“No” he declared with disarming openness. “It feels like we’re still in the Championship. But win or lose, we still would have been in the Championship.”
Apart from offering insight into the standing of the provincial competition, particularly in the current climate, it was unusual to see a victorious manager so downbeat.
At least Kildare still have two more bites of the cherry as against one. They managed to shore up a defence that has been far from solid for the past five seasons and positively porous for the past two, got a full game into captain Eoin Doyle after six months on the sidelines and have Niall Kelly, Daniel Flynn, and Cathal McNally to return to the fray.
But while Wexford should be credited with an improved second-half showing that deserved a replay, the manner in which Kildare slowed to a walk and failed to execute basic skills was startling.
That they only managed two points in the second half, registered in two minutes at the beginning of the fourth quarter by substitutes Eamonn Callaghan and Cian O’Donoghue after Wexford had drawn level with four unanswered scores, was a fair indication of their lack of thrust.
“The second half was hugely disappointing because we just seemed like we went into ourselves. We stopped doing the things that were working for us in the first half and were working quite effectively. And when Wexford got a run on us in the second half, as all good teams do, we just went into ourselves even more. Our turnover rate, our fouls conceded stats were way up in the second half, which is a sign that you’re not performing at your best. We are in a Leinster semi-final. We have five weeks to work on a lot of things. Five weeks is a nice chunk of time. And we’ll get to that immediately. But that was not how we envisaged winning the match.”
That those two points were enough to edge Kildare over the line told of Wexford’s lack of attacking danger. Forced to kick from distance as their opponents used any two of Doyle, Morgan O’Flaherty, Ryan Houlihan, and Emmet Bolton as sweepers, David Power’s men weren’t up to the task.
And yet the Wexford manager appeared more positive about his team’s efforts than his victorious counterpart.
“The bottom line that cost us is that we weren’t able to put the ball over the bar,” said Power. “We have to be self-critical there. The simple facts are we created the chances and we didn’t put the ball over the bar. A lot of people have been doubting Wexford football. When I got the job, Wexford was on a downward curve but I think we’ve shown that we’re getting it back up, maybe not where it was... but we’re getting there.
“We lost three key men during the game — Michael Furlong in the first half, then Brian Malone and Colm Kehoe. We had all that but to see those young fellas working as hard as they did (was wonderful). Kildare were raging hot favourites but I’m extremely proud of them.”
Kildare lost Kevin Feely too, with what O’Neill reckoned initially was a separated AC shoulder joint, but by that stage, Wexford had wrested control of the middle third anyway. Yet without being outstanding, Kildare looked relatively comfortable at half-time, leading by 0-7 to 0-3, despite conceding a point in the first attack to John Tubritt. Wexford only managed a pointed free from Donal Shanley and a towering effort by Colm Kehoe for the rest of the first half, as Tubritt and Ciarán Lyng struggled to gain any traction.
In contrast, Alan Smith and Neil Fynn were getting on plenty of ball and managed two points each from play in that opening period.
Apparently Kildare spoke of needing to do more in an offensive sense at the interval but it was like they ended up not doing much of anything.
Shanley halved the deficit with a couple of frees and excellent scores from Shane Roche and Kevin Grady brought the sides level.
But Callaghan restored Kildare’s lead with his first touch and O’Donoghue followed up with a brilliant solo score and that was the definitive burst.
Shanley landed another free but despite having plenty of possession and five minutes of injury time, Wexford could not find an equaliser, Lyng dragging a free from the right just wide with their best chance.
N Flynn 0-3 (1 free); A Smith 0-2; M O’Flaherty, O Lyons, C O’Donoghue, E Callaghan 0-1 each.
D Shanley 0-4 (frees); C Kehoe, K O’Grady, J Tubritt, S Roche 0-1 each.
M Donnellan, P Kelly, D Hyland, O Lyons, E Doyle, F Conway, R Houlihan, K Feely, T Moolick, M O’Flaherty, E O’Flaherty, E Bolton, P Cribbin, A Smith, N Flynn.
A Tyrrell for Cribbin (47), C O’Donoghue for Bolton (50), E Callaghan for Smith (54), P O’Neill for E O’Flaherty (59), F Dowling for Feely (61), K Murnaghan for M O’Flaherty (70+2).
A Masterson, S Donohoe, J Wadding, J Rossiter, E Nolan, M Furlong, B Malone, C Kehoe, D Waters, K O’Grady, PJ Banville, B Brosnan, D Shanley, C Lyng, J Tubritt.
A Flynn for Shanley blood (16-19), K Butler for Furlong (31), S Roche for Tubritt (ht), Flynn for Banville (47), R Tierney for Kehoe (57), S Byrne for Malone (64).
R Hickey (Clare).