AFTER a shaky start and a nervous finish, Kildare emerged from Croke Park with a four-point win that sets up a daunting Leinster semi-final against Dublin.
The Lilies were expected to ease past an Offaly side that had spent this season in Division 4 but it was far from the anticipated mismatch. Kildare struggled to shake off their stubborn opponents, even when they went eight points clear in the closing stages. Offaly managed to reel off 1-2 in five minutes to frighten their opponents at the finish and leave Kildare fans wondering how their side will cope against a Dublin side that dismantled Westmeath by 16 points.
At least Kieran McGeeney’s side have four weeks to get ready for the Dubs. On the evidence of this display they’ll need as much time as possible. Despite an impressive scoring return, the Kildare defence looked vulnerable on too many occasions. Had Offaly been more clinical from frees – they missed three – they would have got within one.
There were worrying signs for Kildare early in the second half when Offaly scored three points on the trot. That run of scores brought them within two of Kildare and it took their best spell of the game for the Lilies to break Offaly’s momentum.
Six unanswered points effectively settled the contest as Kildare amassed an eight-point lead with just seven minutes remaining. Having begun the day with five under-21 debutants, two of those youngsters were leading the charge for McGeeney’s men. Niall Kelly and Paul Cribbin scored three of those six successive scores as both men brought their individual tallies to 0-4. John Doyle book-ended that run with a brace of frees but just when the hard work was done, Kildare took their foot off the gas.
Offaly picked off a couple of handy points and then won a penalty from a snoozing Kildare defence. When David Hanlon coolly converted, there was just one score between the sides. It took a Seanie Johnston injury-time point to quell that brief uprising but it should never have come down to that.
Kildare bossed midfield and enjoyed the majority of possession in the opening half but struggled to pull clear of their opponents. After nine minutes, Kildare were 3-1 in front thanks to scores from Paul Cribbin, John Doyle and Eoghan O’Flaherty but two sloppy fouls gave Offaly the chance to draw level.
Ken Casey converted a free after Daryl Flynn got the wrong side of the fast-breaking Brian Darby and then Tomas O’Connor fouled in midfield, enabling Offaly to set up a quick attack for dangerman Niall McNamee to score his second point from play.
Those early exchanges set the tone. It was a tit-for-tat first half encounter until Kildare picked off three points in a row at the end of the opening 35 minutes.
A John Doyle free was matched by Graham Guilfoyle from play and when Doyle scored his fourth of the day in the 27th minute, Offaly midfielder Alan McNamee landed a beauty from the right wing to keep the deficit to the minimum (7-6).
It was then that Kildare upped a gear. Three points from play in four minutes gave them their biggest lead of the half. Eoghan O’Flaherty began the run while Niall Kelly came to life with two neat points in as many minutes.
An injury-time free from Ken Casey kept Offaly in touch at the break (10-7) but Kildare continued at a hectic pace after half-time with two more points in the first five minutes. It was then that the Lilies should have pushed for home but they were frustrated when Offaly came back at them with three straight points. Two from Niall McNamee either side of a 45 from goalkeeper Alan Mulhall left the game nicely poised with 25 minutes left.
Having been asked the question, Kildare answered with six points in a row. Doyle, Kelly, Cribbin (twice), O’Flaherty and then Doyle again all found the range as the Lilies opened up an eight-point lead. They would have had a goal in that spell too were it not for a fine save by Mulhall when Tomas O’Connor was put clean through on goal in the 55th minute.
With eight points to spare and only seven minutes left, that should have been that. Instead Kildare got lax and were under pressure again when David Hanlon slotted home a 70th minute penalty after Kildare ‘keeper Mark Donnellan was penalised for a foot-block.
Entering injury-time, Offaly’s spirits rose but Seanie Johnston quickly crushed them with a point to settle the contest.
In a sense it was job done for Kildare but they were always playing this game with one eye on Dublin. That nervous finale combined with Dublin’s 1-22 to 0-9 victory against Westmeath will certainly focus Kildare minds between now and 30 June when they meet in the Leinster semi-final.
HOW THEY LINED OUT
KILDARE: Mark Donnellan; Hugh McGrillen, Mick Foley, Ollie Lyons; Eamonn Callaghan, Peter Kelly, Emmet Bolton; Daryl Flynn, Daniel Flynn; Eoghan O’Flaherty 0-4, Niall Kelly 0-4, Paul Cribbin 0-4; John Doyle 0-6 (4fs), Tomas O’Connor, Paddy Brophy. Subs: Fionn Dowling for Brophy, 46; Seanie Johnston 0-1 for O’Connor, 55; Morgan O’Flaherty for E O’Flaherty, 61; David Hyland for Bolton, 64; Robert Kelly for Daryl Flynn, 64.
OFFALY: Aln Mulhall 0-1 (45); Brian Darby, Paul McConway, Daithi Brady; Eoin Carroll, Shane Sullivan, Michael Brazil; Alan McNamee 0-1, Johnny Brickland; Graham Guilfoyle 0-1, Brian Connor, David Hanlon 1-0 (pen); Anton Sullivan, Niall McNamee 0-4, Ken Casey 0-4 (3fs). Subs: Peter Cunnigham for Carroll, 27; Niall Darby 0-1 for Brazil, 47; Johnny Moloney for Connor, 52; Ruarai Allen for Brickland, 55; Paul McPadden for Sullivan, 57.
REF: Rory Hickey (Clare)