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'We had serious ambitions of winning an All-Ireland title': Down devastated after late Kildare kicker

Kildare match-winner Jack McKevitt celebrates with Tomas Von Engelbrechten after his brilliant last-gasp score. Picture by Inpho
Kildare match-winner Jack McKevitt celebrates with Tomas Von Engelbrechten after his brilliant last-gasp score. Picture by Inpho Kildare match-winner Jack McKevitt celebrates with Tomas Von Engelbrechten after his brilliant last-gasp score. Picture by Inpho

EirGrid All-Ireland U20 semi-final: Down 2-7 Kildare 1-11

WITH one glorious swing of Jack McKevitt’s left boot, Kildare booked an All-Ireland final showdown with Sligo on Saturday – leaving Down to deal with the heartache of another near miss.

Two years ago it was Roscommon who snatched victory at the death to dent Mourne County ambitions, this time around it was Kildare who recovered from a slow start to nudge their noses over the line following a frenetic final 20 minutes.

With extra-time looming as the fourth minute of the four added by Galway referee Thomas Murphy rolled by, Kildare kept possession, kept their shape and kept their cool, knowing the next shot at the posts, wherever it might land, would be the last.

But there was never any doubt, the Lilywhite roar reverberating around Parnell Park the second the ball left the outside of McKevitt’s boot.

“It was an incredible kick,” beamed boss Brian Flanagan, who leads his county into another All-Ireland decider after last year’s devastating defeat to Tyrone.

“Jack’s one of those young lads who just has that leadership in him, every day he goes out, whether it’s a training game or whatever. Jack has been such a driving force for this team in the past two years and once he decided he was swinging the boot at it, I was happy enough.”

Down counterpart, Conor Laverty, could only puff out his cheeks and sigh as he tried to make sense of that critical last play.

“I thought we had coped well with it,” said the Kilcoo man.

“We had 13 [Adam Fanning] closed down, he was the shooter on his right foot. He fired it back out and the young lad hit a wonder score.”

It was a measure of the character contained in Flanagan’s side that, for the second game in-a-row - having denied Dublin at the death in normal time of the Leinster final - Kildare stepped up and showed what they are made of when it mattered.

Even in the midst of such sweet moments, still there are some memories that linger, no matter how long the passage of time.

“That’s for Benny Coulter,” laughed one Lilywhite supporter to another on their way from the field, referring to the Mayobridge man’s square ball goal in Down’s 2010 All-Ireland semi-final win over Kildare.

Revenge of a kind, 13 years on, was a dish served cold.

Yet the Ulster champions – forced to start without injured captain Ryan Magill - will be kicking themselves after seeing a golden opportunity slip from their grasp. Indeed, it couldn’t have gone any better for Down in the opening 15 minutes.

While Kildare left their shooting boots in the changing room, clocking up 10 wides by half-time, the Mournemen were a model of efficiency.

Typically, that flying start owed much to Odhran Murdock. The Burren man curled over the first score of the night, and it was his breathtaking fetch from Oisin Treacy’s kick-out that set the wheels in motion for Jason Morgan’s eighth minute goal.

Murdock laid off to Tom McCarroll, whose diagonal ball earned Morgan a yard ahead of Tomas von Engelbrechten, the Kilcoo man composure personified as he sold Cormac Barker a dummy before firing home.

When Treacy and Oisin Savage slotted over frees to make it 1-3 to 0-0, it was difficult to see where Kildare went. But a four minute break in play after midfielder Fionn Cooke suffered a dislocated shoulder stymied the Mourne momentum, and they never quite got it back.

Cooke’s replacement, the towering Sean Hanafin, was tasked with quelling Murdock’s influence, and did so effectively as the Lilywhites started to turn the screw.

While Down managed only two points between the 16th and 49th minutes, Ulster final hero Savage brilliantly contained by Ryan Burke, Kildare ate into their lead bit by bit.

The wayward shooting of the opening half hour was soon forgotten as Shane Farrell found his range before a hammer blow to Down hopes arrived five minutes into the second half - a Fanning shot that screwed off his right boot looked to be drifting wide, only for Oisin O’Sullivan to read the flight of the ball better than Fiachra McEvoy before lashing to the net.

Injured in the process, it would prove to be O’Sullivan’s last contribution of the night, his mark emphatically made.

“That goal gave them life,” admitted Laverty.

When Kildare eventually went ahead for the first time thanks to a huge Farrell score, then two up with an audacious Niall Dolan free from the sideline with six left to play, they looked home and hosed.

There was one last kick in Down when Morgan profited from a lightning break, lashing to the corner of Barker’s net, but Kildare weren’t about to let control slip that easily.

Patience and precision from Fanning and sub Eoin Cully edged them ahead again, a chess match ensuing when the impressive O’Carroll looked to have sent the game into extra-time after slotting over to tie it up once more.

“Once it was going down the home stretch,” said Flanagan, “I would never doubt these lads.”

Stick or twist? That was the question facing both counties.

Now was the time for somebody to go home the hero – McKevitt saw his shot at glory and grabbed it without a second’s pause.

The Naas man was mobbed as a sea of white took over Dublin turf while the Down players sat slumped on the ground - their journey over, and one which brought a second provincial title in three years, one which will stand to them, Laverty insists, no matter how much it hurts right now.

“We’re absolutely gutted,” he said.

“We had serious ambitions of winning an All-Ireland title… it’s a good sign that these lads just weren’t happy with an Ulster Championship.

“Days like today are hard to stomach but hopefully they’ll gain valuable experience from it and be better players for it. Next time they’re in that position, they’ll learn from tonight.”

Kildare: C Barker; H O’Neill, T Von Engelbrechten, R Burke; J Harris, J McGrath, J McKevitt (0-1); F Cooke, S Farrell (0-4, 0-2 frees); R Sinkey, C Bolton, C Dalton; A Fanning (0-1), N Dolan (0-1, free), O O’Sullivan (1-1). Subs: S Hanafin (0-1) for Cooke (20), E Moutaine for Harris (30+1), E Cully (0-2) for O’Sullivan (35), K Browne for Sinkey (48)

Down: O Treacy (0-2, 0-1 free, 0-1 45); F McEvoy, P McCarthy, F Murdock; T Hardy, J Kelly, C Greene; O Murdock (0-1), T McCarroll (0-1); O Cunningham, J Doran, H Magill; O Savage (0-2, frees), J Morgan (2-1, 0-1 mark), C Rogers. Subs: C Cunningham for H Magill (36), R Magill for McEvoy (48), N Toner for Doran (58), S Carr for McCarroll (60+3)

Referee: T Murphy (Galway)