ONE by one they departed, a once united force divided by defeat.
It was dark and gloomy beneath the terraces as Kildare’s fallen footballers left Tullamore with their heads bowed and their All-Ireland dreams in tatters on the dressing-room floor. The final strains of Amhran na bhFhiann could be heard in the distance but the national anthem might as well have been The Last Post as it signalled the end of the road for this year’s county’s under-21s football squad.
There may well be greater glory for future sides but Athy’s Liam McGovern won’t be a part of it if there is. His final year at under-21 at least gave him a taste for victory after two successive first round defeats although a Leinster title felt like a minor consolation after losing an All-Ireland semi-final that was as much Kildare’s to win.
“Anytime you go out in a big game like that and don’t show what you’re fully capable of, I think that’s what’s getting lads most at the moment. We’ve a lot more in us,” said McGovern.
‘Harrowing’ was the only word he could come up with to capture the feeling of failure, especially having had so many chances to win the game,
“The pace was high but to be honest I thought we were better than them, we just didn’t show it today. I thought we just didn’t slip into gear as quickly as we had been doing. I didn’t feel there was any sense of panic. We always felt that it was going to come but it just didn’t turn out that way.”
A Leinster title victory after Dublin had been dumped out in the quarter-finals by Longford had catapulted Kildare to the top of the bookies rankings but the All-Ireland favourites fell flat at the penultimate stage. No one expected such a below-par display from Kildare, least of all the players.
“Everything was fine, everyone was in good form, everyone was bouncing off each other,” said McGovern of the build-up to Saturday’s game. “That’s been a big thing this year. The training has been so tough. You don’t make any friends during training with us. We were happy with the way we prepared.”
Having played against the breeze in the first half, Kildare trailed by 1-6 to 1-3 at the break, though the half-time discussion was dominated by the Lilies’ poor shooting. After 31 minutes, the men in white had accumulated 10 wides.
“We felt we had dominated possession and dominated the game itself,” said McGovern of the first half. “It’s happened us before that we didn’t kick the scores but we thought that in the second half we’d go out and kick on and kick the score. Maybe we took the shots from too far out, maybe it was on our weaker foot, maybe it was on our weaker side, maybe there was someone in a better position but these are all things you don’t think about in the heat of battle. I trusted everyone around me to put that ball over the bar and it just didn’t come off.”
Despite conceding goals early in the first half and midway through the second half, Kildare responded in style each time by netting goals of their own straight away.
“We got the two goals back straight away at them but we didn’t kick on, which is what we usually would do,” said McGovern.
The frustration for Kildare was written large on McGovern’s face for the team’s Leinster success felt like it had been diminished in the aftermath of such a defeat.
“I don’t know if it’s a terrible thing to say and there’s a lot of footballers that have gone before me in this county that didn’t get one (Leinster) but God we wanted that All-Ireland.”
Their desire for success was such that McGovern, along with centre-back Fergal Conway, grew beards during the competition but this band of brothers would have done anything to get their hands on an All-Ireland medal.
“There’s 12 of us carried through from the minor team three years ago. That’s a huge number to be carrying through. We’re a band of brothers and I know it’s an awful cliché but by God I’d die for anyone of them men. I grew the beard to show it – I sacrificed my looks for the team. If I could have done anymore I would have.”