JUST 60 minutes separate the Kildare Under 21 hurlers from All Ireland glory. This Saturday evening Roscommon will stand in their way at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Major silverware is within touching distance, writes Ruth Chambers.
Guided by Celbridge club man Noel McMahon this team beat Westmeath and Meath to take the provincial title, while they steam rolled over Kerry in the All Ireland semi final. Their opponents, Roscommon, won their sixth consecutive Connacht title last month when they beat Mayo in the decider in Athleague, while at the All Ireland semi final stage they got the better of Ulster side Fermanagh to book Saturday’s showdown with the Lilies.
In Leinster this year Kildare decided to leave it late in both their encounters in Newbridge. Up first was Westmeath and Kildare turned a seven point deficit into a six point victory by the time the long whistle was sounded by Louth referee Kevin Brady.
The visitors, who were well fancied to advance and indeed take the Leinster crown, looked comfortable from an early stage. However, in a dramatic second half Kildare found their rhythm, gave an exhibition of scoring and in the end it was goals from Naas man Conor O’Hehir and Sean Gainey that booked them a place in the final.
At the break the home side were in real trouble as Westmeath led 0-12 to 0-6 at the break. The second 30 minute period was a different kettle of fish altogether though.
By the end of the third quarter Kildare still trailed by five points (0-14 to 0-9) but with ten minutes remaining Ardclough’s Martin Fitzgerald sent in a ball that was broke for Naas’ Sean Gainey and he made no mistake from close range and it was game on!
Soon after Celbridge’s Conor Kenny split the post to level proceedings as the Lilies assumed control all over the field. Soon after they had turned things around and led by four and when O’Hehir hit the net late on he made full sure of a place in the Leinster final for the Lilies.
Meath were the opponents in Newbridge in the provincial decider and what drama Kildare provided.
Just as they did against Westmeath, the Lilies allowed the opposition to dominate during thee first half. Indeed the Royals led 1-10 to 1-6 at the interlude. And for a long period in to the second half the Lilies struggled but when Philip Cocoman pounced for a goal in the 49th minute Kildare were back in the hunt.
It took Kildare until the 59th minute to restore parity and then came the exciting bit, then came the drama. In time added on Conor Kenny converted a free to put Kildare one up but Meath came back at them and levelled it again. Kenny wasn’t in the mood of extra time it appeared and deep in to stoppage time he fired over the winner from the right to ensure the title for McMahon’s side.
The last day out, in the All Ireland semi final, Kerry stood in Kildare’s way of a spot in the decider.
Kildare might not have had things all their own way against Westmeath or Meath but that certainly wasn’t the case against Kerry, the holders, in Nenagh.
McMahon’s side prevailed on a 5-17 to 1-12 scoreline and breezed in to the final. Teenager Gerry Keegan was in inspiring form for the Lilies and chipped in with three goals and two Keegan hit the onion bag on two occasions and although they lost their way a small but during the second quarter Kerry never really troubled McMahon’s men.
“From our own perspective we couldn’t have got it any harder. In my mind Westmeath were the favourites to go on and win it and once we got over them that gave the lads some confidence. We got over the line against Meath and we hit the ground running against Kerry. Scoring 2-2 early on was great for us, as was going in at half time with a four point lead,” McMahon told the Leinster Leader this week.
Roscommon, managed by Galway native Seamus Qualter, breezed to yet another Connacht title in mid-August when they beat Mayo 3-14 to 3-7 in the final.
The Rossies put in a dominant opening 30 minute period that set them on route to victory and set up a meeting with Fermanagh in the All Ireland semi final at Ballinamore.
Roscommon booked their place in the final with a 1-20 to 1-15 win over the Ulster men with corner forward Robbie Fallon the star attraction.
Kildare will be fancied to emerge victorious this weekend. They have come through the tougher side of the draw and of course they are an extremely talented bunch. Martin Fitzgerald, Philip Cocoman, Conor O’Hehir, Conor Kenny and Gerry Keegan are all immense and most teams would find them hard to handle on any given day.
This is also a team that doesn’t know when to give up, doesn’t know when they are beaten and a team that will fight extremely hard for one and other and their victories over Westmeath and Meath are testament to that.
“The character of this team has really shone through in the games so far. The older lads lead from the front and they are the type of team that are not going to down tools at any stage,” admitted manager Noel McMahon.
On the injury front McMahon is expecting to have Ardclough’s Martin Fitzgerald available after his shoulder injury but Cormac Gallagher is likely to miss out again.
“The only worry we have is Martin Fitzgerald who has a shoulder injury but we expect him to be okay. Cormac Gallagher is back pucking a ball after he was in hospital with a lung problem, while Fergal Conway is available to is again after coming on the last day,” explained the boss.
Throw in on Saturday is at 5pm. The game is the curtain raiser to the All Ireland A Under 21 Hurling Championship Final involving Clare and Kilkenny and McMahon is hoping for strong support for his team.
“I’m expecting big support, a lot of the hurling people will be there and hopefully we’ll have a big crowd. These lads deserve it,” he insisted.