By Kieran Rooney
JUST as the Dublin supporters left Croke Park devastated the week previously, Kildare fans must still be pondering about how events conspired against them last Sunday.
Not that anyone should argue about the merit of Down's performance in beating Kildare 1-16 to 1-14 in the second All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final. They were the better footballing outfit and are, without question, worthy of their place in the All-Ireland decider against Cork on September 19.
Had they been denied by an injury time free from Kildare substitute Robert Kelly which crashed off the underside of the crossbar, there would have been a huge amount of sympathy for them. Instead, much of that sympathy extends to Kildare.
In truth, the Lilywhites were not at their best. Missing Dermot Early, they began well and finished well but, in between, Down outscored them 1-14 to 1-7 between the 10th and 60th minutes.
Yet, Kildare will look back on this game and argue that virtually all of the big decisions went against them. How, for example, did the officials allowed Benny Coulter's first half goal for Down when it was very clearly a square ball?
For most of the 62,182 crowd, it was a straightforward decision. But somehow the referee Pat McEnaney allowed the goal to stand after consulting his umpires.
Okay, in the heat of the battle McEnaney may have been unsure but the two umpires were in the perfect spot to see that Coulter was in the square long before the Martin Clarke delivery arrived. What's beyond dispute is that Coulter's goal gave Down exactly the boost they needed.
To add further to Kildare's anger, they had earlier been deprived of what appeared to be a perfectly good point when the umpires decided that Alan Smith's shot had gone wide. Yet, television coverage indicated that the admittedly very high shot had bisected the posts.
Lastly, there was a case for Kildare being awarded a penalty in a drama filled five minutes of injury time. A Down defender lay on the ball as Kildare pushed forward, but to be fair to the referee there were an an abundance of players around the incident and it was very hard, if not impossible, for the referee to have a clear view.
Down survived, just as they survived the injury time free from Robert Kelly. With up to nine Down players on the goal line, the situation looked impossible but Kelly made a tremendous effort to secure the goal which would have given Kildare victory.
His powerful shot was only stopped from going in by Kalum King whose fingertips pushed the ball on to the crossbar. Even then, Down were fortunate to see the ball bounce off the head of another defender and be cleared.
Immediately the final whistle blew and the subsequent contrasting scenes summed up what had been yet another day of high drama at Croke Park. As the Down players raced out with the hands in the air, their Kildare counterparts hung their heads in sheer dismay.
Understandably, the Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney was bitterly disappointed with some of the decisions. To add to his frustration, he had seen his team hit both the upright and the crossbar.
In fairness it should be said that the Eamonn Callaghan goal which started Kildare's second half comeback could very easily have been disallowed for the player taking too many steps. Overall though, there's no doubt that generally things went Down's way.
To give McGeeney his due he didn't want to take anything away from Down. He fully recognized that they produced some wonderful attacking football, and would have been desperately disappointed to have seen a seven point second half lead slip.
"Down were outstanding today, you just can't take that away from them. They were mobile, very quick." admitted McGeeney.
But the officials, quite predictably, were not praised in the same manner. "There are marginal calls about whether the ball was in play or it wasn't. They watch that and they can't tell whether the ball goes over the bar." The Kildare boss snapped.
"Or they can't tell if it was a square ball. That's adminstration at its best. It's a shame because you are taking away from people like Benny Coulter who shows great courage going for those type of ball, and from the workrateof Danny Hughes and Kalum King."
While it's easy to understand McGeeney's frustration, it's also important to state that Down deserve huge credit for getting through to their first final since 1994. They did, after all, knock out Kerry before edging past Kildare on Sunday.
They are a young team full of good footballers. Benny Coulter has long been recognized as one of the best forwards in the country, while the return from Australia of Martin Clarke has proved a huge bonus.
Both Coulter and Clarke were contenders for Man of the Match, as was wing-forward Daniel Hughes. Remember also that Down had to line-up without Ambrose Rogers, just as Kildare had to do without Dermot Earley.
