An unfancied Kildare side had little difficulty in comprehensively reversing the result of the recent Kehoe Cup final when they overcame a bitterly disappointing Westmeath outfit at Cusack Park last Saturday in the third round of the Allianz National Hurling League Division Two, leaving the Lake County lads facing the very genuine threat of an ignominious drop to the third tier next spring.
A brace of goals in either half proved to be the crucial scores for the Lilywhites in what was a poor encounter throughout, played in front of less than 100 spectators. The early exchanges were closely contested but the hurling was very scrappy. Ironically, Westmeath had taken the lead for the first time in the contest (0-6 to 0-5) moments before David Carter struck for his team's first goal in the last minute of normal time in the first half. The visitors then easily opened up the Lake County rearguard in injury-time and David Harney raced clear to rifle home a second goal. This left Kildare in front at the break by 2-5 to 0-7. On the change of ends, a lethargic Westmeath never seriously threatened to get right back into the game and it came as no surprise when Kildare pounced for a third goal via David Carter. In the dying moments of the contest, John Houlihan was on hand to flick the ball home to the Westmeath net, leaving Kevin Martin's charges rooted to the bottom of the division after their third successive defeat.
The home side had whatever wind advantage was on offer playing into the scoreboard end of Cusack Park in the first moiety, but it was the visitors who raced into an early lead with points from John Houlihan (20 seconds) and Billy White (a 55-metre free in the second minute). Joe Clarke (a neat effort from play) and White (again from a free of similar range) exchanged points, with the maroon and whites fortunate not to gift Kildare's David Harney a goal directly from the puck-out. A converted Brendan Murtagh free from 60 metres and a fine score from play from 40 metres by Derek McNicholas levelled the contest by the 12th minute. Eoin Price was regularly to the fore in an often-loose Westmeath defence, but Kildare regained their two-point advantage by the midpoint of the half, courtesy of well-taken scores from David Harney and a particular fine solo effort by David Carter.
Westmeath spurned a great goal opportunity in the 20th minute, Danny Byrne clearing his lines from Derek McNicholas, after John Shaw's original underhit shot. Brendan Murtagh's rasping shot for a goal from a 25-metre free was deflected out for a '65' by Kildare netminder Paul Dermody and Andrew Mitchell duly pointed the resultant placed ball. Murtagh made amends with a good score from play before John Shaw's whipped effort went just wide of the target. Murtagh was off target from a free on the 65-metre line, but the Clonkill man had no difficulty in pointing a close-range free in the 32nd minute, giving his side the lead for the first and, as it transpired, only time in the contest.
In the final minute of normal time, Martin Fitzgerald was fouled in the large parallelogram and Richie Hoban's thunderous penalty strike flew back off the crossbar. David Harney pulled on the rebound and a dithering home defence allowed David Carter to get the last touch for the game's opening goal. Brendan Murtagh responded with a point but, seconds before the half-time whistle, the Lilywhites pounced for a crucial second goal, David Harney racing through a porous rearguard to rifle the ball past Pat Burke from 15 metres. This left the scoreboard at the interval reading: Kildare 2-5 Westmeath 0-7. Kildare increased their advantage within two minutes of the resumption, David Harney pointing in style. Sandwiched between two very poor frees from Brendan Murtagh, shooting wide and hitting the upright from 30 and 45 metres respectively, a dangerous cross after a lengthy run from Alan Dowdall just needed a touch from Derek McNicholas to guide the sliotar to the net, but the Lough Lene Gaels man failed to connect. Andrew Mitchell found the range from a free near the halfway line, but Alan Dowdall followed up with a poor wide from play. Play was very scrappy at this juncture and the writing was on the wall for Westmeath when David Carter pounced for the winners' third goal on the quarter-hour mark, following Richie Hoban's long-range free. Alan Dowdall's work rate continued to create opportunities and he deservedly opened his account in the 20th minute from a tight angle. Two successful Billy White frees (the second from near the sideline) put Kildare eight points to the good with just over ten minutes of normal time remaining. Brendan Murtagh then attempted to rifle home a goal from a 35-metre free, but Westmeath had to be content with a point from the rebound by Derek McNicholas. Andrew Mitchell picked out Alan Dowdall from a long-range free and the latter player pointed well to reduce the deficit to two goals. However, Andy Comerford's charges finished out the game with an unanswered 1-2. David Harney pointed well from 45 metres after a short solo run and the full forward then turned provider when he teed up Martin Fitzgerald for his first score in the 34th minute. Westmeath's extremely disappointing display ended when the Lilywhites well and truly wrapped up a precious brace of league points with Harney and Fitzgerald combining for John Houlihan to scoop the ball into an unguarded net.
Any fanciful notions of Westmeath competing for promotion to Division One have long since evaporated. The ambition now is to avoid a demoralising plummet to Division Three. On the evidence of the last two humiliating defeats by Carlow and Kildare, Kevin Martin has his work cut out to fulfil this ambition.
Kildare: Paul Dermody; Paudie Reidy, Danny Byrne, Paul Keegan; Neil Ó Muineacháin, Richie Hoban, Conor Kenny; Billy White (0-4, all from frees), Michael Divilly; John Houlihan (1-1), David Kennedy, Paul Buggy; David Carter (2-1), David Harney (1-3), Martin Fitzgerald (0-1). Subs: Donal Moloney (for Byrne, 68 mins), Brian Aherne (for Divilly, 70 + 1 mins).
Westmeath: Pat Burke; Greg Gavin, Darren McCormack, Eoin Price; Paul Greville, Andrew Mitchell (0-2, 0-1 from a '65', 0-1 from a free), Adam Price; Paddy Dowdall, Robbie Jackson; Alan Dowdall (0-2), Brendan Murtagh (0-4, 0-2 from frees), John Shaw; Killian Cosgrove, Derek McNicholas (0-2), Joe Clarke (0-1). Subs: Ciaran Curley (for A. Price, half-time), Niall Flanagan (for Cosgrove, 53 mins).
Referee: Fergus Smyth (Meath).