In some respects, this was a bit of an odd one. We won by six but it should have been double that, we were played off the park in the opening ten minutes but then outscored our hosts by 2-9 to 0-3 over the remainder of the half, we did enough to secure the points early the second half but then gradually lost interest as the contest petered out tamely. A poor start, not a great finish but very tasty in between – a bit like a gourmet sandwich filling on stale bread.
Ignoring that opening home salvo for a moment, this was the epitome of a facile victory: the job was as good as done by the end of that rather extraordinary first 35 minutes. Kildare owned the pitch in that opening period, winning everything at midfield, scoring at will and breaking up with ease every attack we attempted to initiate. However, once we’d weathered this early storm and started to get a few scores ourselves, their challenge just melted away and once we’d breached their net twice in quick succession, the game was effectively over as a contest. Four early second half points confirmed this, as did Kildare’s decision from early in the second half to eschew point-scoring opportunities in a vain attempt to raise another green flag themselves. Little wonder the home support was streaming out of the ground with a full fifteen minutes still left on the clock.
After seven minutes, few of the large Kildare following at St Conleth’s Park would have entertained any notion of such a negative outcome. Dermot Earley and Ronan Sweeney took control at midfield from the off and a flow of accurate ball started coming into Kildare’s playmaker, the superb John Doyle. He got two of Kildare’s opening three points and then profited from a Tom Cunniffe stumble to rifle home the opening goal of the game. Tom was a bit unlucky for the goal as he’d won the ball initially but then seemed to fumble it and that’s not the kind of thing you can expect to get away with if there’s a gent like Johnny Doyle in the neighbourhood. 1-3 to 0-0 after seven minutes: this certainly wasn’t in the script.
A few things then happened quickly that served to alter the course of a match that looked, from our perspective, to be heading badly out of kilter. Keith Higgins went in to put manners on Doyle (with Cunniffe thriving from the extra freedom afforded to him in the half-backs), we started to win ball at midfield and, as we drove forward, we didn’t waste any scoring chances that came our way. Alan Dillon got us on our way with this pointed free, then Conor Mortimor fired over a cracker from play and Tom Cunniffe stormed through to smash over another to narrow the gap to a more manageable three points.
Kildare should have scored a second goal soon after but the point they did get was cancelled out by this Conor Mortimor free. As young Mort was converting the free, his older brother was hobbling off, having pulled a hamstring, with Pat Harte coming on to replace him. We shot two wides after this, one from an Austie free far out on the left and then Dillon, having taken a hospital pass from Gill, failed to find the target. Our spirits were soon raised, though, when Ronan came steaming through and smacked over a nice point from the right to cut the deficit to just two points.
John Doyle evaded Keith’s clutches to get Kildare’s fifth point soon after and it was now screamingly obvious that Doyle was the sole target of every ball Kildare were sending forward. Moreover, with our grip around the middle tightening, that supply line was becoming less and less productive. We soon gave the home support more immediate worries when we broke through for the first of our two goals, with Andy Moran feeding Tom Parsons and the young midfielder found the net with ease. Just beforehand, I’d turned to The Brother saying “where the hell is Parsons?”. The Charlestown man lost no time in putting me straight on that one. Twenty-five minutes gone and the match was now all square.
We hit the front soon after when the Kildare goalie handled on the ground outside the small square and Mort pointed the resultant 14-yard free. Andy Moran then put us two ahead with a point from play just after but, with David Heaney ahead of him on the overlap 14 yards out and totally unmarked, it looked as if he’d taken the wrong option to shoot.
Kildare’s corner-forward Ken Donnelly, fed by John Doyle (who else?), scored from play to reduce the gap to the minimum once more but Mort was then put through by Andy Moran to get his second from play. Ronan kicked a pointless wide but the next ball in from midfield was better and better still was the fact that Andy caught it, turned and stuck it in the net. Who says high ball into small men is of no use?
We were now, incredibly, five points up having trailed by six after only seven minutes. Then, to round off this excellent period, Austie – who was trying hard all the half but with little reward – finished a move that started with a brilliant Howley intercept and a superb assist from Dillon. The move demanded a top class finish and Austie (pictured, about to pull the trigger) didn’t disappoint. 2-9 to 1-6 at half-time.