But it was Kildare who had much the better of the early exchanges. They led 0-3 to 0-1 after 10 minutes, in spite of kicking four wides.
It was then, 12 minutes after the start, that Benny Coulter scored the controversial Down goal. He did what he had to do putting the ball inso the net as the Kildare goalkeeper hesitated.
Down were transformed. They scored a series of quality points, two of them coming from the increasingly impressive Martin Clarke. But even he was outdone when Coulter sent over a shot with the outside of his foot from the right touchline to leave Down 1-9 to 0-7 clear at the interval.
The situation was then to get even worse for Kildare at the start of the second half. After Clarke made it 1-10 to 0-7 with a free, the Leinster side suddenly engineered a chance of getting back into the game.
Unfortunately, John Smith's low shot rebounded back off an upright with the goalkeeper beaten. Down eventually move 1-14 to 0-10 clear by the 57th minute and there appears to be no way back for Kildare.
But then they get what was arguably their one real break of the day as Eamonn Callaghan bursts through. He rounds Brendan McVeigh in the Down goal before putting the ball into the net.
Suddenly, everything has changed. Coulter kicks another Down point but the Ulster team is now feeling the pressure. Two spectacular long range points from Kildare's Hughie Lynch means there is only a goal between the sides and the tension mounts.
David Lyons points in injury time to cut it back to two and the game finishes with that dramatic Kelly free which comes back off the crossbar. Despair for Kildare and complete jubilation for Down.
Their skipper Coulter tries to unscramble his mind. "They have a 14 yard free and I'm just thinking, we can't lose it now. I think Kalum (King) got a touch, but we definitely weren't letting the ball go into the net."
And what of Coulter's first half goal, should that have been allowed? "When you are on the line, you don't see a lot of the marginal incidents. If the goal was a square-ball, we'll take the bit of luck." answered Down manager James McCartan.
Coulter, sitting beside him, could so easily have passed the buck. Instead, he smiles and, to his credit, admits: "I think it was (a square ball), yeah."
[PHOTO Down's Kalum King gets his fingertips to the ball that hit the crossbar with the last kick of the game at Croke Park. INPHO/JAMES CROMBIE]
Minors aim for Cork double
CORK remain on course for an All-Ireland football double following their minors exciting 3-15 to 5-8 semi-final victory over Galway on Sunday.
The match was only decided right at the death when Cork's dead ball specialist Brian Hurley sent a free over the bar. His effort crowned a remarkable comeback as Cork trailed by nine points, having conceded five goals in the opening 44 minutes.
It was a shame that either side should have to lose a smashing match. Galway must have thought they had it won when full-forward Conor Rabbitte scored their fifth goal to give them a 5-6 to 2-6 second half lead.
But Cork showed tremendous character and skill to gradually cut into Galway's lead before Hurley secured the dramatic winning score. The Leesiders will now meet Tyrone in the All-Ireland Minor Football final.
Hogan out, but Shefflin improves
KILKENNY will definitely be without Brian Hogan for next Sunday's All-Ireland Hurling final against Tippeary after sustaining a finger injury in training
It's tough luck on Hogan but some better news for the reigning champions is the fact that Henry Shefflin and John Tennyson continue to improve. Shefflin, in particular, seems to be making a remarkable recovery from his cruciate knee ligament injury.
Meanwhile, Tippeary's chances have been boosted by the confirmation that Brendan Maher will be firt to take his place after damaging a wrist in a training session.
Elsewhere, Seamus McEnaney's reign as the Monagahan football manager has ended. His departure follows a campaign which promised a lot but ended on a disappointing note following defeats by Tyrone in the Ulster final and Kildare in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Trapp will miss Andrews
THE Republic of Ireland soccer team must do without the Blackburn Rovers midfielder Keith Andrews for their opening European Championship qualifiers against Armenia and Andorra.
Andrews has to remain at his club for treatment on the groin strain, which caused him to miss Saturday's 2-1 home defeat by Arsenal.
Coach Giovanni Trapattoni may now look to either Paul Green of Derby County or Manchester United's Darron Gibson.