Amid outpourings of joy and relief, deserved praise went to the victorious team, who battled to survive a Kildare comeback with Tom Kelly, Brian McDonald and Ian Fitzgerald especially prominent, but yet again the spotlight stopped on manager Mick O’Dwyer. Now in his 50th season as player and coach, the Kerry legend joins John O’Mahony as the only manager to have guided three different counties to provincial titles.
Following history making stints with Kerry and Kildare, O’Dwyer took on the challenge of Laois with its reputation for talented players with suspect temperaments. Several recalcitrants returned to learn from the master and soon Laois were rattling off league victories and dumping favorites Dublin out of the championship. Then last Sunday — and deliverance.
“Everyone just wanted to give him their best,” said Fitzgerald, the team captain. “We also wanted to prove we can play, so Micko just pushed it out that extra few percent. And that’s what was needed to win.”
For McDonald, the target was clear. “Once Micko came in, that was the aim, to win Leinster,” he said. “And he doesn’t aim too low. We gave him the commitment, but we just didn’t think it would happen so fast.”
It nearly didn’t happen either. Despite the controversial sendings off of Alan Barry and Mick Wright, Kildare made a magnificent fight of it. Barry was dismissed in the fourth minute by referee Seamus McCormack for a challenge on Kelly, and to call the decision harsh would be an understatement. McCormack took center stage in the second half when he red carded Wright following a clash with Michael Lawlor, but Laois weren’t to be unaffected by his fastidious calls when Kevin Fitzpatrick was shown the line midway through the first half for a late tackle which deserved a yellow card at most.
Second-half goals by McDonald and Ross Munnelly had seen Laois surge into a 7-point lead, but inspired by Glen Ryan, Kildare came storming back and when Patrick Murray was upended in the square, Ronan Sweeney fired home the resultant penalty to level the scores.
With Kildare now on a roll, Laois’s chance to create history appeared to be fading, but with impressive resilience they had scores from Donal Miller, Fitzgerald and Barry Brennan to lead by 3. But Kildare weren’t finished and in one last-ditch attack, Murray’s shot flashed inches wide of the post.
“It was desperation at the end,” admitted Fitzgerald. “We were on the way out and I don’t know how we’d ever have got over it. Seven points up and coasting, it would’ve been a complete disaster. Those last few minutes were just deafening; you couldn’t hear yourself think with the noise.”
Laois had been 0-8 to 0-6 in front at the interval and if the game was patchy, its best passages were breathtaking. With O’Dwyer abandoning the short-passing game, Laois played fast direct football the like of which created the goal opportunities for McDonald and Munnelly. Significantly, with the frees falling 30-12 in Kildare’s favor, every one of the winners’ scores came from play.
In defeat, there was much for Kildare to be proud of as they face into a qualifier game against Roscommon in Portlaoise on Saturday. Without the services of Anthony Rainbow, Karl Ennis and Demot Earley, they still went close.
“Yes, proud alright,” said manager Padraig Nolan, who had the unenviable task of taking over from O’Dwyer. “We came back twice, but we were on a roll and the difficulty was that they had the extra man. We also wasted a few balls and couldn’t get ahead, but we’ve regrouped already.”
In the wake of a major triumph for Laois, the last word should go to O’Dwyer, who was dodging the media limelight as thousands of supporters ignored the Croke Park public address to pour on to the hallowed turf.
“Well sure I take on teams to win, and in the back of my mind I knew this team could win,” he said. “We’d a good run in the league, but this was the day that counted. It’s great for those so-called weaker counties around the country, success is possible.”
On to the All-Ireland quarterfinals, and who knows?
TYRONE 0-23, DOWN 1-5
Part 2 is so rarely as good the first installment. And so it panned out in a one-side Ulster football final replay as Tyrone crushed Down at Clones last Sunday.
The pyrotechnics of the drawn game when Down scored four dramatic goals and Tyrone were forced to stage a magnificent comeback were forgotten as the winners gave a master class in opportunism and teamwork. More significantly perhaps was the marked improvement in defense where Cormac McAnallen appeared at full-back to do a critical marking job on Dan Gordon. Down’s goal came in injury time and their first score from play took until the 51st minute — Tyrone’s rearguard was that impressive.