The lads looked fairly relaxed as they came out for the second half and with good reason too as it was obvious that Kildare really had to come at us with all guns blazing if they were to have any hope of getting something from the game. They did manage to score a point from a free right on the restart but we continued to dominate all over the field and within 15 minutes, we were effectively out of sight. Our first point in the half was another Austie special and again it came after a fine build-up, with the move initiated by Colm Boyle (who was impressive throughout) who fed Cunniffe who, in turn, laid it off for the Louisburgh man to dispatch. Two Mort pointed frees followed (here’s the first), for fouls on Gill and Andy Moran and then Dillon knocked over another free to put us nine clear.
Kildare did manage to carve out a number of chances but every time they went for goal they failed and you could almost see the confidence visibly draining out of them. Then, just in case they weren’t miserable enough, the heavens opened. The first of the home support started to head for the exits soon after.
With the conditions deteriorating rapidly and the result beyond doubt, it was hardly surprising that the quality of football went south as well. There was a twenty-minute spell in the second half when neither side scored but we eventually ended this barren period with Austie firing over his third from play, to complete our tally for the day.
With time almost up and Kildare having only scored a single point in the second half (from a free at that), a John Doyle penalty goal – following a foot block by David Heaney – and a point from play from the same player brought an undeserved patina of respectability to the final score. Make no mistake about it, this was a six-point hammering and it looks as if Kieran McGeeney will have his work cut out if he’s to bring this Kildare side on in any meaningful way this year.
From our perspective, in contrast, there was plenty to be positive about today. We were solid at the back, starting with Clarkie who made a number of good saves and at times seemed to be operating as an extra member of the full-back line. Kieran Conroy didn’t put a foot wrong, Colm Boyle enjoyed an excellent debut and Tom Cunniffe – once he’d moved out – did more than enough to atone for the slip-up that led to Kildare’s early goal. Trevor Howley was solid, David Heaney put in a load of work, linking well between defence and midfield, and Keith Higgins was nothing short of outstanding. He defended tigerishly – largely neutralising the threat of John Doyle when he was switched into the corner on him, he moved forward with electrifying speed and his handling had to be seen to be believed. He was without doubt our Man of the Match.
After a shaky start where we didn’t win a ball, midfield settled down well and you can see that Ronan is improving game on game as he returns to full fitness. Tom Parsons did well too and took his goal nicely. James Gill put in a lot of work around the middle as well but to little effect and it was surprising to see him left on till the end. Pat Harte seemed to have far more zip in him and, if it comes to a choice between them (which is likely), this isn’t a contest the Westport man will win. Alan Dillon put in a very solid day’s work and although he didn’t score from play, his distribution of the ball was very effective and he did raise two white flags from frees.
Early on, the full-forward line looked beaten up the proverbial stick and while, as a unit, they looked less fluid than normal, they still caused more than enough damage on the scoreboard. Conor ended up with six points, two of them from play, Austie got three from play and Andy Moran bagged 1-1 from play. It was particularly gratifying to see Austie getting a decent return as he’d endured a very frustrating opening thirty minutes and could probably hear the mutterings starting in the terraces. Those excellent points, one at the end of the first half and the other at the start of the second, would have quelled any such dissent.
The only moan I would have about the day is one directed at the sideline. If ever there was a day for emptying the bench, then this was it. Tom Parsons – with U21 duties coming up – could easily have been replaced by Seamus O’Shea (U21 as well but could do with the exercise) midway through the second half, Tom Cunniffe (also U21) could have given way to Pat Kelly and James Gill certainly should have been hauled off, with maybe someone like Brian Benson given a 20 minute run out. Instead, what we got were two utterly pointless substitutions right at the end, with Mark Ronaldson coming on for Conor and Barry Moran for Alan Dillon. It didn’t make much sense to me, I have to say.
That’s a small quibble, though, on a day where we went a long way towards securing our Division 1 status for next year. More important than that, we showed a bit of ruthlessness in attack and while a better team than Kildare might not have let us back into the game with quite the same amount of graciousness (think Galway, for example), the kind of battling qualities we demonstrated in that first half period would trouble any team in the country. A satisfactory afternoon’s work, then, and even St Patrick himself, with his newly minted banner proclaiming “No Wooden Spoon for Mayo”, looked pleased with how the afternoon had gone.