Tyrone are back in a Division One National League final for the first time in 10 years after overcoming the challenge of Kildare in an entertaining encounter at Croke Park.
The Red Hands were full value for a victory which catapults them into the decider against Dublin on April 28.
It was a day when team captain Stephen O’Neill rolled back the years with an outstanding display of point taking. The full forward hit four points from play, two with each foot, with his final two worth the admission fee alone.
This was by no means a vintage display from Mickey Harte’s charges on a day when they hit 11 wides but the result was all that mattered and crucially it gives them another high profile game at headquarters before that eagerly awaited championship opener with Donegal at the end of next month.
Conor Clarke, Conor Gormley and Mattie Donnelly all played well in defence for the winners, the latter weighing in with 1-2 into the bargain, Colm Cavanagh and substitute Aidan Cassidy worked hard at midfield while up front Mark Donnelly, Martin Penrose and substitute Conor McAliskey all played well alongside man of the match O’Neill.
Tyrone had a great opportunity to get off to the perfect start when a poor kick out from Kildare keeper Mark Donnellan went straight to Peter Harte (pictured) who put Penrose through but the corner forward pulled his shot the wrong side of the right hand post. It was O’Neill who opened the scoring with a great point from out on the right wing before he offloaded the ball to Mattie Donnelly who showed good composure to crack home an eighth minute goal. Sixty seconds later Kildare opened their account through midfielder Padraig O’Neill but that score was cancelled out by a free from Darren McCurry.
Midfielder O’Neill hit another quality brace for the Leinster men with Mattie Donnelly on target sandwiched in between. As the half wore on though Kieran McGeeney’s men began to get a grip on proceedings.
Eoghan O’Flaherty and the experienced Johnny Doyle both pointed and while Tyrone keeper Niall Morgan responded from a long range free it was clear that the momentum was now with Kildare. In the 29th minute Morgan made a great save to deny O’Flaherty but Paddy Brophy reacted first to fire the rebound to the net. Sean Cavanagh had the final say of the first half from a placed ball but it was Kildare who led by the minimum margin at the break, 1-6 to 1-5.
Tyrone made a double substitution at the break with Justin McMahon and Conor McAliskey coming on and along with Aidan Cassidy, who had entered the action in the first half for the injured Peter Harte, they made a major contribution to their side’s victory.
Within 15 seconds of the restart the sides were level thanks to a fabulous effort from Penrose and in the second minute Tyrone established a lead that they were never to lose when Cassidy traded passes with O’Neill before putting Mark Donnelly through for a superb goal.
A superb 50-metre run from Doyle resulted in a fine point for Kildare and seconds later the same player split the posts again to keep his side in the hunt. Tyrone though were always able to respond with the hard working Cassidy getting his name on the score sheet. McAliskey then showed great strength to take a point before Kildare full back Michael Foley came to his side’s rescue with an outstanding block to deny Penrose a goal.
Mattie Donnelly then hit a terrific score with his weaker left foot and after Doyle and Cavanagh had traded points from frees the superb O’Neill took a great score from the right. McAliskey’s second score edged Tyrone five clear but with 10 minutes to go Kildare sliced open the Red Hands defence for Paul Cribbin to fire to the net. Brophy then made it a one-point game but Tyrone didn’t panic.
That’s when O’Neill showed his true class with a breathtaking dummy out on the right wing to score a glorious point and he even surpassed that with an outrageous score with the outside of the boot from an almost impossible angle from the opposite side of the field.
Tyrone: N Morgan [0-1], PJ Quinn, C Clarke, C McCarron, D Carlin, Mattie Donnelly [1-2], C Gormley, C Cavanagh, S Cavanagh [0-2], R McNamee, P Harte, Mark Donnelly [1-1], M Penrose [0-1], S O’Neill [0-4], D McCurry [0-1]. Subs: A Cassidy [0-1] for Harte, Justin McMahon for McNamee, C McAliskey [0-2] for McCurry, A McCrory for Quinn, C McGinley for Carlin
Kildare: M Donnellan, O Lyons, M Foley, H McGrillen, P Kelly, E Doyle, P Cribbin [1-0], S Hurley, P O’Neill [0-3], D Flynn, N Kelly, E O’Flaherty [0-1], E Bolton, P Brophy [1-1], J Doyle [0-6]. Subs: T O’Connor for Flynn, S Johnston for Bolton, E Callaghan for N Kelly, A Smith for Doyle
Referee: R Hickey (Clare).