I can still see it happening now. Kildare are thinking about a Leinster final in Croke Park and Longford are on the attack, landing one sucker-punch after another. Even now it seems slightly surreal.
If the memory is that fresh in my mind, can you imagine the pain those county minors must have felt when they left Pearse Park defeated on a bleak Sunday night in Longford three years ago. It didn’t seem fair at the time and it doesn’t seem fair now but at least the majority of those Kildare players have a chance to make amends. While Longford will confident in the way that only champions can be, there is no telling what lengths a man will go to when the hurt inside him is driving him crazy.
From what I’ve seen of this Kildare under-21 team this year, that loss from three years ago is still fresh in their minds. It is rare to see a young team so ruthless as Kildare were against Laois. They were as hungry for possession in the last minute as they were in the first and they went hunting for scores in a way that suggests they play regardless of the clock and the opponent. To me that was a show of mental strength that bodes well for the final. They give the impression that it doesn’t matter whether they’re in front or behind or running out of time, they remain focused on the task.
It’s probably not all that surprising that this squad have developed such a clear-eyed focus. If they were to learn anything from that minor defeat three years ago it was the fact that no game is ever won until the final whistle blows. Equally it doesn’t mean you need to panic just because something goes wrong at the back. As well as the goals Longford scored that night, I can still see some of the chances Kildare missed in the final stages as they went in search of an equaliser. Had they held their heads, they had more than enough opportunities to level the game and maybe even win. At the time it felt like they had been submerged by a Longford landslide but the reality was they only lost by a point.
It is worth remembering the circumstances that led to such a sore defeat if only so that the powers-that-be remember that no system should ever again be weighted so heavily against a team.
Kildare beat Dublin, not once but twice that year, and having come through an incredible series of games against them in the quarter-final, which went to a second replay, they were one of only two sides who didn’t get a second chance in the minor championship. Longford had been beaten in the first round that year and came through the back-door system to win the provincial title. They came via a route that was never made available to Kildare, which was why that semi-final defeat seemed so harsh. The fact that, as Kildare fans, we left Pearse Park knowing the better team had lost that night only added to the sense of injustice. Championship football has never been about the best team anyway but the best team on the day. It’s a crucial distinction and one that this under-21 side have surely, and sorely, learned.
That is not to take away from Longford’s Leinster title three years ago. They have proven their quality in the intervening years and reached last year’s under-21 decider before taking out the favourites, Dublin, in this year’s quarter-final. Anyone who follows underage football in Leinster will know how competitive it is.
Last year Dublin beat Louth in the final when Westmeath and Offaly were the beaten semi-finalists. Wexford beat Longford in the 2011 decider, the same Wexford who beat us by a point in a year when Carlow and Westmeath were the beaten semi-finalists. Three years ago Dublin beat Westmeath when Laois and Carlow were the beaten semi-finalists.
Underage football in Leinster is a competitive business despite some results might suggest. This year Dublin annihilated Carlow, Laois hammered Wicklow and then we made light work of Laois. By and large, winning the under-21 championship is a difficult business but the rewards are greater. Just look at how many under-21s have featured with the Kildare seniors this year.
It is far from a foregone conclusion but I genuinely feel it will take something special from Longford to stop this Kildare team in their tracks, simply because they are a quite special side. While the defence hasn’t really been tested yet and Longford may feel there are one or two potential frailties there on the evidence of the Meath game, Kildare have a leader in every line of the field. If the Longford attack is causing problems, Kildare have good cover on the bench and their defenders are versatile enough to switch men and swap positions to curb any threat.
After the Laois display, it’s hard to envisage any midfield getting the better of Sean Hurley and Tommy Moolick. Daniel Flynn and Paul Cribbin can drop in if required and having scored 5-37 in two games, we need hardly say much more about the attack.
This should be a cracking contest and while I’d be too weary to bet on it, I cannot envisage anything other than a Kildare victory.