despite a wonderful display from captain Michael Murphy, Donegal came up just short against a very sharp Kildare in the first round of games in the National Football League in Croke Park on Saturday night.
This was a rip roaring start to the National Football League with the Donegal-Kildare game completely overshadowing the following game between Dublin and Cork, which was a tame affair.
A mistake by Paul Durcan in the Donegal goal to allow a Johnny Doyle centre slip through his grasp with six minutes left, was one of the deciding issues, but overall the Leinster side fully deserved their victory.
Donegal had to start without Paddy McGrath and Mark McHugh and this added to the other absentees - Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher and David Walsh - meant their panel was really tested. They also lost Colm McFadden early in the contest when he suffered a leg injury.
In the usual void before the game, there were rumours that both McGrath and McHugh were in trouble, but one of the first man in the press room with the news of Wherity’s inclusion was Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney.
The St. Eunan’s man battled hard and at times alone up front, but it was a big ‘ask’ to make your debut in such a big game at Croker.
The difference in fitness was evident in the opening half as Kildare dominated possession and they used the aeriel route to Tomas O’Connor to unsettle Donegal.
Even though the All-Ireland champions had the opening three points from Michael Murphy (2) and Patrick McBrearty, Kildare slowly got going and a goal from O’Connor, who reacted quickest when a Mikey Conway free came back off a post, saw Kieran McGeeney’s side ahead for the first time on 17 minutes, 1-2 to 0-3.
Donegal were having difficulty establishing any sort of midfield platform and Paul Durcan was almost caught when one of his short kick-outs was intercepted by Johnny Doyle on 23 minutes but he failed to punish.
But slowly Kildare moved further ahead with Doyle to the fore and Niall Kelly also hitting a great score and by half-time they were 1-7 to 0-5 ahead, thanks to further points from Brian Flanagan and Padraig O’Neill.
Donegal did have a couple of great breaks with Anthony Thompson putting the impressive Murphy through on 26 minutes and his shot went just over the bar, while Leo McLoone made a great break on 31 minutes but didn’t punish.
Michael Murphy got a fist to a Patrick McBrearty point to open Donegal’s second half account but Kildare hit back with three points from Niall Kelly and Doyle (2) to go seven clear and it was bleak looking for Donegal.
But then, inspired by Murphy, they hit six unanswered points to cut the deficit to the minimum by the 59th minute. Murphy hit three of those with Patrick McBrearty, Mark McHugh and Dermot Molloy also finding the target.
Leo McLoone had a great effort just wide of the posts on 61 minutes before a late tackle on Gary White saw Mikey Conway stretch the Kildare lead and then came the Durcan mistake as he misjudged a Johnny Doyle centre and the ball ended up in the corner of the net.
Donegal did hit back with Ross Wherity engineering an opening and Dermot Molloy bundled the ball to the net from very close range, but Kildare were not going to be denied and Niall Kelly and Eoghan O’Flaherty pushed them four clear before Michael Murphy and Paddy Brophy exchanged late points.
Overall, it was a very good contest, but apart from the opening quarter, Donegal looked second best against a Kildare side that were ‘championship fit’.
Apart from the excellent Doyle, Kildare had standout performers in Peter Kelly, Niall Kelly and Padraig O’Neill, while apart from Murphy, Rory Kavanagh, Eamon McGee and Anthony Thompson were best for Donegal.
Donegal: Paul Durcan; Declan Walsh, Neil NcGee, Eamon McGee; Frank McGlynn, Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson; Rory Kavanagh, Martin McElhinney; Marty Boyle, Michael Murphy (0-9, 5f), Ryan Bradley; Colm McFadden, Ross Wherity, Patrick McBrearty (0-2,1f). Subs., Dermot Molloy (1-1) for McFadden 11; Mark McHugh (0-1) for M Boyle 31; Daniel McLaughlin for McGlynn ht.
Kildare: Shane Connolly; Ollie Lyons, Peter Kelly, Hugh McGrillen; Emmet Bolton, Michael Foley, Mikey Conway (0-2,2f); Gary White, Padraig O’Neill (0-1); Brian Flanagan (0-1), Niall Kelly (0-3), Daniel Flynn; Seanie Johnston, T O’Connor (1-0), J Doyle (1-5,2f). Subs., Paddy Brophy (0-1) for Johnston 55; Eoin Doyle for Bolton 59; Eoghan O’Flaherty (0-1) for White 62
Referee: Cormac Reilly (Meath)
Man of the match
That was easy. Michael Murphy was head and shoulders above any player in Croke Park on Saturday evening. Peter Kelly, Niall Kelly and Padraig O’Neill were best for Kildare.
Kildare’s response after Donegal got back within a point with 11 minutes left. Their second goal may have been fortunate, but they could have folded but hit back and were rewarded.
Cormac Reilly had a mixed game, although he tried hard to keep it flowing and with both sides employing bunch tackling, it wasn’t easy.
G P F W 45s
Donegal 0 5 13 3 0
Kildare 1 7 16 4 0
Donegal 1 8 10 1 0
Kildare 1 7 10 5 0
Donegal 1 13 23 4 0
Kildare 2 14 26 9 0