By Mark Jones
Galway 0-15, Kildare 2-6
DUBLIN — Whoever preached the doctrine that class always tells in the end could have been thinking about Galway. There was never much between the rival counties during last Sunday’s All-Ireland football semifinal at Croke Park, but when a decisive cutting edge was needed, the Connacht champions had it.
Not surprisingly, that edge came from the front, where Michael Donnellan and Padraig Joyce combined to destroy Kildare’s dream of reaching a second final in three seasons. The game had swayed this way and that in the teeming rain and when Brian Murphy palmed a goal with 25 minutes left, Kildare held the advantage. However, of the eight points scored after Murphy’s intervention, Galway kicked seven to book their place against the winner of Saturday’s replay between Kerry and Armagh.
There may have been more reasons for Galway’s outright supremacy in the closing stages — the sending off of defender John Finn in the 56th minute certainly didn’t help Kildare’s cause — but there was no arguing about the combined influence of Donnellan and Joyce.
Ranging all over the field, Donnellan rediscovered his form of 1998 with a master class in the arts of distribution and workrate. For a player who once could have been criticized for relying only on sheer pace, he quickly spotted that the wet conditions made direct football paramount, and his long-ball deliveries into the attack were unbelievably precise given the slippery surface.
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Apart from several vital assists, Donnellan also took the free that gave Galway a vital two-point cushion in the final minute of normal time. His teammates weren’t exactly queueing up to take the responsibility, but held his nerve to hit the target from fully 50 meters.
Meanwhile, Joyce was playing a captain’s part, scoring 7 points, including four from frees. The greater the pressure, the more Joyce came into the game. He twisted and tormented the Kildare defenders, caught the high ball time and again and if a few shots went astray, he was able to pick off four crucial points in the closing stages.
"There were periods in the game when we played poorly, but we reacted to setbacks," said manager John O’Mahony. "We learned a little from Dublin. When they conceded the two goals to Kildare they backed off a little and we had the advantage of seeing what happens when a team does that."
Alongside Donnellan and Joyce, a busy Derek Savage ensured that Galway never backed off. They had problems at midfield where the second-half introduction of Kevin Walsh improved a difficult situation, but elsewhere Ray Silke and Sean Og de Paor caught the defiant spirit that spawned the success of two years ago.
After all Kildare’s trials and tribulations, the result was a devastating blow to Mick O’Dwyer and his players. The rain didn’t suit their short passing style and there were periods in the game when they under seige from Galway’s direct football, but their two goals by Tadhg Fennin and Murphy gave then an important lifeline.
Coming up to the interval, they were well on top and the halftime advantage was just a single point. Later, they had a purple patch when Karl O’Dwyer kicked three superb points in a row and Murphy finished Fennin’s pass to the net. Suddenly, Kildare were three points clear and victory was within their grasp.
As in the 1998 final, it didn’t pan out for the Lilywhites, and this time O’Dwyer didn’t hang back to share his thoughts. Instead, it was left to Glen Ryan and Anthony Rainbow to pick over the remains of another gut-wrenching defeat.
"The reason we came through games up to now was that we worked hard," a dejected Ryan said. "Unfortunately, this time that wasn’t enough for us."
Said Rainbow: "In ’98 we won Leinster and a lot of people probably thought we were happy with that. But we won Leinster again and I suppose our sights were set on bring Sam home. Galway are a classy side, but I think we’re just as classy as them and I don’t think people give us enough credit for that."
Galway’s turbocharged start, two points by Padraig Joyce, another by Tommy Joyce and a Niall Finnegan free, made it seem that the contest would be over by halftime. The Kildare defense was being run ragged, but the game settled down when Murphy grabbed Martin Lynch’s high ball and placed Fennin for a goal.
Remarkably, from that moment, Galway went 26 minutes without raising a flag as the Lilywhites took charge. But there was a symmetry as the Connacht champions came charging out of the blocks at the beginning of the second half to wrest the initiative once again with scores by Paul Clancy, Padraig Joyce and Donnellan.
"Well, the modern motto is that if you lose a match, there was a row in the dressing room at halftime," O’Mahony said, "and if you win there was a great speech. Really, there was very little of either, we were very calm. We’d played poorly and knew we had to lift it. One thing we did say was that we were in the same situation here two years ago, so there was no panic."
If Galway let Kildare back in once again, the final response was clinical in the extreme. Finn had been sent off for a late challenge on Donnellan, substitutes Walsh and John Divilly were shoring up the center of the pitch, and Galway had a scent of victory in their nostrils and the deficit was sumptuously retrieved.
Galway: M McNamara; T. Meehan, G. Fahy, R. Silke; D. Meehan, J. Killeen, S. Og de Paor; S. O Domhnaill, J. Bergin; P. Clancy (0-1), T. Joyce (0-1), M Donnellan (0-2); D Savage (0-1), P. Joyce (0-7), N. Finnegan (0-3). Subs: J. Divilly for Killeen, 30 mins.; K. Walsh for O Domhnaill, 41 mins.
Kildare: C. Byrne; K. Doyle, R. Quinn, B. Lacey; J. Finn, G. Ryan, A. Rainbow; M. Lynch, W. McCreery; J. Doyle, K. O’Dwyer (0-3), D. Earley; P. Brennan (0-3), B. Murphy (1-0), T. Fennin (1-0). Subs: D. Hughes for Doyle, 58 mins.; R. Sweeney for Fennin, 71 mins.
Referee: P. Russell (Tipperary).