The ignition provided by their bench was the key to Galway’s victory over Kildare in this afternoon’s Allianz Football League Division 2 Final as the Tribesmen won a match in Croke Park for the first time since 2001.
Substitutes Michael Daly and Gareth Bradshaw in particular brought some extra horsepower to the their second-half drive, and in a contest of fine margins that proved decisive.
It was Galway who seized the initiative in the early minutes of the match, establishing a dominance in midfield and flowing forwards from there.
Paul Conroy in particular was driving them on with his ability to carry the ball at pace, and the Kildare defence soon found themselves running towards their own goal more than they would have liked.
Conroy opened the scoring after being put through by a nice Eamon Brannigan pass, and then Brannigan himself doubled Galway’s lead after getting on the end of a wonderful team moved that saw the ball travel the length of the pitch through multiple pairs of hands.
Kildare were struggling to get a foot-hold on the game because they were failing to win primary possession in the middle third of the field.
Kevin Feely has been one of their best players all year, but the big midfielder was turned over twice in the early minutes of the game which summed up Kildare inability to impose themselves.
The former professional soccer player did manage to open his team’s account with well-taken free, but Galway hit back with one of their own through Gary Sice.
Kildare badly needed to find a spark in attack, and it was no surprise that their most skilful forward, Niall Kelly, provided it with two classy points in as many minutes.
Another free from Feely had Kildare ahead on 20 minutes, as the Lilywhites suddenly started playing with real method.
Galway’s game on the other hand was starting to unravel once they got into Kildare’s half of the field. Seven wides in the first 20 minutes tells you all you need to know about their wastefulness.
Sean Armstrong drew them level with a typical Sean Armstrong sort of point, and then the Tribesmen created the first real goal-chance of the game when Johnny Heaney cut through the Kildare rear-guard.
His shot was well struck but at a nice height for Kildare ‘keeper Mark Donnellan who pulled off an athletic diving save to beat the ball to safety.
Kildare moved ahead again courtesy of a David Hyland point that offered a revealing snap-shot of how the game was developing.
When he kicked it, Galway had all of their players inside their own ’45 yard line, but were still unable to prevent Hyland getting his shot off.
Both teams were getting numbers behind the ball when they didn’t have possession, and then tried to counter-attack at pace when they won it.
It was making for a fairly sterile contest with clean-cut chances few and far between, as both teams pretty much cancelled one another out.
A Shane Walsh point was a the last act of the half and ensured the sides went in level at the break, which was a fair reflection of a tight contest that had yet to really ignite.
Thankfully, the second-half took on a much more entertaining complexion, right from the off.
Shane Walsh kicked a really classy point as Galway attacked straight from the throw-in, and then Sean Armstrong followed up with another sweet score a minute later.
Galway were starting to get in behind the Kildare defence thanks to the swift running of Johnny Heaney and Eaonn Brannigan on the wings, and bit by bit the match was opening up.
Kildare too were now committing more men to attack, and they enjoyed a period of some dominance between the 40th and 53rd minute as they outscored Galway by eight points to three.
Niall Kelly was the key man for them in this period, kicking three of those points, as he consistently hurt the Galway defence with his ability to drift into dangerous positions and finish clinically.
He was being helped in this regard by substitute Catha McNally who linked well with the Athy man and kicked a fine point of his own in this period of the game.
But then Galway started to empty their bench, and the contribution of their subs combined with the growing dominance of Paul Conroy, Fiontán Ó Curraoin and Thomas Flynn was the key to what would ultimately prove to be a match-winning surge.
A feature of Galway’s play in this half was their ability to go long to men like Ó Curraoin in particular and win spectacular marks in the middle third that gave them a great attacking platform.
The Tribesmen kicked five unanswered points between the 54th and 63rd minutes to turn a three point deficit into a two-point lead, which would prove to be the winning of the game.
Kildare kept plugging away but two excellent points from Galway subs Daly and Bradshaw were enough to keep them at arms lengths.
The Lilywhites came looking for a match-winning goal in injury-time, but David Slattery was hauled down just outside the penalty area and Kevin Feely lashed the last-gasp free high and against the upright.
And so Galway are Division Two champions, a success that builds on last year’s Connacht title win, and suggests the Tribesmen are still on an upward curve.
Final Score: Galway 0-18 Kildare 0-16
Scorers for Galway: Shane Walsh 0-3, Sean Armstrong 0-3 (2f), Gary O’Donnell 0-2, Johnny Heaney 0-2, Paul Conroy 0-2, Michael Daly 0-2, Eamonn Brannigan 0-1, Gary Sice 0-1 (f), Liam Silke 0-1, , Gareth Bradshaw 0-1.
Scorers for Kildare: Niall Kelly 0-5, Kevin Feely 0-4 (3f), Mark Donnellan 0-1 (’45), Keith Cribbin 0-1, Fergal Conway 0-1, Fionn Dowling 0-1, Cathal McNally 0-1, David Hyland 0-1, Tommy Moolick 0-1
GALWAY: Ruairi Lavelle; David Wynne, Declan Kyne, Cathal Sweeney; Gary O’Donnell, Michael Farragher, Liam Silke; Paul Conroy, Fiontán Ó Curraoin; Thomas Flynn, Shane Walsh, Johnny Heaney; Gary Sice, Eamonn Brannigan, Seán Armstrong. Subs: Michael Lundy for Gary Sice (54), Gareth Bradshaw for Michael Farragher (56), Michael Daly for Eamonn Brannigan (59), Damien Comer for Sean Armstrong (63), Ian Burke for Shane Walsh (68)
KILDARE: Mark Donnellan; Mick O’Grady, David Hyland, Ollie Lyons; Johnny Byrne, Eoin Doyle, Keith Cribbin; Kevin Feely, Tommy Moolick; Fergal Conway, Fionn Dowling, Paul Cribbin; Chris Healy, Niall Kelly, Ben McCormack. Subs: Cathal McNally for Paul Cribbin (39), David Slattery for Ben McCormack (44), Peter Kelly for Keith Cribbin, Eamonn Callaghan for Fionn Dowling (both 65)
Ref: Derek O’Mahoney (Tipperary)
Report by: John Harrington at Croke Park