The last chance for Kildare to shake off the patchy form that had taken them onto the championship dirt roads.
The final opportunity to dust down and cleanse themselves of the systems, confidence and form failures that have meant they were lucky to even be here. And now, as they return to play with the big kids, they can be thankful they rediscovered at least some small part of themselves after their most fulfilling half of football this summer.
Are they this good? Possibly not. Were Sligo that bad?
Yes, but that won’t bother Kildare in the slightest, as finally some cogs slipped back into place and they once again looked like the machine we saw in the league final and for large parts of last season. Look at it this way: had their full-back line continued to be out of sync, had their midfield remained a problem and had so many of their forwards hit and missed in a horrible proportion as they headed to play Cork, you wouldn’t have given them a hope. Now, at least there’s a shard of light creeping through.
And they went about fixing those problems very early here. Opting to play with a strong breeze into the graveyard end for the first half, they laid down a marker. The ball into Tomás O’Connor was more selective, the half-forward line’s shooting dragged Sligo’s defence out of position while, from opposition kickouts, their half-back line pushed up and Rob Kelly and Michael Foley dominated. But it was without the ball they impressed most, as the turnover rate was as high as the work rate and the middle eight swarmed the ball carrier in a way we haven’t yet seen from them this championship. That will have been the most satisfying.
What it means going forward may be a return to the fundamentals that make this Kildare team so strong. What it meant in terms of this game was they shot out of the blocks and were nearly out of sight within 20 minutes. Alan Smith, Rob Kelly, O’Connor, Mikey Conway and three Eoghan O’Flaherty frees had them in a seven-one lead. But it was the manner of the scores that was even more pleasing, with Morgan O’Flaherty picking passes, Foley carrying ball and John Doyle working so hard. On top of that, the dead-ball taking was crisp and shot selection and execution excellent.
But if there’s one aspect of this game that will bother Kieran McGeeney, it was how their midfield went out of the game in the second quarter and how Sligo somehow squirmed and wriggled closer. Even with Peter Kelly — a player who struggled so badly on Brian Farrell and Ian Ryan in previous games — taking care of Adrian Marren, even with Ollie Lyons casting a shadow over David Kelly all game, and even with Hugh McGrillen reading matters so well, a couple of Marren frees had the score at 0-8 to 0-3 at the break.
Considering the elements, it didn’t seem unassailable but given how Kildare played after the restart, it was. Centre-field again became their property and you won’t see a team with more possession in a half all year. Sligo rarely crossed halfway, when they did their passing was atrocious and their movement inside poor. Not Kildare’s though and when Eoghan O’Flaherty nailed a long free 47 minutes in, that was it.
Charlie Harrison was sent off and as Sligo’s heads dropped, Kildare’s rose for the first time since that loss to Meath and we saw a familiar face. Eoin Doyle, Emmet Bolton, Conway and Smith cut Sligo to pieces and not until injury-time did Eamonn O’Hara get the Connacht side’s first score from play and first of the second half. Given their performance, it was a surprise they got it at all as Kildare’s intensity never dropped and their ball retention was superb.
How much the victors learned is debatable but they did need a win of this nature. Against Cork, it still may not be enough. But Kildare are like the groom who can’t find his suit and has his car break down on the morning of the wedding but still makes it to the altar. Flustered but they’re now present and somewhat correct.
Scorers for Kildare: E O’Flaherty 0-4 (4fs), M Conway 0-2 (2fs), A Smith 0-2, T O’Connor, J Kavanagh, R Kelly, E Bolton, E Doyle 0-1 each.
Scorers for Sligo: A Marren 0-2 (2fs), D Maye 0-1 (f), E O’Hara 0-1.
Subs for Kildare: P O’Neill for R Kelly (55), D Earley for Foley (61), E Callaghan for E O’Flaherty (63), S Johnston for J Doyle (65), G White for Bolton (69).
Subs for Sligo: P Hughes for Kelly (h-t), S McManus for Mullan (44 mins), E O’Hara for Coen (53), K Cawley for Costello (57), B Egan for Breheny (57).
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).