Leinster SFC: Kildare too good for Westmeath
Leinster SFC semi-final
KILDARE 1-21 WESTMEATH 2-15
By Paul Keane at Croke Park
An early fright aside, Kildare came good on their favourites tag to see off Westmeath at Croke Park and secure their return to the Leinster SFC final.
Jimmy Hyland's 1-4 haul and strong performances from fellow forwards Darragh Kirwan, Ben McCormack and Neil Flynn ultimately ensured that Kildare will compete in the May 28 decider.
Beaten by Dublin in last year's final, Kildare will hope that their star studded management team headed up by Glenn Ryan can help them go one better later this month.
Any thoughts of potentially winning a first Leinster final in 22 years weren't on the players' minds early on though with Ronan O'Toole requiring just 12 seconds to hit the net for Westmeath in a thrilling opening.
It was reminiscent of Dean Rock's goal for Dublin at the same end of the ground in the 2020 All-Ireland final which also arrived after 12 seconds.
O'Toole added a point two minutes later though when Hyland struck to the net in the eighth minute for Kildare, it put the Lilywhites into a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
They were never out of the woods though and Westmeath, who now head to the inaugural Tailteann Cup, finished strongly and cut the deficit to just three points in the end.
The 2004 Leinster champions, who previously beat Longford in the quarter-finals, couldn't have asked for a better start with Ronan Wallace bursting through and hand-passing over the top to set O'Toole free for the opening goal.
It amounted to Kildare starting the game three points down but they quickly got on top and forced Westmeath into a series of mistakes, 1-8 of Kildare's first-half tally of 1-13 coming from turnovers by Westmeath manager Jack Cooney's estimation.
Hyland's goal came after a Westmeath kick-out was intercepted by Kevin Flynn, freeing Daniel Flynn to play in Hyland for a routine palmed finish.
Kildare turned the screw in the following 20 minutes or so with a series of points from the likes of Kirwan, Paul Cribbin and Hyland to open up a six-point lead though Westmeath's second goal shortly before half-time gave them renewed hope.
Jamie Gonoud struck that major when he capitalised on a piece of good fortune. Gonoud initially attempted to pick out Wallace with a hand-pass but the ball spilled loose following a challenge on Wallace, allowing Gonoud to continue his run and tap the ball into the net.
That 33rd minute goal left just two points between the teams though Kildare wrestled back momentum before the interval with points from Kevin Flynn and McCormack to lead by 1-13 to 2-6.
Kildare pushed on strongly in the third quarter and Naas star Kirwan booted three points in this period to help open up a 1-19 to 2-9 lead.
At this stage, it looked like Kildare would push on for a big win but they only scored two more points and both were from placed balls, McCormack converting a mark and sub Neil Flynn booting over from a late free.
Westmeath in contrast finished with a burst of scores and outscored Kildare by 0-5 to 0-1 from the 54th minute to leave just a goal in it.
Kildare scorers: Jimmy Hyland 1-4 (0-1f), Ben McCormack 0-5 (0-1m), Darragh Kirwan 0-5 (0-1f), Daniel Flynn 0-2 (0-1m), Neil Flynn 0-1 (0-1f), Kevin Flynn 0-1, Alex Beirne 0-1, Tony Archbold 0-1, Paul Cribbin 0-1.
Westmeath scorers: Ronan O'Toole 1-3, John Heslin 0-4 (0-1f), Sam McCartan 0-4, Jamie Gonoud 1-0, Ray Connellan 0-2, Nigel Harte 0-1, Luke Loughlin 0-1.
Kildare: Mark Donnellan; Mike Joyce, Shea Ryan, Mick O'Grady; Tony Archbold, James Murray, Kevin Flynn; Kevin Feely, Kevin O'Callaghan; Alex Beirne, Ben McCormack, Paul Cribbin; Darragh Kirwan, Daniel Flynn, Jimmy Hyland.
Subs: Subs: Paddy McDermott for Cribbin 49, David Hyland for Joyce 54, Fergal Conway for O'Callaghan 58, Neil Flynn for Hyland 61, Aaron Masterson for Feely 69.
Westmeath: Jason Daly; Jack Smith, Kevin Maguire, David Giles; Nigel Harte, Ronan Wallace, Jamie Gonoud; Ray Connellan, Sam McCartan; Jonathan Lynam, Ronan O'Toole, David Lynch; Ger Egan, John Heslin, Alex Gardiner.
Subs: Luke Loughlin for Lynam 34, Sam Duncan for Gardiner 49, James Dolan for Lynch 55, Kieran Martin for Egan 62, Robbie Forde for Giles 68.
Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone).