By Mark Jones
Dublin 0-14, Kildare 0-14
For the 50,000 fans who made the pilgrimage to Croke Park, this was payback time. Before last Sunday, it had been a summer of mostly dreary, uninspiring football, but Dublin and Kildare changed all that in what was a compelling Leinster final.
Fast, furious and balanced on a knife edge right until the death, this was the sort of contest that restored football’s good name. Brian Stynes missed an easy free for Dublin in the closing minutes, and then Kildare watched in frustration as Tadhg Fennin’s attempt at a point drifted wide seconds before Paddy Russell’s last whistle. Either team could have won it, so a replay at the same venue on Saturday week was probably the fairest of conclusions.
As ever, no one was arguing too much with Mick O’Dwyer’s assessment. "Well, I suppose we were lucky and unlucky," he philosophised. According to Tom Carr, the Dublin players weren’t overly disappointed. "They know now they’re good enough to win it," he said. "The referee may have played a bit short at the end, but in a way I was happy with that. It would’ve been terrible to lose the game on a breaking ball or a soft free."
In fact, a late winning score by one of the teams would have been something of a travesty because there were so many outstanding performances. Stynes, Jason Sherlock, Colin Moran and Paddy Christie hardly put a foot or hand wrong for Dublin, while Anthony Rainbow, John Finn, Dermot Earley and Willie McCreery shone for Kildare.
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The only blot for Dublin was the early departure of Ian Robertson, who suffered a suspected broken ankle after a clash with Brian Lacey. Robertson’s replacement, Vinny Murphy, had his moments, but the injury was a major blow to Carr’s strategy.
The manager will also be keen to get regular freetaker Declan Darcy back in the starting lineup. Neither Stynes nor Jim Gavin looked comfortable in the role, and apart from Gavin’s third-minute effort, Dublin had no success from the placed ball. "I’m not a freetaker as such," admitted Stynes, "and there’s no way I’ll be taking them again next time. Someone else will have to do the job."
Referee Russell didn’t do Dublin any favors this time either. Several dubious decisions went Kildare’s way, especially an impressive steal by Paul Curran on Earley which was penalized, and Carr wasn’t pleased. "I’d say some of the frees were very, very soft, but I’ll leave it at that," he said. "Seriously, though, I think good tackling is being punished across the board."
If Dublin were angered by Russell’s display, there were also fortunate that Kildare failed to capitalize on two glaring goal chances. The first came in the 21st minute, when Padraig Brennan slipped his marker, Coman Goggins, only to see his crisp shot thump off the post. Then Ronan Sweeney powered his way through 20 minutes from the end, but his attempt shaved the bar for a point.
"Those were chances we should have put away," O’Dwyer said. "But then Dublin missed a couple of easy frees as well. So, I’d say justice was done, a draw was a fair result on the day."
Aiming for a first Leinster title in five years, Dublin looked to be in trouble in the opening stages as Kildare surged into a 0-4 to 0-1 lead thanks to a burst of points from John Doyle, Brennan, Rainbow and Fennin. In fact, the Lilywhites were threatening to run away with the game such was the quality of their passing and movement and they should have been further clear, when Brennan hit the post.
But gradually, Stynes and Ciaran Whelan took control of midifield and it was level 0-6 at the break. With Sherlock now deployed at center forward, Dublin moved further clear during the second half, as Glen Ryan and his colleagues in the Kildare defense were made to struggle. Sherlock picked off a couple of superb scores to make it 0-13 to 0-11, and it seemed as if Dublin were on their way to the All-Ireland semifinal.
But Kildare rallied and Doyle, Martin Lynch and Fennin all kicked points and suddenly Dublin were trailing by one. To their credit, there were no signs of panic and when subsititute Darren Homan gained possession in the middle, he set Moran up for the equalizing score.
Galway 1-13, Leitrim 0-8
No such thrills and spills at Dr. Hyde Park, where Galway did just enough to hold Leitrim at bay in a hugely disappointing Connacht decider. Expectations were probably unreasonably high following Galway’s demolition of Sligo in the semifinal, and there was no sign of that sort of quality on this occasion.
For the opening half hour, there was the possibility that Leitrim would be sunk without a trace as the winners did largely as they pleased, but it was much tighter after the break with Galway outscoring their rivals by nine points to eight.
However, the damage had been done early on as the maroon jerseys careered through a porous Leitrim defense to pick off scores at regular intervals. With Niall Finnegan, Derek Savage and Padraig Joyce prospering from an accurate service, it was 1-4 to no score by the 17th minute.
If there was a touch of good fortune about the goal — Savage’s perfectly placed penalty came after it looked as if Joyce had simply fallen over in the square — the gulf between the two teams was plain for all to see in the 28,000 crowd. But from then on Galway lost their way and some of their play was inexplicably wasteful, leading to a total of 18 wides.
"Against Sligo we used the ball well," said manager John O’Mahony. "This time we didn’t. While I don’t want to be taking anything away from Leitrim, our backs haven’t been to the wall and we’ll have to up a lot from now on. Still, all we wanted was a ticked to an All Ireland semifinal."
Once the Galway scoring dried up, Leitrim grew in confidence as Aidan Rooney got them back on track with a succession of frees. With 20 minutes left, the underdogs were playing with real verve and a magnificent point by Seamus Quinn and another impressive effort by Pat Farrell, cut the gap to a respectable six points.
A goal at that stage and the complexion of the game would have changed dramatically, but not surprisingly, Galway responded to stave off any lingering threat of an upset.
"We didn’t get off to a great start and we were always up against it after that," said Leitrim manager Joe Reynolds. "In the second half, we put it up to them at times, but they were always the stronger team. Simple as that."
Without the injured Ja Fallon, and the unfit Kevin Walsh who was brought on for the last five minutes, Galway do not appear to be as strong yet as the All-Ireland winning side of 1998. However, Joe Bergin has emerged in midfield and Declan Meehan has looked a class act at halfback. O’Mahony knows there is some way to go if Galway are to beat whoever comes out of Leinster, but of the three teams already through to the semifinals, the Connacht champions have most room for improvement.
The Leinster minor title went to Westmeath, who defeated Dublin by 2-9 to 1-10 at Croke Park. Despite the sending off of cornerback Donal O’Donoghue early in the second half, Westmeath produced a defiant recovery to take victory by two points.
Meanwhile, the Mayo minors were able to shoot 17 wides and still emerge triumphant over Roscommon in the Connacht final. It finished 1-12 to 1-8 in Mayo’s favor with their star performer, Conor Mortimer, scoring 1-7.