put too much into this thing to just come and make up the numbers in two weeks’ time,” he said. “We’ll prepare, the lads will recover well. It’s a bit of shot to nothing but we certainly won’t be coming to just make up the numbers. Let’s see where that takes us.”
KILDARE M Donnellan; M O'Grady, E Doyle, M Dempsey; D Hyland, R Houlihan, K Flynn; K Feely 0-1, A Masterson 0-1; A Beirne 0-1, F Conway 0-1, N Flynn 0-7 (4 frees) B McCormack, D Flynn 1-1, J Hyland 1-1 (1 free).
Subs S Ryan for Feely (34), D Malone for Houlihan (h/t); S O'Sullivan 0-1 for McCormack (h/t), P McDermott for Doyle (52), B McLoughlin for Hyland (68).
WESTMEATH J Daly; J Smith, K Maguire, B Sayeh; J Dolan 0-1, R Wallace, S McCartan 0-1 (1'45); D Corroon,S Duncan; R Connellan, D Lynch 0-1, R O'Toole; L Dolan 0-5 (1 mark), G Egan 0-1, J Heslin 0-8 (7 frees).
Subs D Giles 0-1 for Sayeh (46), F Ayorinde for Corroon (51), T McDaniel for Connellan (62), N Harte for McCartan (72).
Referee O'Mahoney (Tipperary)