MAKE NO mistake about it, Kilkenny were pushed all the way by a skilful and determined Westmeath side before emerging with a two-point victory in the Leinster minor hurling championship quarter-finals.
Over 1,100 people flocked to Cusack Park, Mullingar for Saturday’s game, the vast majority supporting the side in maroon and white, whose impressive wins over Carlow and Laois had generated real hope that a win over their illustrious visitors was a real possibility.
The early signs were promising for the home side but they failed to convert some decent chances, particularly Robbie Greville in the fourth minute when at least a point seemed a certainty. Adrian Ronan’s charges soon settled and Johnny Hayes followed up his fine point from 40 metres with a clinical finish to the net in the seventh minute, availing of uncertainty in the Westmeath rearguard.
Well marshalled by Owen McGrath, Westmeath’s highly-rated centre half forward Aonghus Clarke had a poor first half, both from frees and open play but, after Clarke spurned two opportunities, Cathal Scally got the Lake County on the scoreboard with a terrific free from 80 metres.
On the quarter-hour mark Richie Reid put the winners four points ahead with a neat point, but better was to follow in the 20th minute. Kilkenny launched a swift counter-attack, a move which ended with a great goal from the outstanding Kevin Kelly.
Aonghus Clarke’s misery continued at the other end, but Cathal Scally doubled his tally in the 24th minute from a 75 metre free. Kilkenny rattled over three unanswered points in the closing stages, all from the stick of Kevin Kelly (two frees and a lovely effort from open play from 40 metres).
Westmeath thought they had grabbed a goal in the dying seconds of the first half, but the supporters’ joy was shortlived. Aonghus Clarke appeared to score a goal, to the delight of the home fans, but the umpire ruled that the sliotar had gone through the side netting.
At the break, Kilkenny trooped in with a nine-point advantage (2-5 to 0-2). With the wind advantage behind the lads in black and amber in the second half, it looked like it would be a damage limitation exercise for Westmeath.
The sides traded the early points in the second half. The Midlanders struck for early scores from Robbie Greville and new close-range free-taker Niall O’Brien, but Kilkenny responded with a point apiece from David Kearns and Kevin Kelly (free).
The losers then had a purple patch, rattling over five unanswered points between the 38th and 48th minutes via Cathal Scally (a 90 metre free), the improving Aonghus Clarke and a brace also from Niall O’Brien, the second of which was a wonderful solo effort).
Kevin Kelly converted a difficult free for the visitors, but Westmeath were far from finished. Another successful free from Niall O’Brien and a great point from Robbie Greville were followed by a well-taken goal from O’Brien from close range, after he initially lost control of the ball, to leave the sides level (2-8 to 1-11) with six minutes of normal time remaining.
The home supporters were in full voice, sensing a major upset, but O’Brien wasted two glorious chances to put them ahead, from a free and open play. Kevin Kelly edged Kilkenny ahead with a wonderful score from 70 metres, with substitute Robert Moran adding an insurance score in the 59th minute as Kilkenny held on for a very hard-earned victory.
SCORERS: Kilkenny - Kevin Kelly (1-6, 0-4 frees); Johnny Hayes (1-1); David Kearns, Richie Reid, Robert Moran (0-1 each). Westmeath - Niall O’Brien (1-4, 0-3 frees); Cathal Scally (0-3 frees); Aonghus Clarke, Robbie Greville (0-2 each).
Kilkenny - A. Duggan (Dicksboro), L. Hickey (James Stephens), C. Doyle (Barrow Rangers), E. Morrissey (Bennettsbridge), D. Cody (James Stephens), O. McGrath (John Lockes), E. Moriarty (Emeralds), D. Kearns (Mooncoin), C. Bolger (Clara), C. Martin (Emeralds), K. Kelly (St Patrick’s), P. Vickery (Conahy Shamrocks), T. O’Hanrahan (Thomastown), R. Reid (Shamrocks), J. Hayes (Kilmacow). Subs: M. Mansfield (Mullinavat) for Vickery, 26 mins; R. Moran (Erin’s Own) for Reid, 47 mins; D. Lenihan (O’Loughlin Gaels) for Bolger, 55 mins.
Westmeath - J. Moore, T. Gallagher, T. Doyle, D. McDermott, D. Fennell, C. Scally, L. Varley, D. Lynch, D. McCormack, J. Boyle, A. Clarke, P. Fennell, N. O’Brien, D. Higgins, R. Greville. Subs: M. Glennon for McCormack, 39 mins; N. Kirby for P. Fennell, 42 mins.
Referee - J. Heffernan (Wexford).