From the moment they took the lead for the first time after seven minutes, Kildare never looked like losing this provincial SFC semi-final against a battling Westmeath at Croke Park.
And yet, having led by four points after a wildly prolific first half, and then by seven points when Ben McCormack landed a 52nd minute mark for his fifth score of the game, Kildare meandered through a disappointing fourth quarter.
So much so that they conceded five of the last six points. Moreover, two injury-time strikes from John Heslin and Sam McCartan (a fourth point apiece for the Westmeath duo) cut Kildare’s lead to just a goal – but they managed to win a free off Mark Donnellan’s final kickout and duly held on to book their place in the final.
That much will satisfy Glenn Ryan – but we suspect the Kildare boss will be far less enamoured of a defensive display that led to them coughing up 2-15 against opponents who were plying their trade in Division 3 this spring.
The first half was a wonderful advertisement for free-flowing football – or a cruel indictment of how not to defend in the modern era, take your pick.
The tone was set straight from the throw-in, when Kildare won the throw-in but succeeded only in knocking the ball straight to Westmeath centre-back Ronan Wallace, who accelerated through an open channel and kept running, until his perfectly weighted hand-pass found Ronan O’Toole. The Westmeath No 11 clipped a smart left-footed finish past Mark Donnellan, and the underdogs led by a goal, incredibly, inside 12 seconds.
Pretty soon, though, Wallace would have his hands full trying to halt the irrepressible Ben McCormack. The Kildare centre-forward had struck the first of his four first half points inside 50 seconds and, even though the livewire O’Toole quickly pointed at the other end, the divisional gulf between both sides became ever more apparent as the half evolved.
Kildare had already trimmed Westmeath’s lead to a point before Darragh Kirwan pulled a goal chance wide of the near post. Never mind: Kevin Flynn gobbled up the resultant Jason Daly kickout, burst through a tackle and fed Daniel Flynn, whose selfless offload left Jimmy Hyland with a simple fisted goal. Thus, seven minutes in, they were two up.
Jonathan Lynam almost engineered a second Westmeath goal soon after, only to be smothered by Mark Donnellan. Shaken and stirred, Kildare hit six of the next eight points to lead by 1-9 to 1-3 after just 20 minutes. Already, all six of Glenn Ryan’s starting forwards had scored from play.
To their credit, Westmeath edged their way back into vague contention from there until half-time. John Heslin’s third point – and second from play – had left them five adrift.
They were then indebted to Daly’s sharp reflexes to deny Beirne a second Kildare goal. Almost immediately, wing-back Jamie Gonoud raced through a hole in the Kildare defence and fed his fellow marauding defender, Wallace; he was tackled by Donnellan but the ball broke kindly for Gonoud, who had continued his run and was left with a relatively straight-forward tap-in as the clock hit 33 minutes.
However, the last two points of a breathless half were scored by Kevin Flynn and McCormack to leave the Lilies 1-13 to 2-6 ahead.
Kildare: J Hyland 1-4 (2f), B McCormack (1m), D Kirwan (1f) 0-5 each, D Flynn 0-2 (1m), P Cribbin, T Archbold, A Beirne, K Flynn, N Flynn (f) 0-1 each.
Westmeath: R O’Toole 1-3, J Heslin (1f), S McCartan 0-4 each, J Gonoud 1-0, R Connellan 0-2, N Harte, L Loughlin 0-1 each.
KILDARE – M Donnellan; M O’Grady, S Ryan, M Joyce; T Archbold, J Murray, K Flynn; K Feely, K O’Callaghan; A Beirne, B McCormack, P Cribbin; D Kirwan, D Flynn, J Hyland.
Subs: P McDermott for Cribbin (49), D Hyland for Joyce (54), F Conway for O’Callaghan (58), N Flynn for Hyland (61), A Masterson for Feely (70).
WESTMEATH – J Daly; J Smith, K Maguire, D Giles; N Harte, R Wallace, N Gonoud; S McCartan, R Connellan; D Lynch, R O’Toole, J Lynam; G Egan, J Heslin, A Gardiner.
Subs: L Loughlin for Lynam (34), S Duncan for Gardiner (49), J Dolan for Lynch (55), K Martin for Egan (62), R Forde for Giles (67).
REF – S Hurson (Tyrone)